Unidentified Museum Objects: curiosities from The British Museum
12 Dec 2001 – 28 Feb 2002
Exhibition in Gallery 4
Unidentified Museum Objects sets out to bring together, for the first time, intriguing items from across the collections of The British Museum which are only partly understood.
Within every museum collection there are curious objects that cannot be classified with any great certainty. We have categorised these items as ‘Unidentified Museum Objects’ (‘UMOs’ for short), a deliberately cheeky neologism coined in the spirit of museum convention.
Doubt surrounds the original function of all the items that have been selected. In many cases, a use has been identified but later challenged, whilst other UMOs continue to confound all attempts at categorisation. The objects include a lenticular crystal that may have been used decoratively or as an attempt to correct myopia in 750 BC, an African ‘hand axe’ over a million years old (too large to fit in the hand and too fragile to be an axe), a Roman coin appended to a bronze pig’s trotter and one of the famous Rock Crystal Skulls that continue to fascinate and inspire speculation.
As a group, the UMOs we have chosen reflect the breadth of the rich collections held at The British Museum. The display will give visitors the chance to compare objects from diverse cultures and periods, in different materials and techniques. The items are all three-dimensional and most have been carved in some way. They have been chosen for a visual appeal which is probably only enhanced by their mysterious status. Even the oldest pieces in the exhibition show a concern for the aesthetic. However, whilst it is possible for us to appreciate the form of these UMOs, we can only guess at their former function - which is exactly what makes them so engaging.
The third in our series of collaborations with The British Museum, this display raises significant questions about the relationship between objects and museums, between knowledge and looking. To what extent does knowing influence the way we look; to what extent does uncertainty whet our visual appetite?