The Angelica Garnett Gift as Autobiography
Museums are perhaps at their most interesting when not characterised too rigidly. On one level they are housed collections of objects. Yet examined from another perspective, one sees cabinets of stories instead, contained in ‘incredibly soft and conceptual places, knitted together by ideas and founded on the strong emotions of their collectors – love, hate, fear, yearning and admiration.’ In this sense museums and their collections can be read as a three dimensional language, formed by ideas and shaped into narratives, consequently the Angelica Garnett Gift can be understood as an autobiography, a portrait of the lives and times of the Bloomsbury group.
CHA/P/591/3. Sketchbook, Duncan Grant, date unknown, assorted sketches and lists, pencil and biro on paper, bound in orange card with brown cloth spine. 15.4 cm X 24.5 cm. © The Charleston Trust.
CHA/P/591/5. Sketchbook, Duncan Grant, date unknown, assorted sketches and lists, pencil and biro on paper, bound in orange card with brown cloth spine. 15.4 cm X 24.5 cm. © The Charleston Trust.
As evident just from the two pictures above, the gift is very varied in content thus far. What is striking in engaging professionally with this archive is how articulate these studies and supporting works are; comprising pictures of animals, children’s scribbles, shopping lists, sketched scenes of lovemaking, notes hastily written then partly erased, detailed spectacles of royal inaugurations and much more, all penned in sketchbooks and loose leaf sheets, these pieces summon a unique atmosphere and a time, and reveal a specific tone of voice – evocative and haunting – giving direct access to the past of Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and the others in a manner that could never be achieved in an autobiographical written work or film. It is in the way that these works come together to produce an atmosphere and insight into the lives of the ‘Bloomsberries’ that make the Angelica Garnett Gift such a thrilling project to be working on.
 For work that inspired this blog post and the idea of museum archive as autobiography, see: Morris, R., 2012. Imaginary museums: what mainstream museums can learn from them. In: Macleod, S., Hanks, L., and Hale, J., eds. 2012. Museum Making: Narratives, Architectures, Exhibitions. Routledge: London and New York, pp. 5-11.