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Leaving the shell


I hope the objects and my responses have begun to emphasize that I am not asking some abstract question like ‘what do you think ought to be done with this?’ On the contrary, I’m asking a very specific question: ‘What are you prepared to do?’

Anyone willing to answer in some positive way, and in such a way as to inspire others to support them, will have succeeded in saving the object.

It is very easy to make moral pronouncements or have vague opinions. I am asking, however, for a thorough examination of what one actually does. Our real priorities reveal themselves in our actions. I’m not asking if one should care about something but whether you actually care about something. How far out of your way are you prepared to go for something you believe in?

I’m merely a sideshow in this, and my pathetic threat to destroy museum objects is a rather paltry act in the face of the actual destruction of reefs, oceans, forests, and peoples in which we are all complicit. What are we going to do to stop it?

Everyone, or almost everyone, believes museums are a ‘good thing’. So if we believe in looking after things how come we’re destroying them left right and centre? Are museums just a salve to our conscience? Like the medieval indulgences that would buy off your sins, do we as a society use the museum to corral a sense of sacredness we are not prepared to bestow on the material of our everyday lives?

I have no doubt at all that an intellectual case can be made for or against every object in the museum. What my action is intent on flushing out is who actually cares enough to carry out what they say? I have specified individual responses precisely because only individuals can carry anything out. Each of the objects in the museum was collected by an individual and is now looked after by individuals. Collections start and continue because of the ideas and enthusiasms of individuals. Often these motivations have been terribly misguided but I would rather suffer from the mistakes of an individual than the crushing anonymity of an institution. Individuals feel things. They are accountable. There can be a dialogue between individuals. The irrefutable momentum of corporations, on the other hand, is unstoppable by anyone. Our desecration of the planet is largely a result of the logic of corporations. Surely it is about time we wrested back personal responsibility?

I take it as read that of course all the people who work at the Museum already care about the objects in it. They have made it their life’s work. They are also explicitly working to share their enthusiasm with others. This game I have set up can be another opportunity for them to inspire new insights.

But then there is the institution of the museum. The method of disposal of objects I am proposing is of course highly irregular, but I see no ethical reason for advertising objects only in the Museums Journal, for instance. The Manchester Museum is part of a worldwide network of institutions which controls the movement of  the world’s most valuable objects. In the age of the internet and of parliamentary democracy why shouldn’t the museum’s dealings also be open? What ethical guidelines forbid all of us from having a say in what happens to our heritage?

But the real issue I want to address is much larger than just that of museums. In taking a personal interest in our public institutions, perhaps we might develop a different kind of relationship with the world. One which does not rely on numbed compliance, or resigned powerlessness, or dumbstruck subservience to a priestly elite. But one which, on the other hand, recognizes that each of us has a vital role to play in the creation and conservation of beauty in our everyday lives.

OK, that’s enough light-hearted banter. Now on to the serious business of today’s object. In case any of you thought it was absurd of me to collect rainwater from the roof, or question the sanctity of the ‘Africa – unlocated’ cupboard, here is an example of an object currently in the museum stores. Apparently it was donated by an ex-Curator of Zoology, after lunch. I have seen a whole boxful of similar such delicacies. I’m sure someone will come up with a very good reason for it to be here. I thought I’d give them the opportunity.

Leftover crustaceans (smaller)

20 Comments leave one →
  1. riprap007 permalink
    07/07/2009 10:11 am

    For some reason I’d always associated Lyons as being a British company with it’s tea shops. Seeing these branded Escargots, (and therefore thinking of France and the city of Lyon) though and doubt arises. In terms of a positive solution to this object, then burial seems appropriate; which is something I’d do to the snails myself. The foil can be recycled.

    The collected rain water should take its place and be accessioned in its place 🙂

  2. Nina from Brittany permalink
    07/07/2009 11:45 am

    I guess the point is that one day, those snails could be the last vestiges of our civilisation, the last clue as to what people ate in the early 21st century, if properly preserved. One day, maybe… So is it up to us to decide what we will be remembered by in preserving them further, or not? I think not.

    Time is fickle, and just as it has allowed the preserving of dinosaur’s bones, it has allowed the destruction of countless other things which may have been just as, if not more important in our understanding of our past. Who decided which dinosaurs were kept and which were not? Not them, that’s for sure.

