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.