Archiving Imagination: An Exhibit Review of Uses of Enchantment at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.July 19, 2023
Written by: Mikayla Barney
No longer can museums be activists wearing invisible cloaks. I thought this, standing in the new exhibit, titled Uses of Enchantment: Art and Environmentalism, at the McMichael. If you’ve never been to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection before, it feels like entering a museum from Narnia. The story of the McMichael is something out of a book, it is a story I’ve told hundreds of times before.
Today I return as a visitor to see the unique show featuring 7 different artists, (including Shary Boyle, Carrie Allison, Shuvinai Ashoona, Qavavau Manumie, Bill Burns, Sara Angelucci and Winnie Truong). Named after Freudian psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s 1977 book, the exhibit offers subtle psychoanalysis. It urged me to ask the question, what can museums learn from this exhibit?
Opening with a shimmering font and a wall of detailed illustrations by artist Qavavau Manumie, we are already roped into intrigue. In his artwork Untitled (Whale Transformation), we see a bowhead whale decorated in algae and springs of kelp. Leaking out of its body are the heads of 12 blue birds like drops of water. Museum collections are the big, impressive whales of our industry, but the real star is the kelp, the research and the environmental advocacy.
Whales use kelp as shelter to protect and shield their young during storms. Similarly, museums use research and advocacy as swords to protect, steward and defend the land we value. One museum doing this right is the Canadian Museum of Nature. A team recently went on an arctic expedition, led by Dr. Amanda Savoie, to study marine microalgae. On this mission, Savoie and her team collected and identified seaweed specimens, updating and adding to old collections gathered in the 1970s and 80s. This on-going project hopes to map and study the ecology of arctic kelp forests. Savoie notes that no scientists have dived to observe an actual kelp forest yet. Imagine being the first person to discover a secret kelp forest, to unearth the first T.rex, or to step foot on the moon. Deep down everyone wants to be a superhero.
Let’s dig into the psychology of that. The lure of getting to hold priceless artefacts and the mystery of collections rooms draws a lot of people into the museum field. To paraphrase Oregon professor Ben Saunders in his 2011 book Do Gods Wear Capes, the story people tell about museums is simply that, a fantasy. We must de-brick our materialistic and institutionalised castles for imaginary ones. We are at a tipping point, where more than our ice caps are disappearing, but our heritage is too. In 2021, the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador in partnership with the Craft Council published an influential report, stating that 32 different crafts are at risk of going extinct. The endangerment of net making and mending in particular pulls at my heartstrings. When I look at Manumie’s Untitled work of the humpback whale tangled in nets, I see reality. For the younger generation, we know that something has been lost in translation. Instead of learning how to weave a fishing net from our grandfathers, we follow a tutorial on YouTube. But how can museums mend the frayed ends of a tapestry that is disappearing beneath our fingertips? Simple, we have to turn the whole thing inside out.
That is exactly what Sarah Angelucci’s photography captures. In the gallery there is a low rumbling, sounds of guttural calls and coos; you feel like you’re standing in the belly of a bird. Provocative and anthropomorphic, the photographs are portraits of extinct birds laid over top of vernacular unknown faces. It might surprise you to know that 150 species of birds have gone extinct in the last 500 years. Scientists speculate that if something doesn’t happen that one-third of all birds will be gone by the end of the century. A very frightening thought. If this scenario plays out the way it is predicted, then museums will need a far more advanced way of remembering and archiving things. While this ghostly anonymity makes Angelucci’s works beautiful, it is exactly what is killing museums.
We need to watch out for the third of three feathers. If you’re not in-the-know, it is well accepted among museum professionals that there is an uprising coming for our industry. Everyone can hear the murmurs and feel it in the air. Museums are deaccessioning objects faster and more widely than ever before in history. For those who shake in their boots at the thought of empty collection shelves, know that the war is not to loot your collections, but rather to map them. Right now there are no deaccessioning guidelines on a national level to study, track, measure or compare what museums across Canada are getting rid of. Every year the Canadian government spends money and resources to study and measure our changing climate, but no comprehensive report like this exists for museums. A research study was done in Europe to see how museums have changed their approach to deaccessioning over the last 10 years. The conclusion; these changes are happening, but they are subtle and not formalised. Like an iceberg, many museum professionals are frozen in place, happy with the informal, opaque way of doing things.
