For kids, it's the biggest score ever. For adults, it's a thoughtful critique of museum practices
July 5, a mob of children is going to loot a small-town gallery. At least, that's the plan
Sameer Farooq can picture it already. The scene: the Visual Arts Centre of Clarington (VAC), a small public gallery in Bowmanville, about 100km east of Toronto. Inside, two rooms have been filled with dolls: stuffed dolls, souvenir dolls, Barbie dolls, Kewpie dolls.
And on one bonkers afternoon, it'll be ripped apart — by a mob of little kids.
"That's the goal," laughs Farooq. "There's something so funny about this image of a hundred kids running through a museum and just destroying it, ransacking it." If everything goes to plan, that's exactly how he's going to close his current exhibition, The BOOP Museum: with a cyclone of squeals and drool and plastic.
For the event, which goes down on July 5, kids get full permission to grab anything and everything in sight. In fact, they can keep whatever they get their jam hands on. According to VAC curator Sandy Saad, there's only one rule: "You have to be a kid to take a doll."
By "kid," she means youngsters aged 4-8, and while complete event details are still TBD, the museum's website says kick-off is 4 p.m. Expect it all to go down in a flash, Supermarket Sweep-style. Farooq says he wants the event to have some sense of urgency. "I don't think museum looting is ever done slowly," he says — a truism the children will likely prove through pure instinct.
There's something so funny about this image of a hundred kids running through a museum and just destroying it, ransacking it.- Sameer Farooq, artist
As for why any of this is happening in the first place, it helps to dip into the artist's C.V. a little.
Farooq, who was long-listed for the Sobey Art Award in 2018, has spent much of his career challenging the various traditions of western museums. What are they telling the public to think? What's missing from their archives? Moreover, who is missing? And how do the places themselves — from the Palladian windows to the plinths — convince visitors to buy in to a particular version of history?
Years ago, he began staging "Museums of Found Objects" with collaborator Mirjam Linschooten. In one notable example from 2011, the Art Gallery of Ontario invited them to respond to a special exhibit called Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts. For the show, they crowdsourced everyday items from members of the local South Asian community — stuff like old sweatpants, a stack of Royal Chinet plates, anything that would be a whole lot more representative of Indo-Canadian life than jewels on loan from the Victoria and Albert. At the end, the public was invited to "loot" the place.
And the word "looting" has some intentionally loaded meaning, considering museums have traditionally stocked their ethnographic collections by "looting" and pillaging themselves.
"What I'm trying to do with a lot of my projects where I invite people, invite the community, to loot the museum is to re-release objects back into everyday life," he says. "It's to make the public really question the ways that we value certain things and don't value other things."
"My other stuff is so much more serious," he laughs, but the BOOP Museum (named after a friend's child, nicknamed Boop) still shares the same DNA. Around the time Saad and Farooq began discussing a new exhibition of work at the VAC, the team at the neighbouring Clarington Museum and Archives were in the middle of pruning their collection.
"For as long as collections have been built, collections have also been de-accessioned because you have to think about what that collection means to your community," Saad explains. (If you want more info on the process, here's a helpful rundown from CBC News.)
"Basically," says Farooq, "they said: 'You're an artist who works with museums. Would you like to have all these objects we're getting rid of?' It just suddenly fell in my lap. I suddenly inherited these hundreds and hundreds of objects."
200 dolls, specifically. Nothing but dolls.
"I was quite terrified," jokes Farooq. "I did think I would receive a diversity of objects, but when I saw they were all dolls I realized I had to suddenly become this artist who works with dolls, which is the biggest cliché."
"But you know, after I worked through that, there was so much potential."
Curiously, the museum began building a doll collection in the '60s, and according to the museum's executive director Heather Ridge, there are still more than 2,000 there. Most of the items likely came from local donors, she explains — that's the case for most everything in their collections. And the dolls that wound up in the BOOP Museum were de-accessioned because they no longer fit the collections policy, which "was revised to better focus on local history." To give you an example: if they didn't have documents proving a doll's Clarington County connection, it'd land in the cast-off pile.
It's to make the public really question the ways that we value certain things and don't value other things.- Sameer Farooq, artist
"It's heavily subjective," says Farooq. "And that's my practice. It's really questioning: why do we collect the things we do? How do institutions write history through these objects?"
"I began to get very excited about the potential of just redirecting the dolls to a living culture rather than them sort of living and dying in the archive," he says.
"And then there's a potential for kids, especially, to imagine what they are — to put their own stories onto them and use them in whatever ways kids play with toys."
Until July 5, however, the usual rules of "look but don't touch" are in effect at the BOOP Museum. But Farooq's installed everything with kids in mind. All the plinths and displays were specially built for someone between three and four feet tall. There aren't any didactic cards. Instead, Farooq channelled his inner four-year-old to label the items like a kid might. ("I love the naming systems that kids use on their own dolls, so every doll is kind of named in a very childlike way to make it enticing for them to take," he says.)
Only one room will be completely off limits on looting day. In that space, Farooq's done some de-accessioning on the BOOP Museum itself, removing "problematic dolls" from circulation by displaying them with their backs to visitors — in a darkened room, for extra drama. Generally speaking, the culled dolls represent exaggerated and violent cultural stereotypes.
Says Saad: "When you enter, it's bright and it looks interesting and playful, but at its core it's a very critical assessment of the traditional museum model."
But at the looting, Farooq says he hopes the youngest visitors get a different experience out of it.
"I think the greatest success is if these dolls can be part of the life world of these children for a little while and they can use them as they see fit," he says. A Dionne quint baby doll could be dragged into the sandbox. A 40-year-old Barbie could have her first haircut.
"I think I just want it to feel like the biggest score ever."
The BOOP Museum. Sameer Farooq. To July 5 at the Visual Arts Centre of Clarington, Bowmanville, Ont. www.vac.ca.