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An Apology


Since I am a specimen under scrutiny here and I have promised that this blog will reveal some of what is invisible via the webcam, let me tell you about my emotions.

Looking back over the last few days I think I went through a slightly dark phase. Grappling with all kinds of practical issues in the Tower, the strangeness of the situation and the kind of tone to take in this blog, perhaps I slipped into hermit crab mode. One of the aspects of the hermit in the popular imagination is of the crusty old misanthrope, snappy and impatient with the ways of the world. His retreat is a kind of rejection of society.

I’ve deliberately played on that image to some extent in putting forward this idea of destruction. It’s a challenging, wrathful kind of energy. I think I may have got carried away by it myself. Now I realize I may have been a bit rude to people who have been kind enough to post comments on this blog. In particular I think I should apologize to Henry McGhie, Curator of Zoology here at the Museum who I roundly berated last week, and who I haven’t heard from since. Henry, and indeed anyone else at the museum, if you’re reading this, which I doubt, I’d just like to say that your views and knowledge are extremely important.

We have moved some way beyond the priest-scribes of ancient Egypt, or the high caste Brahmins of India or shamans with access to hidden knowledge, but nevertheless experts are still important. In the age of Google and Wikipedia and the hyper-fragmentation of specialized knowledge, experts have a new function to play. And in an information democracy they have a new kind of accountability. This means that the role of the Museum and the Academy is also changing. Manchester University Museum is clearly aware of this change, which is why it’s willing to lay itself open in the way that this project does. My job as an artist is to put some challenging questions but I’d like to put them without being abusive. Forgive me if I sometimes wobble over the mark.

I felt a deep regret while meditating this morning so I thought I should say something. I take it as a sign of progress. It’s a funny thing, meditation. Very difficult to know if you’re doing it right. It’s very simple but also extremely difficult. The job is to try and stay with the truth, but I’m so beset by delusions and confusions that it’s often difficult to know if I’ve taken a wrong turn. The only way to really measure oneself is by an increase in loving feelings. This is a sign that my habitual self-centredness must be dissolving slightly and I can start to see things from other points of view.

It’s not something you can create or fake either. If you get on with the main work of patient observation diligently, it just seems to happen by itself that a spring of generous thoughts begins to seep through the ground. It’s very easy to be sitting there daydreaming, or circling round and round selfish or delusional ideas – and I’ve done that. The only way to know if you’re on the right path is if spontaneous kindness starts to break through. Makes you feel happy. Which in my experience makes it quite likely that crabby and irritable is just round the corner…

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 13/07/2009 7:29 pm

    Your description here of contrition, Buddhist style, is brilliant. The painting of the meditation leading to the opening of the heart, heart rending. Your overall expression of humility in your blog is an example for all who practice meditation. I’ve not seen crabbiness actually.

    Even for a seasoned contemplative, being stuck up a tower in the middle of Manchester, where it’s probably raining outside, with the world at large frowning, would be a serious challenge to mood, moral and evan sanity.

    BTW. In the late 1970’s I lived not a mile away from the tower, in a block of flats. It was often raining.

  2. 13/07/2009 9:24 pm

    A poem written in honour of your stay in Manchester. I hope you like it.


    Dripping in the House of Memory

    In the upstairs kitchen tap drips
    the one that reminds me of Herbert Huncke
    and the Chelsea Hotel

    In Manchester a leak in the roof
    provides water to be collected in a glass
    and thought about

    Hermit white room a House of memory
    40 days 40 nights without human contact

    Even you tramps and beggars
    Thank you Manchester
    Everyone needs some help at times
    even you

    What’s with the bunny in the window?
    The nature of mind is clear light

    There is contact I see the Hermitage
    at this time of night the laptop screen lights
    the way to the hermit

    • 15/07/2009 5:26 pm

      I love it Andrew.
      You’re right. I’m here by the hospitality of the grateful dead.
      In the best company.
      Herbert Huncke, the first dropout, dripping out.
      Tramps, beggars, bums on saints.
      Thank you. Thank you Manchester. We love you.
      I don’t know whose laptop window it is. My pane or yours?
      And is there anything in between?
      Just clear light.
      A white rabbit.

      • 15/07/2009 5:39 pm

        Glad you like the poem Mr Hermit. I’m sure Huncke would approve of your stay in Manchester.

