Eggs and the loss of potential by Edie Jolley



Thinking about the egg collection held by Bankfield, derived from a variety of birds such as ibis, cormorant, puffin and purple heron, I am struck by the loss of potential which is inherent in the act of collecting, which seeks to order the world according to defined protocols and present objects in a graspable pattern. In order for the classifiable signifier to be preserved unaltered, the mutable potential of life must necessarily be discarded. The preservation of the shell for the purpose of collection, as a data point in a process which attempts to represent the world around it in an objective way, denies existence to the potential chick which must break the shell to emerge. Must potential be removed for us to classify and understand the world? Is the shell a reification of the idea of a bird or simply detritus which illuminates a moment in a process? Emotions are inherent in our response to these objects. In the past, specimens of birds and their eggs were collected for both scientific and cultural reasons. Today it would be looked upon as transgressive and illegal to take and destroy the young of birds. Even to display these objects as of historical interest representational of a bygone attitude to the living world would be unacceptable to some.


My musings led me to think about another occasion when I had been working with a collection of more much more emotive objects. I attended a workshop in July at UCL entitled Artists in the Medical Museum. Here a small group was allowed to sketch and photograph medical specimens. It was an amazing and somewhat shocking privilege to be able to look at preserved foetuses in great detail and see the delicacy and beauty of these unrealised human souls. The loss of potential life was heavy in the air as we sketched and wondered over these tiny beings. Again I was struck by the ubiquity of our desire to collect, this time ostensibly for the purposes of medical training and research, and to feel the power of the object to represent unrealised potential.

As part of the workshop we discussed how artists have used pathology specimens in their work; what might be considered acceptable and unacceptable use and how consent can be given in full knowledge of how donations may one day be displayed. Many of the more challenging specimens, such as those of foetuses, were historical and if consent was given in the past, evidence of it would probably have been lost by now.

These sobering thoughts helped me reflect on how to approach a work involving the egg collection at Bankfield. The medical specimens at UCL, denied life by the circumstances of their development, displayed their lost potential to us in dramatic form. They were still themselves in many ways and had form and character that demanded empathy and respect, awe almost. The egg shells, representations of a deliberate denial of life are more enigmatic. They signify that something has been lost, but it is in no way obvious from the object itself what this is. It is only from the deliberate act of labelling that even the species of bird can be discerned. The body or potential for form has been removed and only the marked shells remain. This leaves me wondering about these unrealised forms. Although the realised birds would have been long dead by now, something would have existed if only for a brief period.


I hope that further exploration of the potential removed from these shells will inform my complex feelings regarding collections and the secret life of these objects and allow me to contribute to the forthcoming exhibition.


Eggshells and insects by Edie Jolley


I visited Bankfield Museum in June and photographed some interesting items from the natural history collection that are not currently on display. I was drawn in particular to the antiquarian eggshell and insect collections and also to a box of labels.

The Eggshells

The eggshells appeared to me to represent an interesting dichotomy in that they are almost perfectly preserved containers for an object (ie. a chick) but without that object ever having been present. However, if the eggshells had been able to perform their natural function, and their contents had been allowed to reach their potential as adult birds, they would have been destroyed long ago. Their very existence is a contradiction.

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The Labels

I also came across a small box of labels which had ‘misplaced’ their associated objects. The nest-like jumble of these incomplete objects suggested an interesting way to display the eggshells by juxtaposing these lost labels with the pristine, but objectless, eggshells.

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The Insects

The insect collections were largely decayed and had typically been damaged by other insects. They seem to me to be an exercise in illuminating how little of an object is required to suggest its existence. The dragonflies in particular demonstrated a similarity to fossils, which is a consequence of the robustness of the thick chitin of their wing veins.  I am also interested in the idea of exploring what kind of objects constitute a display suitable for public viewing. Do the objects have to be pristine exemplars of their kind? If not, what different experience might this provoke?

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Starting points by Edie Jolley 


How can an object have a secret life? It is surely inert, uncomprehending, a non-subject. And yet, the things we make, collect, preserve, grow attached to have their own histories. Many of these histories are not open to our understanding, in fact, most are not. They are forgotten and usually opaque to our gaze. Yet the object carries these histories in some way unfathomable to us in any direct way. These past lives are realities of the past, even if untouchable in the present.


Do we imbue an object with our own stories around our curation of it? It may appeal aesthetically, remind us of something or someone or represent an idea or belief. What of the previous owners’ stories as an attractant? Why are objects curated at all? From one point of history, ie now, it may be ‘obvious’. It is rare, extinct, a good example, a series. Equally, it may appear random and without purpose, or incomplete, broken and useless.


Museum collections are particularly interesting, I feel, as they purport to be held for some identifiable reason. They may be of antiquarian/historical/archaeological interest, representative of local or national flora/fauna or cultural practices. These collections of objects, or at least the ones presented on display, have an ostensible purpose – to inform. However, many objects held in museums are incomplete, broken, partial or deemed culturally sensitive and are not displayed. These are the objects that intrigue me and which I will be using as starting points for my work.


I am just beginning to think about these ideas and to choose some objects from the Bankfield Museum collection 

The objects chosen will become part of a joint exhibition titled ‘The Secret Life of Objects’ which we hope will be on view towards the end of 2017.


Further reading:

The artist Mark Dion explores the juxtaposition of museum objects, their assemblage and interpretation in this:
This Guardian article explores the psychology of collecting.
Here Susan Pearce reflects on the urge to collect, amongst many other interesting essays: