Clay + Culture + Society

Monument: From Controversy to Care

To mark the dismantling of Monument at the Zuiderzee Museum after ten years, Clare Twomey will engage with the visitors of the museum in a participatory artist project: Monument – the golden thread.  The visitor will be given the opportunity to select a historic tile from the sculpture, which will be registered in the name of the new owner and provided with a golden wax seal and authentication by the Zuiderzee Museum.

In a conversation convened by the design historian Tessa Peters with Erik Schilp and Clare Twomey, they reflect on the role of the sculpture and the changes it has witnessed in museology, society and culture. 

Reflections on Monument, 2009 – 2019

9 March 2019

Tessa: Erik, do you think Monumenthas had an effect on the Zuiderzee Museum?

Erik: To me, it’s the exemplary piece of my tenure – of what I tried to do there. It reminded everybody – everyday – that heritage is something that you need to have a relationship with on a day-to-day basis in the physical world to have a meaning, that it is not enough to keep it in storage so that a future generation might perhaps have a look at it, or that researchers might write an article about it. Heritage only has a meaning in the context of todayworking towards a tomorrow, and in the real world – in a world where you can maybe even see it disintegrate or perish.

I remember a big debate about a Rodin bronze that was mutilated by bronze thieves. Are you going to repair that? Or are you going to leave it mutilated? I’ve always been on the side of the latter because it’s part of its history. You don’t always repair a piece of art that’s been damaged. You might want to keep it like that – to add to its story; to make it into a reality. And Monumentdid all that, and very subtly brought that home with a lot of people over the years – and the Museum changed for the better because of it. 

Tessa:The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai points out that the meanings people attribute to things comes from the way those things are used and circulate in different social and cultural settings. So, while the tiles were viewed 10 years ago as very much part of the national heritage, having since been incorporated in Monumentthere are now different meanings attached to the tiles.

Erik: Yes, that’s true. But it depends on the debate. The political debate that was the most difficult 10 years ago and that caused the political and media whipping up of sentiment, is absent now. Because heritage has become just a fig leaf for political debate, it’s no longer felt as important. 

You could argue that all the collection pieces that went into the sculpture together formed a new collection piece called Monument. And, for the same reason that was given 10 years ago, you could argue that you cannot touch that mountain of china because it is an integral part of the museum collection which you cannot get rid of. But obviously you today you can.

Clare: But this brings me to the point of the role of the artist in the institute. Because now the museum has worked really closely with me. My ideas are independent and so, in a way, there’s been this changing of the way the tiles are perceived over 10 years, from once belonging to the institute, then becoming associated with an artwork and the identity of the artist, and now … I’m very aware of how carefully I’ve been involved in these last conversations and I’ve designed very carefully the way the artwork will leave the Museum and, inside my continuum of practice, of how we start to navigate that … the elements of the work are now to be owned by the public. I don’t think we could have done that the very year after Monument was installed. It’s taken this amount of sentimentality –in the most generous way – this love for the artwork to really blossom, for people to really care about it … for them to say it’s OK. My invitation is to care for something.

Tessa:Clare, now that it’s time for Monumentto go, you are animating that. The artwork is not just going to conventionally disappear behind closed doors. Can you say something about your decision to dismantle and disperse Monumentin such an active way?

Clare: When engaged in conversations with the museum over 18 months it was really interesting to see the efforts that went into thinking of saving the artwork not letting it go. Somehow Monumentdoesn’t only track the changes in museology that have happened over the past 10 years – it tracks the changes in what I’ve understood in the work that I’ve made. Trophy(2006), at the V&A was in some ways as aggressive as Monument(2009),in that it sought to pose a question about the workings of the museum institution. Then there was Forever (2010-11),[1]a work which was more about ‘care.’ And so, as part of that journey that I was on as an artist, I could recognise that the love and care that existed for this pile of china that is Monument,wasn’t there when we started the project. Therefore, rather than erecting a big curtain and taking everything away at the end of the artwork’s life, it seemed appropriate to look at some of the ideas of ‘care’ that had arrived from the other projects of object engagement that I’d undertaken. So, again, looking at the artwork here, it’s, of course, the object that’s the catalyst, but really the artwork is a social project about care, which allows Monumentto leave the museum meaningfully, rather than just scraping it up from the floor. 

