That’s exactly what two artists had a chance to do with the collections belonging to Museums Sheffield and the result is a fascinating and offbeat exhibition, What Can Be Seen, that is currently on show at the Millennium Gallery.
The show includes unexpected groupings of objects from across the city’s collections alongside fascinating series of similar items and drawings and behind-the-scenes images taken in the museum stores.
Tim, an artist and writer who is also a member of Sheffield-based theatre company Forced Entertainment, worked with artist Vlatka, originally from Croatia but now based in London, for two years on the project.
Tim said: “The project started out when we were having conversations about the idea of doing something with the Museums Sheffield collection. One of the first things we did was a trip to the storage areas.
“We spent a day with each of the curators and visited the collections and heard about the things they’d got.
“We wanted to make an exhibition that combined official objects on display with a glimpse behind the scenes.”
Tim said that all the collections are represented one way or another. That includes objects and images from archaeology, natural sciences, decorative art, visual art and social history.
Lots of the items on display look just how they were discovered in the stores by Tim and Vlatka.
For instance, a group of beautiful old pocket watches in various states of repair are presented in the packaging that protects them, just as Tim and Vlatka found them in a drawer.
Vlatka said: “The thing that attracted us is how is an object worthy of being displayed. There are guidelines on how an object should be seen.
“We were drawn to how we encountered things in a state of suspension or waiting, hidden from view. They are waiting to be brought out into the light.”
She added: “The museum would never display all of the objects like this but it was interesting to see the diversity.”
A stunning part of the Sorby natural history collection on show is specimens of tiny marine organisms that have been beautifully preserved by being pressed under glass by Victorian naturalist Henry Clifton Sorby.
He devoted his life to studying the natural world and Tim said that perfecting the slides must have become an obsession as it’s such intricate work.
Tim said: “People didn’t understand how he did this and they’re totally fascinated by this still. They’re very beautiful”
Some of the items on display were never meant to be shown, such as a set of barometric readings of wind speed made in June 1960 by the Weston Park weather station.
The records date back to the 19th century, painstakingly recording data every day.
Tim said: “We love them because they are just beautiful. We were very interested in the way that the museum has been getting data about the weather every day.
“It’s an amazing act of care, being focused on getting the detail right.”
A huge display case brings together items from the collections just because Tim and Vlatka thought they worked well artistically together.
It certainly makes you look at the m differently.
Other displays show groups of empty picture frames and objects still in their protective packaging, such as a maquette of George Fullard’s famous Walking Man statue and a classical statue of Diana Robing that used to stand outside Weston Park.