This battle is one of words and policy. As the chorus sings, and the many voices overlap, they transform and bleed into the works of Shary Boyle. Silky, smooth porcelain pieces anchor down the technicolour paintings on the walls, which cascade across the room like kites on a mission to attack the sun. From cosmos to sea, Boyle drops an atomic bomb on something which has been on everyone’s mind: Climate change.
Humans seem to be fascinated by destruction, and this hunger is only growing. In the last 50 years, there have been 5x more apocalyptic films made since the pre-1970s. And this might soon become a self-fulling prophecy. In the next 25 years, scientists predict an increase in extremes, of rain and of drought. It might come as great flooding downpours or very hot, dry days. In fact, AI was used to predict what many of our major cities might look like in the next 70 years, and Toronto is not so far off from Boyle’s nightmare depiction.
The resemblance is uncanny between the AI rendering in Boyle’s ink piece The Great Flood, with its billowy storm clouds, and lava-oozing sky which basks a soft pink hue onto heavy marble sculptures being carried away on precarious tiny boats. The seas aren’t parting anytime soon. If we don’t do something soon, climate change will sneak up on us like that first whiff of salty air that burns and stings your nose. Boyle’s artworks remind us of something we might soon see on the late night news, and those lines between fantasy and reality will continue to blur as the smog grows. So, are we wrong to be optimistic about the future?
It depends on who you ask. If you ask me, I choose to believe in magic. If you want to be told an enchanting story, visit a museum. Maybe don’t ask a psychologist. As sea levels rise, coral reefs die, oceans acidify and forests burn, it’s no wonder we turn to stories to cope. Being the brave sword-wielding knights or the gold-hoarding greedy dragons in basements, museums know the value of telling stories all too well. To forge an unbreakable connection between man and nature, museums must weave protective blankets, turn worlds inside out and sail across vast unknown seas.
See the adventure unfold, by visiting Uses of Enchantment: Art and Environmentalism at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario. The exhibit is open until October 29th 2023.
McMichael Canadian Art Collection. The Uses of Enchantment: Art and Environmentalism Curatorial Talk. YouTube. May 18 2023.
Rosie Prata. At the McMichael, Artists Spin Ecological Anxiety into Fairy Tales in The Uses of Enchantment. Nuvo Magazine. May 11 2023.
McMichael Website.The Uses of Enchantment Exhibit. Accessed 2023.
Wikipedia. The Uses of Enchantment. Accessed 2023.
Anna Faherty. Why do stories matter to museums and how can museums become better storytellers? Museum Next Website. January 25 2023.
Marina Gross-Hoy. Storytelling: The Real Work of Museums, an inspiring article by Leslie Bedford. February 20 2017.
Britannica. Bruno Bettleheim. Accessed 2023.
CAFKA. Shary Boyle. Accessed 2023.
Inuit Art Foundation. Qavavau Manumie. Accessed 2023.
Stephen Bulger Gallery. Sarah Angelucci. Accessed 2023.
Canadian Museum of Nature. Diving Expedition in the Arctic. September 6 2022.
Heritage NL. Craft at Risk. April 2023. Accessed 2023.
Noah Berlatsky. Why Do People Like Superheroes? Don’t Ask a Psychologist. The Atlantic. July 16 2013. Accessed 2023.
Wikipedia. List of extinct bird species since 1500. Accessed 2023.
Dieuwertje Wijsmuller. Deaccessioning & disposal in Europe 2008-2017: A research on possibilities and attitudes across the European Member States. Mondrian Fund. 2017. Accessed 2023. https://www.museumsanddeaccessioning.com/wp-content/uploads/Deaccessioning-disposal-Europe-2008-2017-D.-Wijsmuller.pdf
Rhythm Sachdeva. AI tool reveals what cities could look like in 2100 if climate goals not met. CTV News. November 7 2022. Accessed 2023. https://www.ctvnews.ca/climate-and-environment/ai-tool-reveals-what-cities-could-look-like-in-2100-if-climate-goals-not-met-1.6142698
Bob Weber. Canada in 2050 looks hotter, wetter, more extreme: experts. Toronto Star. February 29 2016. https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2016/02/29/canada-in-2050-looks-hotter-wetter-more-extreme-experts.html#:~:text=By%202050%20%E2%80%94%20within%20the%20life,by%20about%20five%20per%20cent