Collection: Items held, at Norwich City Museum and Art Gallery, CAN05, 2005
20 x 2.4 metres, 2005
Norwich Castle, for most of its long history, was primarily a prison. Only towards the end of the nineteenth century did it become a museum, the cell-blocks and exercise yards which radiated from the central guard area becoming galleries to display art, historical artefacts, taxidermy specimens, rocks, fossils and examples of applied arts.
The familiar opposition between what I know and what I see is central to my experience of this site, the "what I see" being the museum, and the "what I know" being the much longer history of the site as a prison. Is it possible to bring together simultaneously these two identities, to know together the two times of the one place ? What happens in the changing of the place from a site of misery to a site of treasuring: does the melancholy linger? Do the boredom, the fear, the repetitive tasks become museum objects? Was there inherent in the prison a sense of items extra-ordinary, different, and curious?
This work comprises over 4000 objects in a grid on the wall of the Timothy Gurney Gallery at Norwich Castle Museum. Each item is labelled with the hand-written name of someone who at one time was held on the site as a prisoner. The items are in a sense all failures of the museum test: they are broken, torn, bent, corroded, dirty, burned; fragments or fragmented; the commonplace, the not very interesting, the cheap version; copies, forgeries, pastiches; covers, mounts, labels. Never the real thing, or if they are, then there only by a mistake of judgement.
And the identities are those of people who spent time imprisoned here for crimes ranging from rape, murder and rebellion to the theft of a smock, a turkey or a loaf of bread, or simply for following the wrong faith. Some were executed, some were repeat offenders, and some were no doubt entirely innocent. Their crimes, like their names, were peculiar to them, but become repetitive, expected, almost as inevitable as the stuffed birds, the landscape watercolours, the fossils and the Roman coins. Some indeed stand out; the murderer, the polar bear, the hero’s hat, the transportee turned successful businessman, the leader of the rebellion, the prison Bible, the painting of the bridge. Mostly they pass before our eyes, a succession of objects, names, dates, statements, inviting occasional scrutiny; the object so like one I have at home, the name so like my own.
Objects and identities are linked here by the fact that they were put in a safe place removed from circulation, through the well-intentioned offices of an authority working for the improvement of society.
I suspect that the work is mostly about time, or times. An anagram of "items".