Exquisite Things in Contexts, Haffenreffer Museum Annual Newsletter

Exquisite Things: An exhibition of connections within collections

from the May 2011 issue of Contexts – The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology’s Annual Newsletter

–by Ian Russell

This past December, the students of Things: The Material Worlds of Humanity opened a new off-site exhibition project for the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. Located in the newly reopened Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center, Exquisite Things is part of a new initiative by the museum to site temporary exhibitions of pieces from the Haffenreffer collection in different places throughout campus.

The objects in Exquisite Things were chosen using a variation of the Surrealist game exquisite corpse. Nine people (a museum curator and eight students) each selected one thing – in sequence, one after another. Rather than following a specific theme, each person chose an object based on how they thought it connected to the object chosen just before them. The result is not only a collection of objects from the museum, but also a collection of the connections students make between things and how we perceive meaning through these connections.

The students designed the exhibition to invite others to encounter the objects they chose in an unexpected context, prompting visitors to wonder why they were chosen. An online interactive exhibition (http://exquisitethings.info) was also developed to allow visitors to submit their thoughts about how each object connects to the rest, creating a collection of connections that reveal the multiple ways visitors interpret and perceive relationships within museum exhibitions. The website also hosts a series of audio podcasts by each student reflecting on their experience in making the exhibition and how they chose the object they did.

In February, two groups of students revisited the exhibition to experiment further. The students were given markers capable of writing on glass without leaving permanent traces and were invited to write their thoughts about the connections between the objects directly onto the exhibition case. The result was an innovative museum experience where the words of the exhibition curators and visitors were superimposed directly onto the image of the objects on view. To some it liberated the interpretation of the objects to allow for multiple perspectives. Others found that it constrained the experience of the. All agreed, however, that it provided a new kind of hands-on interactivity, and an exciting way of allowing multiple voices to speak to the objects on view.

The exhibition will be open through the end of the semester, and we welcome you to experience it for yourself, wonder why the objects were chosen and tell us what you think the connections are. Add your connections to our growing collection by playing the game here: http://exquisitethings.info.

Ian is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Public Art and Cultural Heritage at Brown’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage