Curator Q&A | History in the Making
History in the Making opened in October and has been surprising visitors with its amazing items, materials and stories since. Now at the halfway point of the exhibition, we sat down with Senior Curator Oli McCall to ask him some questions about how the exhibition came to be, plus some curator favourites and unusual facts about the objects on display.
Q: What inspired you and the team to curate History in the Making?
A: It first came about because while Woburn Abbey is closed to undergo an enormous restoration project, they are keen for their collections to be seen. We thought that, unlike their collection of paintings that have been exhibited previously, this was an exciting opportunity to shine a light on their amazing decorative arts and furnishings which haven’t really been shown and are by some of the leading and most talented makers who have ever worked in this country. This would also allow us to spotlight some of our own collection in a new way.
But, what we didn’t want to do was simply transplant one historic collection into another historic setting. So we developed an idea of having the historic items in dialogue with modern and contemporary examples which is where the Crafts Council came in. As a national charity that supports contemporary crafts and makers who have also recently worked to diversify their collection with new commissions and acquisitions that haven’t been shown before, we thought it would be exciting to consider the objects by their material which would allow us to show new pieces for the first time alongside our own collection and Woburn’s.
Q: What was your favourite moment curating this exhibition?
A: Probably when myself and the team had the chance to go to Woburn Abbey to see the collections for the first time and go behind the scenes of the restoration work they’re currently undertaking. The curators at Woburn Abbey, Matthew and Victoria, had laid out all of the objects for us to look at and it was amazing to see items like the Chinese Wallpaper fragments recently conserved.
Q: What are your top 3 favourite objects in the exhibition?
- WISH by Liaqat Rasul, 2021, collage made from cardboard, wood and found materials. Purchase supported by Art Fund.
- Indian (Gujarat) Decker-work bed fragment, cut out and appliqued onto a later 19th century backing, 1749-55, item on loan from Woburn Abbey.
- Asymmetrical Reduced Black Piece by Magdalene Odundo, clay vessel with a dark grey burnished finish, 1992, on loan from the Crafts Council.
Q: Which is your favourite room/material in the exhibition and why?
A: My favourite room, I think, is the textiles room. I was originally quite apprehensive about it because there are less objects in there compared to the rest of the exhibition but, what is in there is very large-scale and you feel this when you walk into the space.
When we finally saw it come together it was amazing. It holds such incredible pieces like the tapestry of The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, c.1660 from Woburn Abbey which is so rare. It is a design by Raphael which you can see in the V&A and it is a landmark of introducing elements of Italian Renaissance to Northern European Art and Design. Historically, therefore, this room is very important but I also love the contemporary pieces. Like the needlepoint fragments by Matt Smith which he has unpicked and re-stitched with bold geometric prints to obscure the faces, race, and gender identities of the figures, creating a new space in the textile.
Q: What is the oldest item in the exhibition?
A: The oldest item in the exhibition is the Chinese Tripod Vessel or ‘li’ from our own collection. I think it’s really special when we get to show some of our own collections in a totally new context and here, we’ve been able to demonstrate that this item from the Chinese Neolothic period of around 2000BC relates to studio pottery made in Britain in the 1960s and even today, when we’re trying to make pottery in less energy intensive ways on a more local and sustainable scale.
Q: What is the newest item in the exhibition?
A: I think the newest items in the exhibition are the New Glass recipe samples by Lulu Harrison which the artist was making in collaboration with Dr Chloe Duckworth right up until a few weeks before the exhibition opened in October. Harrison is currently working with glass archaeologist Dr Duckworth to create new recipes to reduce the energy required to make her glass with local waste materials from Thames river sand, wood ash, and invasive quagga mussels’ shells.
Q: What is the most unusual item in the exhibition?
A: I think ‘The Sacrafice’, by Moses Quiqine which is untreated goat skin leather sealed with wood from 2018 and tells the story of a family goat being attacked by a dog. The artist chose to present the story as the goat transcending into another realm rather than a violent scene which is think is part of an overall unusual piece.
Q: Why should visitors come and see the exhibition?
We have curated the exhibition to bring items separated by centuries together, which visitors would never have expected to see side-by-side, to bring out new points of comparison between the past and present through crafts.
Visitors have responded so far to say there’s something for everyone across the collections of Woburn Abbey, Compton Verney and the Crafts Council. We have created a treasure trove that visitors can escape to out of the cold and see objects that they will never be able to see together again.
Come and see History in the Making before it closes on 11 February.History in the MaKING