Museum of Garden History, London
3 July - 29 October 2006
Tessa Farmer The Court of Fairy detail 2006
Repatriating the Ark paid homage to 2006 as the 350th anniversary of the publication of the Musaeum Tradescantianum. A catalogue of the 'rarities' contained within the Tradescant Ark, the first public museum in England, the book was written by Tradescant the Younger with help and funding from Elias Ashmole. The tumultuous history of the John Tradescants, father and son gentlemen gardeners, explorers and collectors, who brought an impressive array of new species of flora to Britain from the Americas and Europe, is a tale of appropriation, ownership and authorship. The Cabinet of Curiosities at the heart of the story comprised of celebrity paraphernalia, anthropological and naturally occurring oddities, passed from the Tradescant family to Elias Ashmole, who established the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford with the Tradescant collection at its 'core'. Today, the remaining components of the Tradescant Collection, 'exotic' or 'grotesque' depending on one's tastes, can be found at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, though this international collection has, somewhat fittingly, been re-distributed to several other museums in Britain.
Parabola's exhibition was multi-layered: it brought pieces of the original Tradescant cabinet from the Ashmolean Museum and the Zoological Collections of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, back to Lambeth - after almost 350 years - to be considered by a new audience. Evolving ideas about ownership, identity and authorship were considered in a critically engaged examination of the nature of collection and procurement.
Ten artists working in sculpture, video, drawing and mixed media were commissioned to investigate past, present and future notions of ownership, collection and assimilation. Performance-based artists Richard Dedomenici and Christian Nold and poet Karen McCarthy, working in collaboration with Parabola and Spread the Word, also participated in the exhibition. Museological display were mingled with contemporary art production, both in the Museum and in Parabola's comprehensive catalogue, which documents artworks and artists' responses, commissioned essays and discussion of the Tradescant collection's legacy and historical contexts.
Writers who contributed to the catalogue include: Jordan Kaplan, Parabola curator; Dr Arthur MacGregor, Keeper of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Jon Newman, Lambeth Archives; Dr Andrea Phillips, Assistant Director, Goldsmiths MA, Creative Curating; Jennifer Potter, whose biography Strange Blooms, the curious lives and adventures of the John Tradescants, published by Atlantic Books in October 2006, explores the Tradescant/Ashmole relationship; and Dr Peg Rawes, Departmental Tutor at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL.
A series of talks, walks and events also took place as part of the exhibition, including a walk led by Jon Newman, retracing John Tradescant The Elder's funeral cortege from the site of his house in South Lambeth Road to his tomb in the grounds of the Museum of Garden History; a collectors' evening, where invited collectors discussed their passion and obsession in an informal presentation; an artists' talk and performance evening, where participating artists Faye Claridge, Jo Coupe, Tessa Farmer, Paulette Phillips and Uriel Orlow discussed their commissioned work with Parabola in relation to their practice, alongside a presentation by Christian Nold and a performance by Richard Dedomenici; and a panel discussion by writers, historians and theorists that looked at lost, 'ruined' or overlooked links between the Tradescant Ark and the seventeenth century social, cultural and physical architectures that constructed its spaces, collections and audiences.
The exhibition and its associated programme were curated by Danielle Arnaud, Jordan Kaplan and Philip Norman