Erik: I’ve not been involved in those conversations. But it’s a vindication of the decision, 10 years ago, to make the piece. There has been more talk of care and more effort towards care than if those tiles had stayed in storage – or the rest of the china had remained as a big heap in the UK. This is the point – I even did a TEDx talk on this – the museum has an obligation to bring out its collection into the public domain and to debate it with the people that it concerns, because, if you don’t, it does not exist. If you do, this is what happens. Whatever you think of Monument… whether you like it, or don’t like it, whatever your views are as a historian or as a museologist, there has been more debate on the relevance of this heritage, of the care of this heritage, in the context of it, than would ever have been possible if it hadn’t been there. And that is the power of Monument. And that is why it fits so well in Clare’s oeuvre, because it’s not just a project of a moment. It keeps on delivering. It keeps on giving.

Clare: And the very fact that when it was built 10 years ago – and that it was my practice then – and now, as we dismantle it, it reflects my practice now. And I think that is so important.

Tessa: Can you explain how Monumentwill be finally dispersed?

Clare: When people come into the Zuiderzee Museum they will be invited to join a queue and from there they will be able to pinpoint with a laser a historic tile that they desire from the pile. And then a museum staff-member will collect that piece and they will hand it to the person. That person will walk to a table where it will be sealed with a gold wax stamp – so that there’s a kind of verification process in these actions. Once the seal, which is the Zuiderzee stamp, is on the tile, the visitor will move on to a book, where they will sign their name. They will also have to write in the book why they took that shard of china today. There’s a very particular question, ‘What does it mean to you to take this piece of china today?’ And then they have their photograph taken of their hands holding the piece of china. So, there’s this kind of museological record of the person receiving the piece. I wanted there to be a nice book that people write in, and so we have created a new story to be held with some of the pieces of china – and that is what will enter the museum’s collection. It’s very important to me that this work was entered into the collection – that it didn’t disappear – as if it had never happened – or became folklore. I’m delighted that it will still exist as part of the collection. 

Tessa:So the lifespan of Monument is now to continue both within and beyond the museum. Beyond the museum it’s going to continue at least for the lifetime of the person who receives part of it – and perhaps past their lifetime if the fragment and its story become family heirlooms.Now the tiles are going to be appreciated and looked after by members of the public. That’s a big transformation from being hidden from view in a store room to being public property.

Erik:Yes. And actually, state collections are all of us – we are the owners. The owner is not the Minister of Culture or the Cabinet, the owners are the people. So, I am a big fan of opening it up.

I once proposed in a conference that every primary school was given one of the many 17th-century paintings that never get out of storage, to care for them – to hang it in a prime place and keep it safe and teach children what it is to care for something so valuable and so relevant. At least then those paintings will have a meaning. 

Clare: The very first sentence of my PhD came from a House of Commons paper that said, ‘The role of the museum is to keep things safe.’ And so, you know, I’d love to say it was an intention of the work to just wait 10 years and see what happens to culture. But that was never in our thoughts. But now we’ve arrived in circumstances to see things differently.

Erik: The funny thing is – in terms of that sentence – I don’t think the role of the museum is to keep things safe. I think the role of the museum is to keep things in the minds of the people – and if that means that it disappears … Well, what would you do if you could help one generation of people to build a very strong connection to an object but then, after that, it’s gone? Or would you choose the alternative and put it in storage where nobody will ever see it? I would think it’s worthwhile to educate the one generation in the hope that many will tell this story to their children and let it live on, as opposed to one curator who knows of its existence and writes about it in one book and one article, and then if you haven’t read the book or the article, or know the curator, it doesn’t exist.

Tessa: There’s a chain of ideas from the conception of the work through to its end that have been shifting and transforming.

Erik:I’m aware that 10 years ago people would write angry letters to the newspaper aboutMonument. Now it’s an institutionalised end to the project. And that’s great because it’s the same set of tiles. But its meaning has changed – almost 180 degrees.

Clare: I think it’s very exciting that this work has had this process of transition, forMonumentto have absorbed this much change. 


[1]Forever(2010 – 2011) for the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas, USA, was made in response to the historic Burnap collection at the museum. The collection comprises 1345 objects and one of these, the Sandbach Cup, was chosen by Twomey and reproduced 1345 times with the help of Hartley Greens & Co., Leeds Pottery, a ceramics factory in northern England. The public were able to own one of these cups if they agreed to sign a deed from the Museum that stated they would keep it forever: 10,000 people signed this agreement highlighting issues of ownership, responsibility and the notion of time.