From the 6th to the 29th of June this year, Somerset House was home to Amy Sharrocks’ Museum of Water. The exhibition was an art installation which saw the artist pool samples of water from the visiting public, and display them in the dripping, atmospheric subterranean corridors directly beneath the courtyard fountain of the famed London centre for art and culture. Sharrocks encouraged visitors to bottle up water, any water, bring it with them to Somerset House, and share the reasons or story behind their selection before donating it to the collection for display. The Museum of Water was a true community project. It was curated by the artist, but it was created by its audience.
So what now? The Museum of Water has been packed up and it will not be re-exhibited until September, 4,000 miles away from the people who produced it, at the Vadehavs Festival in Denmark. The visiting public of London poured a little part of themselves into the museum, only to see it evaporate before them. I am a firm believer that all museums must make efforts to extend their offered experience. The audience must be treated not as just a visitor or a customer, but as a collective community, who can engage and interact with the museum even when they are not in the building. Most people cannot visit museums every day, but they can still be a part of them.
This is especially true of the Museum of Water; its community are literally a part of it. It is not after all, an exhibition about water, it is an exhibition about people. So where then is the post-visit content? The museum is perfectly positioned to exist as an engaging online collection as much as it is a physical one. As a rule, bottles of water have limited visual spectacle. For those of us lucky enough it is nothing unusual either, it literally permeates everyday life. Of course, there are some unusual submissions, such as tears, toothpaste spit and breath condensation, but these too are familiar aspects of daily routine (not the tears, hopefully, but definitely the toothpaste, hopefully). Many of the bottles, jars and other receptacles containing the samples are admittedly interesting too, either for their aesthetics or their oddity. However the real content at the Museum of Water is unseen. It is the mind-set of the donor that is intriguing, the emotions, memories and feelings behind their selection. The visitor does not come to admire the water contained in these bottles, they come to discover the stories that are soaked through them.
The Museum of Water’s website states that over 300 samples have been donated to the collection, of which 225 are available to view in an online gallery. One assumes this is an on-going process and the rest will be uploaded in time. I applaud the exhibition organisers for taking the time to do this, it is a hugely positive endeavour. However it is the stories, not the water that is the exhibitions strength, and these are largely absent from the gallery. At present it is still engaging, but it offers a teasing experience rather than a complete one. It would function perfectly as a pre-visit interaction, but there is currently nothing to then visit. The Museum of Water’s online resource should serve the community who helped create it. It should be an extension of their experience at Somerset House. The stories were obviously communicated by object labels and “Custodians” at the exhibition itself, but what of those that were submitted the following day, that yesterdays audience have missed? Visitors have watered the seeds of Amy Sharrocks’ idea, they should now be witness to what has grown from it.
In fairness, there are some pictures in the online gallery that are accompanied by brief contextual statements or stories, but for the most part the images of the water donated are coupled only with descriptive text that produce a sea of questions and provide few answers. Where are the people beneath the surface of the Museum of Water? What was the reason for the tears, and why make something so personal, so public? Who submitted “water under the bridge” and is there more to it than an admittedly, quite clever pun? There’s surely more to “capsize water” than just a name?
The Museum of Water is fascinating because it is a rare example of interpretation taking primacy over objects, so it has a unique platform upon which to build an engaging post-visit experience. I am under no illusion that nothing should or can take precedent over a physical museum visit, this is especially the case with Amy Sharrocks’ exhibition given that it is an art installation. But if said visit can be positively extended via post-visit engagement then it is essential that institutions endeavour to do so.
The Museum of Water’s online collection is doing absolutely nothing wrong, it is merely missing a golden opportunity to do something really great. For the Museum of Water to disappear from London would be unnatural. Water does not disappear; a pool of water evaporates and returns to earth as rain, spread far and wide, touching entire communities. It will rain in Denmark in September, but it should continue to rain in London too, for it not to really would be unnatural.