    The argument could be made that man has to some extent decided how he would be remembered, by tombs, buildings etc… And that we owe the future generations a good representative image of life today. But who can really decide what a good image of life today is.

    Things will or will not survive, and we don’t really have much power over what will be left of us in 100s of years’ time. We are not so smart as to be able to tell what will be immortalised, and what will not. All we can do is hope for the best.

    As for those snails, they are a waste product of today, and unless someone wants to eat them or make a time capsule of them, I think they should be disposed of. If someone finds them in the future and decides that they are valuable, so be it. At the moment I think there is enough rubbish being preserved without adding another piece to the pile.

  3. 07/07/2009 11:56 am


    A couple of things for you to ruminate on

    I’m not knocking what you’re up to, but isn’t what you’re doing here simply another take on a ‘David Blaine type’ stunt? Or is there a deeper, more meaningful reason for your self-imposed incarceration?

    And what of your family; do you have their full support? Aren’t you missing them, or anyone else for that matter?

    Me being me; i.e. someone who enjoys their own company [possibly too much], I’m just keen to know how you’re coping in there…

    • 07/07/2009 5:17 pm

      Dear Bruce,

      Today I had an incredibly vivid image of throwing my three year old son up in the air and catching him. His body is so small and perfect, and he is so totally in it. I was overwhelmed with the realization that it will be a very long time before I can laugh and play with him again. I hope his memory is short enough, or filled with enough fun, that he doesn’t think of me very often, otherwise he might feel I’ve abandoned him.

      I’m extremely fortunate in having a resourceful wife who is willing to single-handedly look after our children while I am locked in this tower. She has to put up with a lot whether I am with her or not.

      I do miss them all, and wonder if this is a healthy or wise thing to do. But I remember Khalil Gibran’s advice: ‘Stand together but not too near together, for the pillars of the temple stand apart.’

      A sense of loss is always with us in the world. I’ve deliberately made myself more keenly aware of it in here by removing so much I would normally enjoy. I’m interested in training myself to loosen my grip on things. In my experience when things are free, more love flows.

      I’m also very aware that my son and daughter may have less to look forward to than I have had. Will they even have clean air and clean water, let alone forests and wild animals and peace?
      I hope that, on balance, my time here makes even a tiny space for some positive change in the world.

      As for whether there is any deeper meaning. Perhaps I’m deluding myself. If you’ve thought about what I’m doing and read what I’ve written and still can’t find it, then perhaps there isn’t. In that case it’s only meaningful to me. Like a song without any words.

  4. 07/07/2009 3:57 pm

    My question is, will the hermit be destroyed after his 40 days and nights have finished? After all, he has chosen to become the Manchester Hermit and been selected and collected in the Museum, and put on display for us through this website!!

  5. 07/07/2009 4:04 pm


    Appreciating your experience in Los Angeles. Sending you strength and encouragement. Thanks for inviting us in.

  6. Bodger permalink
    07/07/2009 6:39 pm

    Just a thought. Are you paying Council Tax for your temporary residence or is the museum paying it?

  7. 07/07/2009 10:12 pm

    Hi there,
    You write a lot about OBJECTS Ansuman
    Tell me…. please

    ……What is an OBJECT?
    ….. Does OBJECT merit saving?

    If so why?

    or ……will you add it to your pyre of burnables and let us decide its fate?

    ( I am an M.A Arts and Ecology student at Dartington with an interest in your project)

  8. 07/07/2009 11:02 pm

    Hi Ansuman

    I have not read all that the HERMIT (you ) has written in the blog… but……

    I do notice that you use the word OBJECT ( not you) quite a lot.
    Will anyone try to pursuade the HERMIT (you ) to save the OBJECT ( not you) from the pyre ?
    or will we let the OBJECT become extinct?

    Anna …. (still M.A Arts and Ecology at Dartington just !)

    • 08/07/2009 10:14 am

      Dear Anna,

      Since you’re not interested in reading lots of words (and who can blame you) I’ll put it in as few as I can.

      1. I’m working in a museum. The function of a museum is to keep objects.
      By presenting myself as one of those objects I want to question the notion of what an object is.

      2. Museums are our collective memory.
      Memory is like a muscle. Use it or lose it.

      3. Things are disappearing all the time. If we don’t choose to look after them, they will be gone forever.
      However it’s not possible to have everything.

