Exhibition Review: Victoria Morgan-Couch talks postcards at the British Museum

I am a member of the sixth form at Bancroft’s School going into my final year of A-Levels studying English, History and Religious Studies and am about to embark on my journey to hopefully study English Literature and Language at Oxford University.
My particular interest in the arts is a personal one, devoid of academic prowess (besides a GCSE in Art) but full of a desire to experience the world through the eyes of those who had something to say and could only express it through the art they produced. Many museums, theatres and global trips later, I have amassed an impressive set of postcards that I hold near and dear to me, even talking about them in the 2019 ARTiculation Prize, with my talk on the Tracey Emin postcard ‘Sad Shower in New York’. This garnered the 1st place position in both my Internal School Heat and then the London Regional Heat at the Whitechapel Gallery. At the London Final held at the National Gallery, I was awarded 3rd place. Below is a personal review of the exhibition ‘The World Exists To Be Put On A Postcard: Artists’ Postcards from 1960 to now’ which was showed at the British Museum from 7 February – 4 August 2019.

Victoria Morgan-Couch delivering her talk at the London Final held at the National Gallery in 2019. Tonya Nelson, Director Arts Technology and Innovation at the Arts Council, awarded her 3rd place.

Before I even set foot in the British Museum’s temporary exhibition of postcards taken from the collection of the auctioneer Jeremy Cooper, I found myself struggling to imagine exactly what I would be faced with upon entry. A global expanse of postcards from across continents to showcase experiences I could never even dream about? A selection of cards that had no cohesion, proving just how large this ‘world’ really is? Or perhaps a smaller selection, some token favourites, to exhibit the microcosmic sensation of the individual’s ‘world’? With these ideas in mind, the attempt to showcase the energy of a domestic home was not what I had expected to be presented with.
What it lacked in personality it made up in archaic essence, displaying the cards in a manner perhaps more suited to that of ancient artefacts, a choice that befitted the presentation of the collection from the point of view of movements and politics, creating structure and a certain ease of viewing. However, as a self-proclaimed hoarder of postcards myself, I felt that this strategy strayed from the entire point of postcards as things to be handled, touched and received. This was especially obvious when viewing those cards that were actually sent out as invitations to events, creating an atmosphere, albeit informative, devoid of life. This was entirely understandable in the terms of practicality of a temporary display, yet conversely felt entirely impersonal. If my own cards were to be displayed in the form of ‘a collection’, I would hope that a life of experience, travel and beauty would be able to be seen from the moment viewing began, although the very idea of my hobby being regarded as a collection is a somewhat alien concept, despite my ARTiculation talk. Nevertheless, as there was a mention in the description of a focus on ‘[highlighting] political and social issues’, it should be noted that the structured approach aided in a simpler understanding of these topics; moreover, the informative nature of this rigid form of display added to the ‘world’ feel which was largely due to the recognition of the global reach of movements such as Feminism, Fluxus and Performance Art. This contributed somewhat to the idea of the postcards as a snapshot of a life lived, and perhaps my critique of the formality of the display could possibly be flipped when viewing it as an effort to romanticise the life of an individual by displaying each moment behind a screen (yet this may be due to my own personal inclinations).
The ‘Collection of Mr and Mrs L. M. Kane, 2009’ illustrated just that idea of romanticism, with their own personal effects in postcard form having been ‘professionally photographed against a black background to resemble objects from a museum’, capturing the intimacy of human connection that I seemed to have expected from such a display. I believe postcards to be almost akin to family photos. They should be able to remind you of what you experienced on that day and how you felt in that moment, like listening to an old favourite song. Maybe one’s own ‘world’ could be captured on the back, in a message from a loved one, and when looking at a postcard that depicted Mr and Mrs L. M. Kane meeting Pope John Paul II, I was happily reminded of the relationship I believed postcards to have with the consumer.
Cooper’s focus on the inexpensive nature of postcards in comparison to traditionally recognised pieces of ‘art’ was an important discovery that I found heightened the whole idea of the ‘world existing’ for a postcard, for everyone should be able to experience that ‘world’ for only a nominal fee. This also added to the understanding of Cooper as an individual, rejecting the entirely elitist world of art collectors and making a statement by donating his collection of cards as his version of art and in doing so leaning away from a more capitalist approach to appreciation of culture, politics and society that is commonly implied by the possession of an extensive ‘traditional art collection’.
Ultimately, as this was the first major museum survey surrounding postcards as ‘works of art in their own right’, I am hopeful that something of greater immersion and scale is possible in the future or even the near future. Jeremy Cooper, albeit fascinating, is only one person, and thus the title of the installation seems slightly hyperbolic and is more akin to the microcosm of an individual’s world. However, if the original aim of the exhibition, as indicated by the title, was to view a world as encapsulated through postcards then I believe introducing the collections of others in a following exhibition may be the next step in increasing the overall appreciation for what a collection of postcards can really mean to any individual.

-Victoria Morgan-Couch

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