Past, but not gone

In a museum in Manchester the exhibits are being brought to life by local artists. Michael Bracewell witnessed the transformation
The Manchester Museum is a splendid example of a Victorian collection of natural and ethnographical wonders and curios. Housed in a typically neo-Gothic institution, with iron-balustraded galleries and echoing, chilly halls, the collection is like a 19th-century encyclopaedia. In terms of its presentation it is dim and richly poetic, more in tune with the mysteriously archaic than the brightly computerised interactive. A stuffed polar bear pads eerily over dusty snow, Egyptian mummies lie side by side in sepulchral cabinets, and live snakes doze peacefully in the shadowy precincts of the third-floor vivarium, lending the museum a faintly sacred air, as though one were exploring an Etruscan temple that smelt incongruously of wax floor polish.

With its numinous air and its wealth of intriguing and faintly sinister exhibits, the Manchester Museum is the perfect host and setting for "Divers Memories" - a project in which more than 40 contemporary artists have introduced newly created items into the permanent collection, thus tilting our traditional assumptions about the authority of museums to instruct and edify. But "Divers Memories", as both an entertainment and an intellectual concept, does more than simply tease an institution into admitting its fallibility or questioning its role. By subjecting cased or "dead" exhibits to a kind of imposed punctuation, whereby clauses of information are usurped or disrupted, the stories the collection tells are turned on their heads or translated into a new visual language. The results of this intervention are, by turns, comic, surreal and thought-provoking.

The visitor is led into a game with the museum (ideal for bored children during the Easter holidays) in which they must first find the little transparent sticker that marks a "treated" display and then find the new or altered item within it. This is often harder than you might imagine, and the fact that a wholly unlikely item (a bottle of Perrier water in the mineral department, for example) is sometimes staring you right in the face does much to remind you of how readily we accept the information contained in museums. On one level, this annotation of the permanent collection with unofficial comments seems to articulate the meandering state of mind in which most of us visit museums - lulled into a helpless torpor by the mere thought of so much knowledge, but eager to learn. In museums - as in the drowsy but receptive moments before sleep - we can partially imbibe dates and facts but often find our thoughts triggered into parallel but unlikely areas by the rarity of the objects on display; we form mental puns, or are reminded of the commonplace in the midst of exotica. Hence, in "Divers Memories", the effectiveness of a box brownie camera sprouting feathers in the bird gallery, or some gilt-framed miniature paintings perched between ancient ornaments. This, you could argue, is a realised dialogue between subjective and objective principles, and the result is both informative and dream-like. And, as none of the introduced items is labelled or credited to the artist, one is never tricked into thinking that one is looking at an art exhibition - which would spoil the effect.

But there is a sharper intention behind this project, one suspects, and that is to question our notion of anthropology as received in museums. Because an object is in a museum, and dated and titled in the official language of experts, we tend to accept those labels as the finite truth about a subject. "Divers Memories", however, without rocking the boat too much, suggests that the history of communities is neither finite nor simple. If archaeological evidence of former civilisations can seem dry in its certainty when displayed in a museum, then the newly created items that respond to that evidence can humanise the (sometimes literal) bare bones of fact and suggest what might have been. They can also bring the past to life, by reflecting aspects of former societies in details from our own. The same point is made in the natural history departments, where interventions with the displays play on our concept of ourselves in the history of evolution.

This is a quiet project which makes some forceful points, making us less lazy in our assumptions about museums and making the cultural edifice of museum- learning study itself for a change.

n `Divers Memories: the Company of Things' is at the Manchester Museum (0161-275 2634) to 8 June