I have been very aware over the last 20 years how architecture, the container, has, more often than not, been given more importance than content in the development of museums and other cultural institutions; and generally the more prominent the institution, the more architecture has been seen to be the project and the answer. I first highlighted this in `Towards the Museum of the Future (Ed. Miles, Zavala, Routledge 1994) where, among various essays that explored the `condition’ of museums in an age of `post-industrial’ change, I wrote about the image, container and content. I also hinted at the issue of the rate of change, and how museums establish their own dynamic in the short and long term is central to their success.
The British Museum is one of the great centres of our collective civilizations, and in turn, reading civilisations means having access to, and learning to understand their specific technology, social organization and ideology. These aspects address the notion of how civilizations progress. These aspects are rarely in equilibrium, and today, both locally and globally we are destabilized by the fact that technology seems to be forever throwing up new products, intimate and wider social structures are in flux, and belief systems questioned.
When the BM appointed me to help them in their broad reappraisal of space, I was concerned that the importance of objects (the content) should be made paramount, not the architecture. Perhaps we expect the BM to be all things to all men an educational resource for all ages, a tourist attraction, an `entertainment event centres’, a laboratory of design and display, a pinnacle of academe, etc. Something for everyone, they can be seen as the micro-arena within which our civilisation’s disequilibrium is made most evident. Museums are places where the emphasis is on things, on materiality, on presenting homo faber and embodied in objects is the evidence of civilisations. In a world of image/information the role of the museum will evolve and there is an opportunity for them, and particularly the BM, to play a major role in our civilisation’s real/virtual (material/immaterial) crisis.
I know that the consequence of thinking about the BM collection in this way will inevitably lead to various spatial developments at the BM and it is true that the British Museum buildings, built over 250 years can also be seen as a collection of very large objects. Without underplaying the value of the British Museum’s buildings, they are subservient to the bigger picture of the BM as a harbour (sanctuary) of the universal. I understand space, light, form and how these can change and be made to change over time, diurnally, months or years. It is in this framework that the BM’s raison d’être its collection of objects have been and will continue to be presented.
When asked to write this short text, I was going to write about two Suprematist porcelain pieces a plaque and a plate because I had recently been invited by the Royal Academy to produce six plates. I was not only surprised to see these Suprematists’ work at the BM, but found them so beautiful.
At the beginning of the last century technology allowed us to see further into the past (cosmos), and visions beyond our present world were expressed. Among these were the projections of the Soviet Suprematists and Malevich and El Lissitzky began creating an utterly distinct aesthetic based upon geometrical `architectural’ abstractions. A specific style (Soviet) emerged that was evident in typography, poster design, publications, stage sets and architectons (their floating, drawn ideas of architecture). Also fascinating during this time was the collaboration among the popular craftsmen and these avant-garde artists. Educational model workshops became centres of culture, and among them Vitebsk Practical Art Institute (Belarus). Following Chagall as Director, Kasimir Malevich, with some of his outstanding students including Nikolai Suetin (b.1897) and Ilya Chashnik (b.1902) created the Unovis Group in 1919 before they moved to Petrograd. Here, they developed designs and products for the State Petrograd (St.Petersburg) Porcelain Factory. Suetin became Chief Artist at the factory from 1932, and yet was also the chief artist and designer of the USSR pavilions for the World Exhibitions in Paris (1932) and New York (1939). Of these two objects, Suetin’s plaque is an architecton in relief, while the other is a painting. It is interesting that the history of porcelain plate decoration has rarely seen the artist transform the shape of the plate itself, (as Picasso did so brilliantly with pots but not plates) presumably because the `factory’ of repetition prevented it, yet Suetin seems to have managed it, albeit modestly with this plaque.
Today, we seem to have artificially split the world of the craftsman from the world of the artist, yet the BM collection epitomizes their historical `singularity’.
the BM space team
The emphasis of our work with the BM space team will be on creating a dynamic atmosphere for the museum’s evolution; the transformation of tendencies from “mise en scene”, packaging and communication, to that of content, presentation and research; the objective of creating lasting interest and meaningful experience for the visitors; a dynamic and stimulating place to work.
© Ian Ritchie 2004
Porcelain pieces which are held in the BM collection and referred to in Ian Ritchie’s text.
Nikolai Suetin `Suprematist’ Porcelain plaque, Russian about 1923-4. (MLA 1988,6-9,1).
Designed by Nikolai Suetin (1897-1954) and made at the State Porcelain Factory, Petrograd (St Petersburg).
Most Suprematist designs for porcelain were painted on undecorated blanks made before the revolution. But there were also experiments with three-dimensional shapes derived from `architektons’ or architectural conceived by Malevich, Suetin and Chashnik.
Ilya Chashnik `Suprematist’ Porcelain plate. Russian, 1923. (MLA 1988,6-9,2)
Designed by Ilya Chashnik (1902-29), and painted at the State Porcelain Factory, Petrograd (St Petersburg) in 1923.
The Suprematist Movement was begun by Kasimir Malevich about 1913-15; his most famous work shows a black square on a white ground. The abstract shapes and pure colours of Suprematism were adapted to porcelain by Malevich and his pupils, of whom Chashnik was one.