Ilana Halperin: The artist in the museum’s store

Glasgow-based artist Ilana Halperin has been researching and developing ideas for a contemporary art exhibition inspired by National Museums Scotland’s collections. The exhibition, The Library, was open from 24 May-29 September 2013. Over the past few months, she’s been looking through National Museums Scotland’s collections, finding out about minerals, fossils, molluscs and rocks and uncovering some fascinating stories. In this series of blog posts, we share some of the fantastic things she’s found.

Born in New York, USA, in 1973, Ilana Halperin was fascinated by geology and museums at an early age.

“As a child, one of the main places that I went exploring and adventuring was the American Museum of Natural History, specifically the Harry Frank Guggenheim Hall of Minerals. In 1976 the Hall had just been redeveloped and reopened. It had been built to mimic the interior of a cave and all of the rocks and minerals were spot lit. So, even before I started carving stone there was an unadulterated, primary experience of being in this beautiful space where all these beautiful, incredible mysterious things were glittering in the dark.

“In the Hall you could explore and discover things, clamber over huge chunks of copper and jasper. The Hall was actually designed to make you want to climb all over it; the Museum wanted children and adults to interact with the geology. In an article I found about the reopening of the Hall, they even said they wanted people, ‘to touch these specimens, put their arms around them, fall in love with them.’ OK, very 1970s, but I guess you could say that I’m a case study for a success story. Because that incredible feeling of encountering these rocks and minerals, and having access to them like that, definitely had a huge impact on my development as a human being.”

In 1998 Ilana moved to Scotland to study at the Glasgow School of Art, and since then she’s gone on to make exhibitions in museums and galleries all over the world. While she’s working at National Museums Scotland, she’s also making a permanent display of geology for Shrewsbury Museum – not many artists get invited to do that! So why does Ilana like working with museums?

Ilana's Steine exhibition at the Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum der Charité
Ilana Halperin, installation view of STEINE, Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum der Charité, Berlin, Germany, 2012.

I encounter ideas or objects I haven’t come across before, because every collection is completely different. You never know what you’re going to find out about, and what totally unexpected routes you might take. Certain objects, and conversations with the people who know about the collections, can open up a whole new world, or a completely new way of thinking about things.

“For example, at Manchester Museum I came across a cave cast, which was an object formed in a cave, and by a cave, over a period of one year. That object sparked off a whole new direction in my work, within my thinking about time and our relationship to geology. Then in Berlin, I was introduced to a collection of body stones, gall stones and kidney stones, and this was a huge revelation that the body could produce geology. I wasn’t aware of that until I was put into contact with that particular collection.”

Still from Ilana's Super 8 film Physical Geography
Ilana Halperin, Physical Geology (new land mass/fast time), 2009, still from Super 8 film, 3 min 48 sec.

Ilana Halperin, Physical Geology (new land mass/fast time), 2009, still from Super 8 film, 3 min 48 sec.

You can visit Ilana’s website here.

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