We continue our features on the Natural Histories exhibition with a series of extended labels on specific objects and works of art in the exhibition.
African-American artist Fred Wison has argued that ’objects have memories”. Taking his argument seriously, this object is an exemplary case. This selection of woods was collected by Jamaica’s Public Work Department for Jamaica’s Great Exhibition of 1891.
The Great Exhibition was inspired by the many international exhibitions and world fairs of that period, particularly the 1851 Great Exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace. The newly founded Institute of Jamaica played a major role in the development of the project. And according to historian and educator Dr. Rebecca Tortello, the exhibition ”did much for promoting Jamaica and awakening the world to the creative talent and industry of its people as well as the beauty and possibility of the land itself.” (”The Great Exhibition of 1891: Jamaica on Show” The Jamaica Gleaner). As Tony Bennett has pointed out in his book The Birth of the Museum, the great exhibition and related world fair model is foundational in the development of modern museums (such as our own National Gallery and the Institute of Jamaica’s other museum divisions) and illustrates their connection to notions of empire. One only has to consider the fact that Jamaica’s Great Exhibition was originally conceived as part of the permanent Colonial Exhibition in the Imperial Institute, which opened in London in May 1891 to see the imperial ideology embedded within the project.
The only other time this object has been displayed was as a part of Fred Wilson’s 2007 installation in IoJ’s Materialising Slavery exhibition. That installation was itself an interrogation of the museum space and the invisible histories and ideologies that animate that space. This object then has a particular ‘memory”, which illustrates the extent to which nature was always foundational to the vision of Jamaica, in spaces as disparate as the Kingstons of 1891 and 2007.
In the context of an art exhibition, this object also engages debates around art vs artefact, recalling earlier work by curators such as Susan Vogel in her 1988 exhibition Art/artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections. The inclusion of this object then is both an acknowledgement of its particularly significant ”memory” and a challenge to viewers’ conception of what art can/should be.