Kill Your Darlings, an exhibition opening this weekend at Perth Museum & Art Gallery, will invite members of the public to vote for their most valued object from a selection of items drawn from across the collections. The project aims to question what a museum collection is and who it is for.
At the end of the 12-week show, the object with the lowest number of votes will be symbolically "destroyed" on the plaza outside the museum as part of a public discussion about the nature of value.
The exhibition is the culmination of artist Anthony Schrag’s time as artist-in-residence at Culture Perth & Kinross. He spoke to Museums Journal about the inspiration behind the project – and what items he would choose to keep or destroy.
What gave you the idea for Kill your Darlings?
My practice is socially engaged and I’m less concerned with making art objects and more interested in using artistic process as a way to reflect on interesting social phenomena. My research is generally focused on how artistic practices can ask “useful” difficult questions within organisations. Generally, that means needing to be quite responsive to the context, and not having any preconceived notions about a context.
As such, when I started conversations with Culture Perth and Kinross about this project, way back in 2019, I became aware of its amazing museum collection - a collection of national significance! - but began wondering how such an amazing resource can be more accessible to the public.
It does, after all, belong to the citizens of Perth and Kinross, but the vast majority is kept very safely behind secure, locked, climate-controlled doors. As such, I wanted to explore how we could make the museum collection more public. To do this, I needed to figure out how the organisation operated and in what ways the management might hinder or allow more access.
In what ways does the exhibition reflect your time as artist-in-residence at Culture Perth and Kinross?
To do this, I undertook a residency where I basically became a staff member. I sat in their offices, went to meetings, etc, but all the while, I was developing conversations, making propositions or provocations that encourage conversations in a way that might challenge how the organisation functions.
The title comes from William Faulkner who suggests that when writing a novel, one must “kill all your darlings” - often, that’s misinterpreted to mean “kill the things you love”, but it’s actually about being aware that there might be things you love that are not useful for where you want to go.
As such, I wanted to know how the museum collection could “kill its darling” and what that might mean? What are the things that we love and we keep, but that might not be helpful in getting to where we’d like to be?
That’s true of the objects within the museum collection – and Culture Perth and Kinross is already wrestling in meaningful and open ways about the things within the collection that have been taken from other cultures, for example – but what is more interesting to me are the management structures, the infrastructure of the organisation.
In this way, there’s a two-pronged approach to the work I’m doing - one is about the public reflecting on their own museum collection (as managed by Culture Perth and Kinross) and what “value” these objects have.
This is reflected in the exhibition and is intentionally difficult because what I might consider the most valuable will be different from you, but that is the nature of the public realm.
It’s fundamentally about diversity and difference, and a museum collection needs to reflect that. And it’s not bad at all that there will be conflicts and difference. Indeed, as Rosalind Deutsche says: "Conflict instability and division do not ruin the democratic sphere: they are the conditions of its existence.”
In other words, if we all believed the same thing and valued the exact same things, then that’s not a free, democratic space, it’s oppressive. So opening that choice of value to the public provides a really interesting space to talk about democracy, power, values, passions and rights.
The other prong is how the museum managers and Culture Perth and Kinross staff adjust to this provocation about value and ask how are the values of certain individuals – white? male? – being privileged over others? How is the collection of certain types of objects telling certain stories at the detriment of others? Whose voices are missing within the collection? How can the collection itself be exclusionary? What is value? How are their individual values actually overriding others? Can you really make an exhibition for everyone? If not, are you excluding someone? Is that right for a public organisation?
These are not easy questions, but I think they are important to ask.
How did you choose which objects to include in the installation?
The collection has hundreds of thousands of items, and if I had all the time, space and money in the world, I would have put them ALL on display, but there were obvious practical limitations.
As such, I worked with the collection managers to choose representative items from each of the major sections; for example, from the natural history section I have a few incredible taxidermy specimens, but also some very interesting scientific models; from the archaeology section there are clay pipes excavated in Perth, but also interesting glass items from Syria; or from the fine art section, there are some paintings as well as local glass craft made in the thirties.
While I don’t have everything, there are certainly items that are representative of those within the collection.
What are you hoping the public and the museum will get out of this thought experiment?
What I hope is that both the public and the museum get space to reflect on what a museum collection is – or should be – and how it might work differently. Art is, after all, about “disruptive imagination” and I don’t profess to have the right answers: I just want to provide an interesting break in the normal functioning of life to explore interesting questions.
If you were to choose an object from any museum collection for destruction, what would it be?
There are a few unnecessary paintings, and I would like to choose the Henry Raeburn painting of William Clunes in the Scottish National Gallery, as this has image has haunted me through several projects in my life. Knowing something of the subject, I think I’d find a perverse pleasure in punching a hole through it.
That said, as I am a born contrarian – isn’t that the role of the artist? – I want to suggest an item that the museum MUST keep: it is a taxidermied porpoise that was not well preserved and seems to be leaking blubber. This makes it seem both still “alive” but also more tragically “dead”.
It's as if there is life still somehow within this item and it is neither fixed as a frozen tableau, nor as a living entity. This complicates not only what it is and why it is kept, but also how a museum might feasibly store and keep it in this exact condition for generations to come.