A black and white photo of the Registrar General in the vaults of Somerset House.

Unquiet Moments – Births, Marriages and Deaths at Somerset House

10 Jul 2020

Curator Karishma Rafferty introduces Unquiet Moments: Capturing the Everyday, curated by MA Curating the Art Museum students at the The Courtauld Institute of Art, exploring the links between Somerset House's own history and the overlooked moments of every day life, as documented in the online exhibition.

Over the coming weeks, we are very pleased to present Unquiet Moments: Capturing the Everyday, an exhibition curated by MA Curating the Art Museum students at the The Courtauld Institute of Art, which is based in the North Wing of Somerset House. We regularly work collaboratively with the MA course, and this year set the curators the brief of responding to the history of the site as the former home of the General Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths. This government office was based at Somerset House for 134 years and was the first comprehensive record of life events for the whole of the population.

Somerset House was once filled with thousands of visitors daily, coming not to engage in arts and culture but instead to look up their own family histories. Combined with the probate records, 8.5 miles of vaults at Somerset House were eventually filled with this mass collection of data, an archive which was intended to help inform government reform of housing and sanitation and improve the health of the nation. The records and the staff of the General Register Office as well as the Principal Probate Registry left Somerset House almost 50 years ago, making way for Somerset House to be transformed into London’s working arts centre today, but for many the site is still synonymous with that history. 

Little did we know at the time of discussing the brief for this show that putting on a physical exhibition onsite would be impossible given lockdown and Covid-19. Luckily, the curators have taken that challenge in their stride and instead curated an excellent online exhibition using works from the Arts Council Collection and The Courtauld Gallery collections, filled with many exciting artists ranging from Barbara Walker to Sunil Gupta.

They have responded to notions of the gaps left in such impersonal records, conceiving of this exhibition as an archive of the overlooked moments of everyday life that might also be gathered and preserved. Many of the works selected for Unquiet Moments tell part of a story, about a place and people and the curators describe the exhibition in its adapted digital form as ‘speaking to a time when the global pandemic has altered the rhythms of daily life for many’. Fascinatingly, the show includes works from across four centuries of artistic practice and as the curators explain ‘testify to an enduring impulse to record, reflect on, and reimagine the everyday’.

Over these last few months when so may celebrations and losses have gone uncelebrated or memorialised in the usual ways, this exploration of the everyday feels more poignant than ever. We hope you enjoy the exhibition.

The Courtauld and Somerset House collaborative digital programme is supported by

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