Category Archives: Painted Ivory Casket

Installing at the Science Museum

© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.

In writing this last blog post, I’m bringing my Illuminating Objects internship to a close; the ivory box is now on display at the Science Museum!

On 5th June before the Science Museum opened for the day, we installed the box in its new home on the second floor of the museum, where it’ll stay until early 2020. The installation process may sound simple – how difficult can it be to put the box in place? But it actually requires the expertise and help of a lot of different people, including the registrars, designers, gallery services, conservators, exhibition project managers, curators, and the marketing teams to take some photos!

A full conservation report needs to be done right before the box is installed, so that there is a record of exactly what condition it’s in. Then another one will be done afterwards to make sure that nothing has changed.

© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.

There was also a lot of work that went on behind the scenes before we could install it. The paint and the ivory of the casket are sensitive to bright light, because the paint could fade, and the ivory could become discoloured and brittle under harsh lights. The lighting both inside and outside the case needed to be measured and adjusted so that it wasn’t too bright, and then once we had it installed, we changed the lights again slightly so that the box would be well-lit.

The text panels also had to be put up, and then finally, the box had to be positioned. The positioning took a lot of tweaks because we wanted all four sides to be visible—some of the most beautiful paintings, including the bird of paradise, are on the back. It had to be centred, the mounts had to be put in place to keep the box open, and we had to decide on the angle to show it at. Then at last, we all stepped back to take a look, and it looked perfect!

It actually looked even better than I expected: the box has a secret, spring-loaded drawer in one of the sides, but it was stuck closed. But just a few days before installing, The Courtauld’s chief conservator Graeme Barraclough figured out how to get it open, so we could show it off! It’s not such a ‘secret’ drawer anymore, now that it’s on display. But showing the box with that drawer open makes me even more curious about what the box was originally made to hold.

The end of my internship with The Courtauld Gallery is bittersweet—even after all of the research that went into this project, I probably could have kept researching the ivory box for many more months! But I’m also glad that now it’s on display for many more people to see it.

You can find the casket on Level 2 of the Science Museum, between Mathematics: The Winton Gallery and Information Age.

Choosing an object to illuminate

The Courtauld Gallery has been closed for Courtauld Connects since I started my Illuminating Objects internship. That means that picking an object for my project was quite a bit different for me than for past interns!

Before selecting the ivory box as my object, we experimented with the different ways it could be displayed

The objects are all in storage, so I couldn’t look at them directly in my first few days. Instead, I combed through files and research about the objects. The files contain pictures, data on the provenance, materials, historical context, and lots of other research.

After spending some time with these files, I was able to visit the objects in person! I’d picked out a few objects from the files that I had learned a bit about, and thought were really interesting, and knew I wanted to see.

After seeing the photos, I knew that I wanted to see the ivory box in person—I found the animal and plant paintings fascinating. Some of my favourite paintings are by A.Y. Jackson, one of the Canadian Group of Seven, a group of landscape artists from the 20th century. He painted scenes of trees and lakes and forests in Northern Canada where I grew up, and I always found it fascinating to compare what nature looked like in his paintings and what I saw when I looked at it with my own eyes. Art that tries to capture nature has always been my favourite. That was why I knew I wanted to consider selecting and researching the ivory box—it captures and depicts things in nature, just like some of my favourite paintings.

But seeing the objects in person, there were even more items in the collection that caught my eye. In particular, there was a tea set made by Samuel Courtauld I housed in a shagreen box, a pharmacy jar made to hold “syrup of apples” which used to be used as a medicine, and a gorgeous green pitcher with a fish scale design.

I nearly chose to research this beautiful 18th century tea set made by Samuel Courtauld.

I wanted to research all of them! But I had to choose two to pitch and ultimately only one to research and display. The ivory box and the tea set were the ones that made the cut. I learned a lot about the tea set when researching it—Did you know that even though most people think that shagreen is leather made from sharkskin, it actually most often comes from stingrays? Or that tea was so expensive when it was first imported to England, that it was often kept locked up in special caddies? Or that climate change has the potential to threaten tea production in some areas of the world?

But as interesting as the other options were, the mystery surrounding this ivory box — who owned it, who made it, and what the paintings were based upon or inspired by — was too exciting to pass up. And it was definitely the right choice; every time I see it, I think it’s even more beautiful than it was the last time I saw it.  

Coming soon, Illuminating Objects at the Science Museum!

ivory casket detail

I’m Katrina, the current Illuminating Objects intern!  Allow me to introduce myself, and explain a bit about what I’ve been up to at The Courtauld Gallery for the past few months.

Here’s me – but not at The Courtauld Gallery, because the Gallery is currently undergoing a major transformation!

It’s been an interesting experience to work at a gallery that I’ve never actually visited! I first moved to London to start my Masters of Science Communication degree at Imperial College London in October 2018. That was after the Courtauld had already closed to begin Courtauld Connects, and being from Canada, I’d never had a chance to visit the gallery prior to this. So I’ve never seen The Courtauld’s collections on display, but through Illuminating Objects I have had the unique chance to get an amazing ‘behind the scenes’ look at the collection.

This year’s internship opportunity is a bit different from previous ones, because it is the first to collaborate between The Courtauld Gallery and the Science Museum. While The Courtauld Gallery is undergoing renovations, the Illuminating Objects displays will be at the Science Museum. This means I’ve had a really interesting opportunity to show my chosen object in a new light, and to think about its’ scientific and technological history. I have an academic background in chemistry with a minor in collaborative design, so the partnership between these two museums means that I’ve been able to combine my interests in the arts and sciences, all in one project.

With chemistry as my main focus in my undergrad, I had to put some of my interests in the arts on pause.  But then I had the chance to work on an interactive exhibit in 2017; I helped create a display that taught about cognitive biases we face when gambling. It was just a small exhibit on my university campus, but I found it really exciting to see visitors go through it and come out saying that they learned something. After that I was totally hooked—I knew I wanted to explore the world of museums much more! So when the opportunity to apply for the Illuminating Objects internship came up not long into my Masters degree, I knew I had to apply. 

I realized once I started at The Courtauld Gallery just how much I had to learn about art history and curation —my chemistry background certainly hadn’t covered anything in those disciplines! I had to get caught up on even some fairly basic terms, like the difference between collections and archives, and what the word “provenance” really means.

But I think I learned the basics pretty quickly and have found some fascinating things about the object I’ve been researching. With only one month left until my object goes on display, I’m excited to finally be able to share what I’ve been working on!