'Museum of Water' review or 'Bottled spirits.'

Museum of Water, Amy Sharrocks
Somerset House, LIFT Festival, 13th June 2014



The sun is blazing but I can hear raindrops falling overhead. I keep on walking and notice aqua blue water bottles nestled in corners and perched on windowsills. Umbrellas burst out of walls and a mass of radiators form a sculptural mess. These subtle installations are dotted about the pathway leading up the ‘Museum of Water’ exhibition and are easy to miss, especially if you’re still in ‘striding’ city mode. Take your time with this piece; it’s a delicate slip of a show, which seriously rewards the careful and curious spectator.

‘Museum of Water’ is a traveling exhibition which has temporarily landed at Somerset House but will continue to travel the country – and beyond - once the LIFT festival has finished. The 'Museum' first began 2 years ago and is made up of a large collection of water samples sent in by the public, as well as a number of evocative installations and displays. It is a show that gets one thinking about the importance of water, which infiltrates our lives at every level – but it is also packed with human spirit, character and frozen memories.

The show, which is curated by artist Amy Sharrocks, initially feels a little limited. One enters the space – having had the senses tickled en route - and is presented with a number of abstract installations. All these displays are laid out within the stone walls of the Somerset House basement space, so are automatically imbued with a musty glamour. But these opening exhibits are nothing spectacular; an armchair with a few seaside postcards scattered around, a tub of water that glimmers in the light, a cave space filled with gleaming bottles. They are pretty but pretty easy to pass by; a quiet stream glinting in the sun.

It is in the main space, where the public's messages come into play, that this exhibition takes hold. The stone cavern is filled with shelves, each packed with bottles, big and small, beautiful and ugly, dazzling and mundane. It feels like walking into a Roald Dahl novel or stumbling across the secret laboratory of a great scientist. It feels like a discovery.

Then there are the messages themselves, attached to the bottles and containers, each of which conjures up an absent person, distant location, forgotten moment. Some messages are profound or poetic, lots are silly and all of them are unique, lending a distinct flavour and status to every water sample.

One message reads: 'Water holding memories of a happy morning.' Another, written in young and scrawling handwriting, reads: 'The clouds cried while the stem drank their tears.' One sample was collected from condensation that rested on a window and another was captured from a 'frozen cloud.' One cluster of bottles represents a long country walk, with water samples gathered from each bridge along the way.  There's an ice core sample from 1814, a tub filled with glitter and another one packed with 'farty bath bubbles'.

Gradually, the museum fills up with life and colour and the shadows of all the people behind the samples. There are some very clever installations, too, which use water to complete electrical circuits. One display encourages us to place our hands in separate water bowls; the circuit is completed and a recorded message begins to play. What a thoughtful homage this is, both to the manifold importance of water and the numberless ways in which our lives are reflected in its glistening depths. 

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