In March 2013, a fire devastated Southwark’s Cuming Museum, a building in Elephant and Castle holding one of London’s most eclectic collections. This summer, Peckham Platform has collaborated with artist Janetka Platun to stage an installation inspired by the fire and the museum’s collection and to work with community groups in an exploration of loss and survival.
The museum cares for the worldwide collection of the Cuming family, who lived locally from the late 1700s until 1902. They collected widely from archaeology, ethnography, art and natural history and in 1902 around 20,000 objects were bequeathed to the local parish and a museum opened in the Newington Library building on Walworth Road in 1906. In 2006 it celebrated its centenary and opened new galleries in the adjacent building, Walworth Town Hall.
Cuming: A Natural Selection has arisen from workshops held by Platun with three local groups – families at Peckham Library, a young women’s art group at Camberwell Leisure Centre and a woman’s art group run by Inspire, at St Peter’s Church off the Walworth Road. Each participant was asked to write a short description of an object they had lost but without naming the item. The text was then read out and the group invited to draw what they thought the object was, creating multiple versions, which will be displayed at the gallery.
Platun’s fascination lies in the fact that the Cuming family were not interested in purchasing objects considered fashionable or expensive at the time. Rather they purposely purchased fakes, everyday and ephemeral objects from around the world. The collection includes some of the earliest relics of ancient Egypt brought into Britain, along with objects from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania.
Platun’s project has been an opportunity for the museum’s team and audiences to reflect on the fire, the museum’s collection and provide personal responses to loss. The project is inspired by the objects that were rescued, the objects that miraculously survived and the artifacts that were destroyed. One such lost piece is a figurine of St. Anne, the patron saint of lost objects and those who search for them.
Only one image of the figurine exists, taken from the front; there is no record of what she looked like from the back. Using 3D printing, a relief of St. Anne has been recreated and Platun has hand carved an imaginary back representing each lost object the group creatively responded to.