Monday, 6 February 2012

The beauty of incomplete and fragmentary

Back garden and main entrance of the
Thessaloniki Museum of Archaeology
 Greece, 2011
I am very interested in how people look at fragmentary/incomplete objects. For some reason we find incomplete works of art more often in museums today than a few years ago. I was very stimulated, for example, by the solutions found at the Thessaloniki Museum of Archaeology - especially the large pot they have by their main entrance.

The 'need' to have things completely restored is definitely changing but I wonder why this is happening.  From conversations with friends (who only go to museums as visitors) I find that people are increasingly more interested in things as they are, rather than as they 'should be'. Would there be wider socio-political influences or motivations? Is it just fashion? But even fashion is motivated by the context...

Image from 'Better Broken',  Met. Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a video called 'Better Broken' where Navina Haidar, Islamic art curator, elaborates on how the missing, the lacking, the fragmentary may actually have its own kind of beauty, or may even enhance certain features of the piece.  See it  here


  1. You’re not going to like what I have to say. Actually, my first (irrational) thought was “Oh look. A piece of Classical heritage trapped inside a modern sculpture”.

    But that wasn't my point. What does it say about us and the values we place on our cultural heritage if we let modern fashion dictate how to conserve our artefacts? The conservator who mended this pot literally appears to have reconstructed it to fit our modern standards and to meet our modern expectations. Should heritage be (re)shaped after the latest fashion?

    I wholeheartedly agree that fashion should have an influence on the presentation of heritage in museums because otherwise you will run the risk of creating exhibitions that seem outdated and/or exhibitions that people can't relate too. But is it right to conserve our artefacts according to the latest fashion? Shouldn't we conserve them in the best way possible? In the manner that ensures their survival?

    I'm not entirely convinced that this pot is conserved in the best manner possible. Is there a way to open the structure if the object needs conservation work? And some parts of the pot don't seem to be supported at all, but appear to be floating in the air, merely stuck to the pot with some glue.

  2. I can understand the point of view that an object is better if it is shown as it is: in fragment(s) instead of with some 'false' parts. Certainly, nowadays, you could find new interpretations in those incomplete objects. But I, as a member of the public, always like to have a clear idea of the object’s past context: what the object was in the past, or how it used to look like; so if the object is not reconstructed, at least a sketch or a copy of the complete object with an explanation helps to understand it better. I think this is a common view.

    Human beings like asking and knowing the reasons for any situation. I'm sure if I had a broken arm people would ask me why it was broken, so the same goes for the object. As mentioned in the original message, this new 'movement' is something that is just fashionable. I don´t know if that is the right word, since, as it says in the message, it is more about giving a new significance to those objects, or a modern perspective. However, that does not mean that the past 'interpretation' of the object, where having a clear idea of how an object used to look was necessary, is out of fashion. Intead I would say that both perspectives can be seen for different people as good, and both for sure would have valid points with respect to the object.

    1. I agree with you that reconstructions or replicas as well as knowledge of the object’s past (context) are both very important for visitors to museums. I’ve found that when either one of those is missing the experience of visiting museums becomes less meaningful. For example: I recently visited the Ethnological Museum in Berlin which houses an amazing collection of African Artefacts.

      Unlike the objects in the video the majority of the artefacts in the museum were more or less intact. However, most of them did not support any labels, so the visitors (in this case me and a friend) were left wondering what these objects were, how old they were, where they came from, how they got here, and where they had been used for in the past. There was a very dark atmosphere in the gallery (I believe there were black walls, a black ceiling and a black floor) and there were quite a few very handsome intact statues situated scattered throughout the rooms on black pedestals. I remember that the gallery looked very impressive and imposing. However, despite this very trendy and minimalistic layout we really didn’t stay very long in the gallery and kind of breezed through it because we couldn’t really understand what the objects meant. The artefacts looked lovely, but they told us very little.

      It’s the same with some of those incomplete objects in the movie. When I saw the video I was reminded a bit of the "Art for art's sake" movement. As if these damaged artefacts should suddenly be appreciated by the public for what they are and that it's not necessary (or perhaps even wrong?) to alter them in any way by for example (partially) reconstructing them. While I can somewhat understand this sentiment I'm not sure how suited this approach is when used on artefacts that are housed in archaeological museums. Incomplete objects may look very intense and exciting, but they don’t always tell their story very well. And since I’m going to assume that the majority of visitors to archaeological museums go there to learn something about the past, I would say that our first priority is to make the artefacts situated in it as understandable as possible.

  3. Hello there. Thanks for your comments, Rafael and Iris.
    I just want to clarify a couple of things about this post.
    In my opinion, being ‘in’, or ‘in fashion’ is a silly thing. Often what is very ‘in’ today will be very ‘out’ tomorrow. But that is not what I meant by fashion. The kind of fashion I meant relates to the way we think and practice our profession, and this is usually defined/influenced by the socio-political context. In that sense, I really prefer to act within my own slot in time - but taking into account that the object will outlive me.
    The mount is not unsafe at all. On the contrary. It is quite sturdy and gives the pot full support. It also allows it to be displayed outdoors, and this is what it was meant for in the first place. I think the conservators were very actually thoughtful and creative. Although I do agree it is aesthetically intrusive.


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