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Happiness is a New Idea - Nicola Maxwell: The Backhouse Enquiry

Nicola Maxwell: 'The Backhouse Enquiry'

Exhibition dates: 17 July - 17 October 2015    

Assisted by Mike Davidson.

The exhibition will be displayed site-wide throughout the City Library and Arts Centre.

Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens is the oldest public museum outside of London. The Museum's holdings of natural science and natural history artefacts originated in 1810, and include the collection of Edward Backhouse (1808-1879), a Victorian philanthropist and Quaker.

Nicola Maxwell's project presents the results of a year-long photographic investigation into Backhouse's archive in Sunderland Museum's collection. It takes the form of a trail of images stationed throughout the City Library and Arts Centre, leading to a collectors' editioned book that visitors can handle themselves, as if an exhibit or precious and rare specimen. 

Maxwell examines the Victorian desire to classify and order the natural world around us - and the need to see each and every object in it as the infallible evidence of God's handiwork. Each of the photographs reveals a natural specimen in extraordinary, oddly hyper-real detail. Each is presented against a plain, stark black or white ground akin to a veil or velvet cloth, under a strongly raking light that throws the objects into relief as though they were highly tactile sculptures. It is, almost, as though Maxwell's camera had brought back to life a series of 150-year old species. The objects seem - in the beliefs they were supposed to testify to - as unfathomably remote and exotic as dinosaur fossils.

These ordinary objects, including fern leaves, were lovingly - obsessively - collected by Backhouse for future generations to know the world by - or rather, to see it through his eyes. In our own time, 150 years later, we now know that even some relatively ordinary species of flora are becoming threatened - or marginalised and confined to the margins of urban life in the face of pollution and suburban sprawl.

Maxwell's photographs are, then, contemporary memento mori, amongst other things - works of mourning for an idea of nature we can scarcely credibly recover, and for an ideal of man's power to know and control which might seem laughable - if the results of it were not also tragic.

Today, the grounds of Edward Backhouse's family home, now called Backhouse Park, opened to the public in 1923 and still exists as an arboretum that includes many of Sunderland's largest mature trees. Sunderland Museum has become one of the most popular museums in the whole country measured by civic population, attracting over 300,000 visits every year. 

Happiness is a New Idea

'Happiness is a New Idea' is a building-wide exhibition that is a collaboration between the City Library and Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art. It will be realized in quarterly instalments over the next three years from April 2014 to April 2017. Between now and 2017 the building will host new artworks - often of unconventional forms - on every floor. The artworks will not only be on walls, but inside books, in study rooms, on computer desktops - and in other places where one might least expect them.

Many of the artworks explore what our public libraries and galleries have in common. Libraries and galleries are, arguably, the greatest civic inheritance bequeathed to us by our Victorian predecessors. Both are free and for everyone - forever. Both offer everyone the chance to learn about other ideas and other beliefs, from other places and other times. They are the only spaces in a city that require nothing from us but our imagination. Costing us nothing, they ask us what are values are, and invite us into other possible worlds. But in a world awash with things rather than ideas, can we still recognize the difference between value and cost?

The title 'Happiness is a New Idea' celebrates the fact that every visit to a library or gallery can plant the seed of a new idea in our minds. The phrase was coined in the heady days of the French Revolution - at what seemed the first moment at which ideals might become reality, and when it seemed genuinely possible to many that we might envisage each another as equals.

'Happiness is a new idea' is based around the interchanges between text and image, and between artists and writers. In the twenty-first century many artists use text as their main means of expression. Many writers also include images in their books. Both rely on print to disseminate their ideas - whether through texts, photographs, etchings, or engravings. Despite the promise of infinite connectivity that digital technologies offer, print still underwrites our existence. Every legal document, every transfer of property, every Act of Parliament, and almost every book, are made of ink stamped on paper.



Image: courtesy of Nicola Maxwell