Irene F. Whittome

Irene F. Whittome’s Musée des Traces (Museum of Traces), is an artist’s museum—a site for the perservation of objects and the restructuring of the past. Filled with selected artifacts, the Musée des Traces adopts the physical structure of the museum, to serve as a repository of the artist’s experiences. Reconstructed as an installation at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Whittome’s Museum evolved between 1985 and ’89 and was first exhibited in an unused garage in Montreal. In its current form, the installation serves as a museum within a museum, mirroring our desire to order and identify while questioning the role of the museum in this process.

The installation consists of a single 400-square-foot room that resembles a compressed ethnographic museum with its specimens mounted on shelves or displayed in cases. Photographic documentation of urban renewal in Montreal and quasi-scientific studies of turtles supplement the objects. Labels identify the artifacts, and small plaques highlight individual items which might go unnoticed. Interestingly, the Museum is rather sparsely arranged, with empty space on the shelves and in the cases, like a wing in some neglected institution.

In the center of the room stands a replica of a giant leatherback turtle. Whittome’s relationship with the turtle image is spiritual. On a 1986 journey to Death Valley, California, she joined a group of astronomers and a shaman, who, during a ritual urged her to evoke an animal archetype that she could identify with; the turtle was the first image that came to her mind. Later, turtles appeared in her dreams, and as a result, the reptile has become a recurrent image in her work, even though the artist’s relationship with the turtle motif is so highly personal that its significance is lost in this repository of anonymous objects.

The collection in Whittome’s Museum is a personal one, based on her relationship with each object. They are traces of a creative past that together form the identity of the artist. Whittome accepts the construct of the museum and seeks to replicate the function of the institution in its attempt to unite dissociated objects, in order that they may provide, for the visitor, a link to the cultural past. Yet Musée des Traces loses ground because it fails to provide a vehicle for the audience to connect with the artifacts. Her selections remain decontextualized. There is no sense of a collective past; rather, the experiences that informed her selection process are kept under lock and key.

Linda Genereux

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