Macabre Art and History in Aberdeen
Jenny Pape, Aberdeen City Council
In 2008 the entire collection of Aberdeen Gallery and Museums was designated as a Nationally Significant Collection by Museums Galleries Scotland. This Nationally Significant Collection ranges from fine art, to celebrating Aberdeen’s industrial heritage. The collections are displayed across our four sites in the city: the Art Gallery, the Aberdeen Maritime Museum, the Tolbooth Museum and Provost Skene’s House. The Art Gallery and Provost Skene’s House are currently closed for major re-development projects.
Since the closure of the Art Gallery in 2015 for redevelopment we have been working to ensure the Gallery maintains a presence in the city. As part of this the ‘Art and History’ exhibitions series was developed that were hosted in the temporary exhibition space within the Aberdeen Maritime Museum. Curators from the history team were asked to select objects from the art collections and interpret them in new ways. These exhibitions allowed us to explore the art collection from a different perspective using a wide breadth of our Recognised Collections.
For the 'Mourning in the Victorian Era' exhibition, I selected the artwork Kiss of Death by Jo Gordon. The dramatic headpiece is an extreme re-telling of a Victorian mourning bonnet. It inspired me to research traditional Victorian mourning customs and the exhibition developed from there. The displays explored mourning traditions, funeral and burial customs and changing beliefs in the 1800s. The extreme mourning observed during the Victorian period was in part due to Queen Victoria’s extended mourning after the death of Prince Albert.
The objects that were on display encompassed many areas of Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Recognised collections. The displays drew heavily on the costume and jewellery collections to explore how mourning was expressed during the Victorian period. One of the key objects was a black wedding dress worn by a local woman complete with photographs of her wearing it on her wedding day in 1891. Despite the popularity of mourning wear the choice to wear black on your wedding day was not lightly made, someone very close to the bride must have died recently, possibly a parent.
The exhibition was an excellent opportunity to display some of our more rarely seen objects. Artworks on display ranged from a glass rolling pin, to graveyard photographs, to Paul Finnegan’s Séance. A slightly more unusual sculptural piece comprised an old ‘found table’ which had been embellished with mirrored plastic and poured plaster. In the context of the exhibition it explored the Victorian popularity of Spiritualism and represents a séance table complete with ectoplasm. Other rarely viewed objects included photographs by celebrated local photographer George Washington Wilson, who was a favourite of Queen Victoria.
Exploring burial customs gave us an opportunity to work in partnership with the Recognised Collections of the University of Aberdeen, borrowing a number of model mort safes from their anatomy collections. These models represent the fear in the early 1800s of being removed from your final resting place by body snatchers and passed onto the local anatomy schools.
This exhibition series was a wonderful opportunity to work across all of our Recognised Collections and those of other institutions in the area. Presenting the artworks in new ways and in a new venue helped keep the spirit of the Art Gallery going whilst we counted down to the highly-anticipated re-opening.