In 1979, I was responsible for bringing Herbert Distel’s Museum of Drawers to London, Edinburgh and Dublin and a story about it appearing on the BBC’s Arena programme produced by Alan Yentob. I was reminded of this by coming across an MA dissertation by Julia Green at the University of Wales, published in 2008. How it all comes back to me!
Earlier that year, I had visited an old friend in New York. On his coffee table was the latest issue of a glossy French magazine, Connaissance des Arts. Leafing through it, I came on an illustrated article about a fascinating artefact and art project put together by the Swiss artist Herbert Distel. He had come across a vertical set of shallow drawers in a cabinet made to store and display sewing thread on spools (rather than the wooden reels more common in the UK). Each drawer had 25 compartments. It looked like a miniature skyscraper and in his imagination it became an art gallery with each compartment becoming a room devoted to one artist. He bought the cabinet and began to curate his Museum of Drawers.
By approaching hundreds of artists, he began to acquire specially created miniature works that he carefully placed, each in its own ‘room’. Julia Green’s dissertation has many of them illustrated. Some of the exhibits and their stories, as Distel later told me, were fascinating. For example, one artist used a phail of his own blood and buried it in concrete. On hearing that Frank Stella, whose canvases are enormous, would not produce a miniature, another artist painted miniature Stella works on the walls of his tiny room. Someone else donated a tiny illustrated book by Picasso.
On my return to the UK, I contacted Arena who liked the idea but said the Museum would have to be on show in London. I spoke with Distel in Berne who suggested the ICA in London and they were very keen. Distel pressed me to arrange for a show in Edinburgh where I was living, and then ship it on to a gallery in Dublin. That was when I discovered that the deal for each exhibiting gallery was to cover the hefty insurance for its journey to the next venue. Edinburgh College of Art were willing to stage the show but it was not until a Swiss Bank agreed to pay the insurance to Dublin that I could get it all set up. There was, however, a catch. The insurers said I had to take the crated Museum to Dublin personally.
While the Museum was at the ICA, Arena filmed it. I even have a credit in the titles as a Consultant. The show in Edinburgh was a great success and then I had to set off in the late afternoon to drive to Holyhead and the ferry to Ireland. The van’s engine played up all the way and I was never certain I would reach Holyhead in time for the 3.00 a.m. sailing. When did get there, the final hurdle was HM Customs and Excise. What was in the van? Works of art: did I have an export licence? Ho, Hum! That was when I showed the Customs Officer the catalogue. That changed everything. He had two sons, both at Art College, and he had actually watched the Arena broadcast. With a smile and chalk mark on the crate, I was waved aboard.
Today, the Museum of Drawers is back home in Berne and is well worth a visit but, in the meantime, have a look at Wikipedia where it is call the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’.