Shepherd Barbie: Problems with Beauty, Museums and Collecting

Added on by Georgina Barney.

My commission with artist and farmer Kate Genever for the Museum of English Rural Life's Making, Using and Enjoying research project stems from a workshop in July 2017 discussing 'Intangible Culture' along with other artists, design practitioners and academic researchers. 

Kate and I spent much of the workshop deep in discussion. 'Intangible Cultural Heritage' comes from a UNESCO definition that recognises that there are other kinds of material deserving of museological attention, of collecting, presenting and preserving, than physical objects: such as stories, craft practices and religious rituals. The workshop was particularly timely for the MERL, after a £3 million redevelopment project that reorganised its collection thematically. Making use of interactive digital devices, with little prior knowledge of rural subject matter required, the rehang has been designed with a contemporary public audience in mind, in addition to the academic community at MERL. From my dim, dusty memories of the previous museum, an almost overwhelming mass of wondrous stacked display after stacked display, it appears brighter and clearer, cheerful and fun. Many of its objects are obviously beautiful, too. That last sentence - I've been re-reading and re-reading it and wondering whether I can say that - is really problematic.

Over the years, Kate has talked often about the problem of the outsider's gaze towards her farm. Kate's artwork is steeped in its imagery and her draftsmanship is exquisite, thus rendering much of what she draws very beautiful. As a student at the Royal College of Art she became conscious and uncomfortable with the common reception of farming through her work - the rural within a contemporary urban setting - as exotic. Consequently she consistently adopts tactics that resist an interpretative gaze that is purely aesthetic, drawing items from her farm to demonstrate their use, always reminding you of her working role as a farmer. The things themselves can never be displayed in a gallery to be enjoyed aesthetically, for the very practical reason that they are used daily - but also because it is in their use that their meaning is articulated. Beauty is a problematic response for the viewer's relationship with a farm's material culture as it detaches the person from item.

Beauty is also a problem for the curators at MERL who must make reasoned decisions, governed by considered policies about what items to collect, display and preserve, in which there is little room for the subjective. And yet. A row of hand-woven baskets; a line of wagons; a wall of wooden tools...

During the workshop we gathered around a table of objects collected by some of the Museum's founders. Kate and I both initially found it difficult to engage with them. We weren't sure how to respond; we didn't have the academic knowledge to engage with a discussion about farm tools. But we were struck by the stories of how they had been acquired in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, leading to the Museum's founding collection. As a collector sought to gather the important material elements of a shepherd's life, one of every kind of smock for example, it reminded us of a child compiling a football sticker album or acquiring the latest, Shepherd Barbie. But the piece that was missing, Kate suggested, was the shepherd himself. We knew nothing of him. Objects were sometimes taken out of use into the founders' collections. The UNESCO convention of 'Intangible Cultural Heritage' feels like a reaction against such an acquisitive museological approach that removed objects from people - and people from objects.

Is the Museum itself the problem? Farming is an activity that is often associated with the past: an activity located in the countryside where older ways of life are believed to be upheld, whilst the metropolis is the place of change. For Kate and I, concerned with farming as a contemporary practice and its meaning today, such an assumption can be problematic, and a traditional museum inherently reinforces the conflation of farming with the past. It must house "stuff": objects, material, artefacts; and these will always be from the past, for as soon as they are acquired, they are fixed within the forward-moving trajectory of time.

Our collaboration for the Museum of English Rural Life will therefore revolve around challenging and resolving some of these problems, of restoring stories to objects, of being self-aware in our subjectivity and relationship with beauty; and understanding the stuff of museums through how objects are used by people.