      4. What do we care about enough to keep?
      And what are we prepared to sacrifice?

      • David Gelsthorpe permalink*
        08/07/2009 1:44 pm

        Dear Anna,

        I do not agree with what the Hermit has written about the function of a museum.

        In my opinion, the function of a museum is to enrcih peoples’ lives.

        The Hermit is wishing to engage in a debate about the value of museum objects. Value can only be given to an object by a person. A fossil on a beach has no value until someone collects it and gives it meaning. The moss posted today, had no value until Darwin collected it.

        David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Palaeontology, The Manchester Museum.

        • 08/07/2009 3:37 pm

          Dear David,
          While I agree with you as to the function of a museum I don’t believe value may only be accorded to an object by a person. Part of the dialogue aruond objects and the way we treat them has to do with a re-evaluation of the agency of objects. Certainly an object may become potentised when a person notices it, collects it, and displays it as in a museum. BUT…

          ….an object may have intrinsic value both of itself and in relation to non-humans others.

          Things that humans fail to notice, cannot percieve or ever come to know are also potentially valuable. And there are other entities that value known, unknown and unknowable objects albeit for reasons very different from our own,

          My experience of objects is that they themselves act upon us and with us and upon other objects to create the world. In addition some objects seem to be skilled manipulators of humans, soliciting behaviours, actions and emotions.
          It might equally be said that objects confer value to us humans rather than the other way around as you suggest!


  9. 08/07/2009 12:41 pm

    Are you sure it is in the colection – can’t see it’s accession number.

  10. 09/07/2009 1:21 am

    Dear Ansuman,

    I have been wondering about the wife and kids. I might pop round and see them. I’d love to pop round and see you, but you’re patently busy. Is the other half following the project? I wonder if she is tuning into this fascinating conversation, in which you are shedding so much light on our relationship to the world, in such a cheeky but thought provoking way.

    I’m slowly going through these dialogues, and enjoying the conversations which are opening up. You are not only a cheeky monkey, but also a challenging provocateur. Your hermitage, and reports of it, are surely exactly what museums are for; an archive which causes us to reflect, and hopefully learn, about ways to improve our liaison with our environment (whatever the environment we find ourselves in may be) and question our perceptions.



  11. Rebecca Machin permalink
    09/07/2009 12:36 pm

    Hello Ansuman,

    I hope you’re getting along okay. It looks like the left-over snail shells haven’t been very popular. I’m a curatorial assistant at the museum, and every time I come across the drawer with these in, I have a mixed reaction. My heart sinks in some ways, as it’s my job to document some of our huge zoology collection, and to have to spend time on someone’s leftovers is a little disheartening. On the other hand, these snail shells symbolise the special character of some of our curatorial staff. Bill Pettit, who ate the this meal of snails, used to work in the Manchester Museum as a zoology curator. Sadly, he died recently. We have many specimens in the museum which he collected, the majority of which have scientific value of various types. This foil tray of leftovers, and the care taken to re-pack them, makes me smile. It would make me sad to purge the museum of all the odd, silly, quaint things that have been acquired alongside things of more obvious scientific, historic or aesthetic value. These snail shells might not save the planet (although you never can tell…) but they remind me of the value of diversity, in our collections, heritage, biome, and society.

    Good luck inside Ansuman,

    • Mr Poot permalink
      09/07/2009 3:00 pm

      I must agree with Rebecca, you never can tell what will save the planet or indeed what will destroy it – just look at Thomas Midgley – I implore you!

      • 09/07/2009 6:04 pm

        I’m getting along fine thank you, Rebecca. All the better for your enquiry.
        And I’m so glad to hear about Bill Pettit. He sounds like a man with a sense of humour.

        If anything is going to save the world I think it might just be that.

  12. 09/07/2009 12:46 pm

    I am listening

  13. 09/07/2009 1:43 pm

    Where are you MOSS?

  14. Henry McGhie permalink
    01/10/2009 8:52 am

    The Collections Development Panel, along with the director and the artist, discussed the drawer of mollusc shells.

    The discussion was summarised as:
    “These had been collected by Bill Pettitt, former Keeper of Invertebrate Zoology, as part of research into cultural aspects of molluscs. There are examples where natural history discoveries were made from specimens shot for the table, including Darwin discovering something in the carcass of an animal whilst on the Beagle. Might be interesting to have an example with which to compare these more famous discoveries.”

    The decision was to retain the collection.

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