        The laptop screen was yours. I could see the reflection getting brighter on your face as the dark descended on the tower.

        It was good to write while watching the evening unfold around you.

  3. Marnie Leist permalink
    14/07/2009 9:56 pm

    Isn’t reflection amazing? While your criticism may be considered harsh, there is most definitely an element of reality. Only a small percentage of objects in museum’s are available to the public. While many museums open their doors to researchers, inquiring visitors, and their own staff (!), many do not. Most museum workers I have encountered work hard to engage the community, strive for professionalism, and go beyond what is expected. However, the history of museums (and archaeology, etc.) reveals that there is a darker side, one where objects like the ones you are presenting are simply disrespected via neglect. It may not be intentional, but it is still the fault of the institution. In general, most museums are like the Manchester Museum, working to correct deficiencies and trying to be good stewards. For example, here at the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in Kodiak, Alaska we serve outlying villages by offering small traveling exhibits, art workshops, and language programs. We work with museums internationally to bring context and perspective to their once “art” collections, which are now recognized as spiritually complex objects of cultural heritage with meaning and significance to contemporary Alutiiq people. And our archaeologist is here in Kodiak, and the research and collections stay here in Kodiak and are available to the Alutiiq and Kodiak community. This may seem commonplace, but archaeology and museums definitely had a bad name in the community. Archaeologists came to Kodiak, dug up everything (including Alutiiq ancestors or even close relatives) and took the collections and knowledge far way. So while we are working to do our good, you are doing your part, and it seems Mr. McGhie is doing his.

  4. 15/07/2009 5:02 pm

    Dear Marnie,

    Thank you so much for you fascinating perspective. It is wonderfully inspiring to hear about the role that a museum can play in healing past injustices.
    It seems to me that we are at a very delicate point in our global culture when we have a chance to begin again in a new way. Perhaps this does sometimes mean saying sorry for past mistakes. In Kodiak, where unbridled commercialism over the last couple of hundred years forced native animals and people to the brink of extinction, a museum such as yours must surely play a very important healing role.
    And that healing should not remain confined to the Alutiiq people, who no doubt have their own strength to rebuild. Ultimately contemporary Alutiiq people, and many other long-lived civilizations like them, have a duty to fulfill as museums themselves. Not trapped in cases, but actively transmitting insights through their arts, languages and practices, from which the rest of us must urgently learn.

    I wonder if there are any Alutiiq artefacts here in Manchester? Steve?

  5. Stephen Welsh permalink
    16/07/2009 12:25 pm

    Although the North American collection at the Manchester Museum isn’t particualrly large, as compared with that of Africa or Oceania for example, it contains a culturally diverse range of objects that span the entire continent. At this very moment Martin Schultz, a visiting researcher from the Frankfurt World Cultures Museum, is actually examining a selection of quill work, some of which is almost over 200 years old!

    There are some 50 objects from Alaska, a considerable amount of which was collected by a Rochdale businessman called Charles Heape and donated in 1922. Heape was what can best be described as an ‘armchair anthropologist’ as he collected the majority of his 1500 objects via auction houses and missionaries. He was however more conscious than most Victorian collectors in making sure that the provenance of each of the objects was as accurate as possible. Hence many of his Alaskan objects are specifically attributed to the Inupiat of Nunivak Island.

    The Museum is acutely aware of the concerns of source communities, both on a professional and personal level, in the interpretation, collection, and retention of their material culture. George Bankes, my predecessor, left selected objects out of a display on beadwork after consultation with the All Nations Forum. In collaboration with the Forum he also organised a loan of material to Bury Art Gallery and Museum for an exhibtion called ‘The First Americans’. Most recently, as part of the ongoing Collective Conversations project, a film was shot with Kahente Horn-Miller, a Canadian Mohawk, who uses the Museum Mohawk material to discuss beadwork skills but also her people’s struggle for political self-determination and cultural expression. This film can actually be viewed on YouTube at but also in the Living Cultures gallery along with some of the objects that were used in the discussion.

    The very fact that my title is Curator of Living Cultures reflects the Museum’s determination to proactively work in collaboration with living cultures from whom cultural material was extracted. This is something that I am particularly passionate about, there is without doubt a social work element to my role, and I love it!

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