House of Beasts
House of Beasts was shown in the stables, mansion and parkland of the National Trust property Attingham Park in Shropshire. The group exhibition included new commissions and existing work, and investigated mans’ connection with animals, taking inspiration from Attingham's history and rich collections.
Title House of Beasts Historical Sites Attingham Park, Shrewsbury Lead Artists Ruth Claxton, Marcus Coates, Mat Collishaw, Robert Davies, Tessa Farmer, Tom Gallant, Rachel Goodyear, Kathleen Herbert, Des Hughes, Henry Krokatsis, Alastair Mackie, Susie MacMurray, Kate MccGwire, Sophie Molins, Polly Morgan, Nina Saunders, Anj Smith, Hugo Wilson, Daphne Wright Artwork Sculpture, Film, Photography, Digital, Painting, Works on paper, Etching, Performance Partners / Stakeholders Meadow Arts, National Trust Budget 77,750 Development 12 months Dates 2 July 2011 -15 July 2012
Set amongst the historic collections of Attingham Park, House of Beasts explored man’s relationship with animals and their importance throughout the history of this 18th century mansion and estate; examining their role as domesticated, wild and managed creatures. House of Beasts investigated the significance of these human-animal relations, and through the diverse works on show highlighted the complex and varied references to animals in current contemporary art practice. Over forty works of art including six new commissions, were strategically placed within the buildings and grounds of the estate, and the exhibition was accompanied by a symposium, a series of artists’ performances, and a programme of education and events.
The main objectives of the exhibition were:
- To attract 250,000 visitors or more to the site.
- Visitor engagement – to stimulate interest, debate, and transform the visitor experience at Attingham Park.
- To interpret the property through contemporary art.
- To develop new audiences for contemporary art and make contemporary art more accessible.
Once funding had been secured, extensive research began into identifying existing work that would challenge, question and celebrate the role of animals within the historic property. Six artists were also approached to develop new commissions in response to the site’s collections and the exhibition’s focus, following which a series of site visits and conversations began.
A broad collection of artworks were targeted for the exhibition and a steering group consisting of Meadow Arts and the property team began discussing the potential site for each piece in detail.The context for each artwork was critical, in order to create meaningful relationships between the historical and the contemporary works and to integrate the pieces seamlessly into the site. Issues such as conservation, health and safety and visitor flow were all taken into account as were the major challenges of placing work within a heritage context; not being able to make any new marks or holes in the walls, or make any changes to the structure or fabric of the buildings.
House of Beasts presented over forty artworks and included existing works that were sensitively placed in and around the estate, creating parallels and juxtapositions between the contemporary works, the site and the collections. Many of the borrowed works were from high profile artists enabling Meadow Arts to attract visitors from urban centres and presented the organisation and the region with opportunities for national and international press coverage. It was also a positive experience for emerging artists to be shown alongside more established artists.
Taxidermy, drawing, video, installation, sculpture, photography and prints were positioned amongst the fine objects in the house, drawing out Attingham’s connections with animals both past and present and referencing amongst others the fabulous beasts encountered in the decoration of the house, as well as more contemporary references; questioning modern factory farming and genetic modification.
Six artists were invited to respond directly to the curatorial remit and draw from the rich resources of the site:
Ruth Claxton’s Synthetic Worlds (Skytops) floated above the ground in the treetops of Attingham’s woodland.
A synthetic ‘nest’ of mirrored disks, housing a flock of altered cockatoo ornaments and set within the artificially constructed landscape asked questions about what is ‘natural’.
Old Game Birds by Tom Gallant, used the Japanese traditional craft of kirigami, to produce intricate paper cuts that were influenced by the still life images in the picture gallery. Modular was a series of shredded magazine structures nestled in Lord Berwick’s private cabinets in the Octagon Room, taking their various shapes from the table legs, chandeliers and other decorative forms within the house.
Susie MacMurray’s Herd appeared to burst through the library door, created from the branching forms of hundreds of deer antlers from the Attingham herd. This work referenced the unusual lack of game trophies within the country house, put down to the 8th Lord Berwick’s affection for his herd of deer.
The Interlopers by Tessa Farmer was amongst the new commissions and could be found in the glasshouses, where, underneath bell jars scenes of miniature fictional worlds unfolded, and insect sized skeleton fairies ran amok with bees, ladybirds and woodlice.
