Abi Spendlove is one of three artists who have been invited to respond to the collection of the St. Albans Museum during its period of closure.* Spendlove’s project, Fragments, sees the windows and fireplaces of the St. Albans Clock Tower adorned with fragments of coloured, etched glass. The glass has been positioned at the height of the windows so that refracted sunlight falls onto the plinths and the floor below, in a fleeting display of light and colour that changes as the sun and clouds move across the sky outside.
Like Lydall Phelps , and Katy Gillam-Hull before her, Spendlove’s installation began its life as separate pieces scattered through the St. Albans Museum’s off-site store. Spendlove likens the store to an Aladdin’s cave, containing artefacts from the Roman period until the late modern period, and everything in between. She selected for her project a collection of Medieval stained glass fragments from local archeological digs, and used this glass as the model for her own work, on display in the clock tower alongside the originals.
On her first encounter with the museum’s collection, Spendlove found herself drawn to damaged fragments. She tells me, “I was particularly interested in broken objects, and how the story is enriched by the brokenness”. The museum collection is one of few contexts in which a broken fragment is treasured, and subjected to scrutiny. “The material life-cycle of objects” always involves some kind of breaking down or degrading (Crisp, 2017), through wear and tear or deliberate destruction. For many manmade objects, this is a process of “trashing and disposal”, in which the complete object is transformed from possession to trash. Archeologists and curators intervene in this process, either reviving broken objects and restoring their original form or preserving the fragment so that the memory of its form and purpose remains. It is only in this museum setting that questions are asked about the value and significance of these fragments. Museum curators, notes Spendlove, no longer take for granted that a whole object is more valuable than broken pieces. They have to decide whether an artefact “is more valuable if it is fixed or broken”. They might make a curatorial decision to fix… or it might be valued in its broken state”.
The selected fragments appeared to tell numerous stories, including stories contained within the patterns and images painted onto or etched into their surfaces, as well as the story of their fragmentation. In the museum setting, the process of breaking can form an important part of the narrative. The destruction of the object is a new chapter in its narrative, and the method of breaking can reveal a lot about the circumstances in which it was destroyed. Spendlove acknowledges her interest in the research of Lyndsay Poll Crisp (2017) who writes, “however meticulous the processes of dismantling and pulverisation… matter prevails”. The systematic destruction of cultural artefacts that took place during the Protestant Reformation left behind fragments that evidence the social and religious context of their fragmentation. The glass selected by Abi Spendlove originates from that era, having been buried underground for 400 years, preserved the memory of the Reformation until they were uncovered by archeologists in the 1970s and 80s.
Spendlove is conscious that by selecting these fragments she may have rescued them from obscurity. Archeologists are obliged to submit their finds to museums, and as a result of the sheer volume of fragments that are uncovered, many are never considered. There is a risk that they will forever remain nothing more than a number in a register, and never seen or handled again. The theme of “lost and found” emerged in Spendlove’s project, as she became aware of the potential for these fragments – found after having been lost for so long – may become lost again.
Having selected her glass fragments, Spendlove photographed them on a lightbox, traced them, and used a laser engraver to reproduce their shape and surface patterns. Her reproductions are more brightly coloured, and larger in size than the originals, so that the patterns and images are also scaled up, and details become visible that might go unnoticed in the original fragments. Separated from the rest of a complete window, these small parts of a larger pattern or image are elevated in significance. Viewers are invited to scrutinize tiny details that might have gone unnoticed in the original window, and inevitably, as the images have been disconnected from their original story, viewers can attach new fictions to these images.
Spendlove draws my attention to one particularly serendipitously arranged fragment, at the centre of which is an eye. The eye’s gaze looks significant, but taken out of context, there is no information about the subject of that gaze. The audience is left to imagine a narrative that explains the gaze, and each viewer’s story will be different.
The relationship between objects and stories was explored further in Spendlove’s workshop at the Verulamium. Participants were asked to contribute broken objects and ephemera to a “museum in a day”. Each participant was invited to complete a mock accession form, to record the story behind their object. While many of the objects were unassuming, their stories gave them great significance, and value as records of personal history. Spendlove recalls that one participant brought a sweet wrapper that had been saved since the liberation of Guernsey in 1945, when she, as a 5-year old girl, was given her first sweet. The story on the accompanying accession form describes how the girl needed to seek help to unwrap the sweet, having never seen one unwrapped before.
In another workshop, participants were invited to cut their own fragments from coloured acetate, and arrange them onto surfaces to construct their own stained glass windows. Spendlove chose to display photographs of this activity in the Clock Tower alongside her own work, and in particular she selected images that show the hands of the participants as they arrange their coloured fragments. For Spendlove, the handling of these fragments, original and reproduced, is significant. During her time spent in the Museum’s store, she became acutely aware of the fragility of the artefacts, and the wear and tear that results from handling.
The experience has taught Spendlove that “touch is a privileged thing”. To touch an object is to contribute to its destruction, particularly in a museum or archeological setting. Handling can erode the previous wear and tear that is evidence of historical interaction with the artefact. The role of the museum is conservation as well as restoration, and when they make the decision not to restore, they implicitly make the case for there being value in the evidence of damage that remains. Spendlove’s project has necessarily involved some handling of precious fragments, and the privileged position in which she has found herself, able to access and handle the museum’s artefacts, has added value to the broken pieces by adding another layer to their narrative.
*Other artists who have engaged with the St. Albans Museum collection during its closure have been the subject of previous blog posts.
Crisp, L. P. (2017), “Michael Landy’s Break Down: Trashing and Transforming”, paper presented at TRASH, University of Vienna, 28-29 January.