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Curators Corner : Somerset House’s head curator explains why private collectors are hugely important when talking about pop culture

As senior curator at London’s iconic Somerset House for the past 15 years, Claire Catterall is no stranger to the challenging job of finding the perfect pieces to tell the story. Writing here exclusively for MAG, she unpicks the process behind the making of The Horror Show, her latest exhibition and how keeping your own ephemera can play a key part in this process.

Bending the rules of exhibition-making

The show departed from traditional exhibition-making ‘rules’, blurring the lines between art, music and pop culture ephemera, using the distinct tone of voice of a narrator or storyteller, and not being afraid of using language that was lyrical and sometimes a little obtuse. Of course, there were captions, but these played on the idea of typological documentation and cataloguing, acting almost as a prop, and giving very brief perfunctory details. By not being too didactic we hoped people would make their own connections and discoveries, and we gave them the tools to make those connections.

Cabinets of Curiosity

Playing on this idea of the old-fashioned ‘catalogue’, throughout the show we built what we call ‘Haunted Constellations’, which are essentially ‘cabinets of curiosity’, that are filled with resonant items from the wider pop culture of the period – things that hold meaning and have the capacity to tell incredible stories and unlock a deeper understanding of the sub-cultures of the time. We were sort of riffing off the idea of an ethnographic British Museum showcase, or something you would find in the Pitt Rivers – a vitrine full of items from an archaeological dig. Though, of course, just as the items in the Pitt Rivers are in reality everyday things given great value through the cultures they illuminate, so our items are little more than the ephemera of our ordinary lives, yet they hold the secret to telling and understanding our incredible stories.

It’s often the case that people keep things for sentimental reasons, perhaps not realising what insights these things reveal. Once they understood the sort of talismanic quality of the things we were after, they unlocked their treasure troves for us.

For us, the fingerprint of the owner was key. We wanted to source things that had a history; that had belonged to someone, had been touched by them, read by them, heard by them, loved by them. Often (not always!) institutional archive collections can be strangely sanitised and de-personalised.

Revealing hIdden histories

We had 9 of these cabinets of curiosity in all, so there were quite a few objects to source. We borrowed a couple of things from libraries and archives, such as Anthony Burgess’s original film script for A Clockwork Orange (which was never filmed) from the Kubrick Archive at the London College of Communication, but most items came from individual lenders. We also borrowed items from collectors who had amassed their own private archives, such as Lee Oliver, Toby Mott, Chris Low, Adam Scovell and John Hirschhorn-Smith. These were such incredibly rich resources for the kind of material we were after and we raided them greedily. Often they point you in the direction of things you weren’t necessarily aware of, but are incredibly important. And we loved the idea of revealing these ‘hidden’ histories that sometimes don’t make it into the official narrative.

Most of these collections have been amassed over their lifetimes and the connection to it is personal, so you’re much more likely to find the unusual and rare stuff in collections like this – things that don’t usually survive but they’ve kept. And, of course, their level of knowledge about and understanding of their material is invaluable.

  1. Installation view of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange film script and Philip Castle’s sketches for the film’s poster, as seen in the “Teenage Rampage” cabinet in The Horror Show! at Somerset House © Tim Bowditch.

  2. Installation view of John Balance’s Stabmental, cassettes, and Steven Stapleton’s original artwork for Nurse with Wound’s Chance meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella (1978), as seen in the “Misrule Brittania” cabinet in The Horror Show! at Somerset House © Tim Bowditch

  3. Installation view of objects related to Coil and Cyclobe, on loan from musician Ossian Brown, alongside John Balance’s copy of Book of Pleasure, gifted to him by Derek Jarman, as seen in the “Lucid Dreaming” cabinet of The Horror Show! at Somerset House © Tim Bowditch