Sophie Molins’s interactive digital work Sundial in Moonlight presented a virtual journey through Attingham, allowing the viewer a choice of pathway to follow- either masculine or feminine. The animation reproduced the monkey from the family music box alongside symbolic objects and regency imagery to take the viewer on a playful journey, reflecting on seduction, power and intimacy and Thomas the 2nd Lord of Berwick’s passion and pursuit of his seventeen year-old courtesan Sophia. This work was available online and was also shown as a video documentation within the mansion.
The total budget for the project was £77,750, and the overheads were kept low to enable the majority of the budget to be focussed on artistic expenditure.
From the money received; £50,000 came from an Arts Council England Grants for the Arts application, and additional funding was also received from the Elmley Foundation, Ernest Cook Trust and Shropshire Council.
National Trust provided in kind support as well as contributing towards the marketing and interpretation costs.
Marketing was between the National Trust and Meadow Arts, and consisted of printed material including 20,000 flyers that were distributed regionally and an exhibition guide; advertising via websites (Meadow Arts, National Trust and Trust New Art) as well as Facebook and Twitter pages, with the Meadow Arts Facebook page reaching 2904 people during the exhibition period. National and local press were approached and a significant amount of local press and several high profile articles resulted including: The Independent, Crafts Magazine, National Trust Magazine, Elle Magazine, Art and Architecture Journal, and Marie Claire Maison. The exhibition was also reviewed on a number of blogs and comments were made using social media and it is estimated that through printed material and material online over 4 million people gained access to the work.
A detailed engagement programme accompanied House of Beasts and included a symposium, live artists’ performances, educational activities, and a parallel exhibition of Robert Davies’s animal drawings installed at Acton Scott Historic Working Farm.
Short texts outlining the artists’ concepts and how the work related to Attingham were used on interpretation panels and in the 35,000 exhibition guides that were given free to visitors.
In addition to the National Trust volunteer ‘Room Guides’ who provided invigilation and answered questions about the work, five volunteers took on the role of ‘Beastly Guides’. These guides acted as advocates for the exhibition, helping to promote it within the volunteer group, leading targeted exhibition tours for visitors as well as meeting regularly with Meadow Arts and the artists to provide feedback.
Supplementary resources including information about each artist, videos, maps, and press cuttings were made available on the Meadow Arts website, increasing audience engagement beyond the physical limitations of the site.
A symposium entitled ‘Enquiries into the Human and the Animal’ was organised in conjunction with the exhibition in partnership with Cardiff University and ran during the Darwin Festival in Shrewsbury. It was attended by over 90 delegates consisting of artists, arts professionals and academics from the arts and other disciplines, and successfully drew in new audiences to the exhibition.
Over 365,000 people visited Attingham Park during the duration of the exhibition, significantly higher than expected with approximately 250 people taking part in the events programme.
House of Beasts was evaluated using a number of different methods to ensure that the data collected gave a representative overview of visitor opinions. Methods used included monthly visitor figures from the National Trust, questionnaires undertaken during the exhibition in two main categories; visitor demographics and general data, and visitor opinions. A visitor comments book was also provided and translated into qualitative data for ease of analysis. The overall feedback about the exhibition was extremely positive.
Partnership Working- A close working relationship with the property team, in particular Curator Sarah Kay allowed strong connections and stories to be drawn out by Meadow Arts, and the large team, crucially able to devote time and energy to the project were critical to its successful delivery.
Volunteers- A strong commitment was made towards the genuine inclusion and ownership of the project by volunteers working for the National Trust. Working closely with Volunteering & Community Engagement Manager Kellie Scott, Meadow Arts hosted volunteer previews, regular briefings, artist presentations and a booklet introducing the project for all team members and volunteers.
Engagement- A comprehensive engagement and events programme accompanied the exhibition providing information and context for the work, however future programming could benefit from greater consideration of the existing National Trust activities so that they complement each other, and planning for all weathers!
Existing Work - The inclusion of many existing works allowed the curators to pre-plan many installation concerns that come with curating within in a heritage environment, however there were still issues that needed to be addressed with existing work particularly with taxidermy that needed to go through a series of processes to ensure that it was pest free before being brought into the property.
Meadow Arts has plans to work with Attingham Park again in the future and has developed a number of successful contemporary arts projects in other National Trust properties since House of Beasts in 2012.
Exhibition Guide TBA
House of Beasts brochure (PDF File - right click to download)