Would you agree to perform a mystery good deed in exchange for a work of art? This unusual exhibition at the Foundling Museum is banking on your co-operation. Based on the work of British ceramic artist Clare Twomey, the show centres on 1,000 identical cups and saucers, each with an inscription describing a good deed concealed between the base of the cup and the plate. Lift the cup and accept the good deed challenge, and you get to take home the tea-drinking paraphernalia.
When it come to creating site-specific installations, Twomey has plenty of previous experience. Two years ago, in a work called ‘A Dark Day in Paradise’, she colonised the flamboyant Regency rooms of Brighton’s Royal Pavilion with a menacing cloud of 3,000 black ceramic butterflies. In that instance, Twomey was responding to the building’s history of hedonism and excess. In ‘Exchange’, she has been inspired by the philanthropy reflected in the Foundling’s touching social history collection. The museum tells the story of England’s first hospital for abandoned children, founded by Thomas Coram in 1739. Along with artworks by William Hogarth and other founding benefactors, its collection includes a poignant display of small tokens left by mothers forced by destitution to leave their children in the institution’s care.
Back to those tea cups, though. Don’t expect simply to turn up and snaffle one. Only a certain number of visitors will get the chance to pledge their help: ten cup-for-deed exchanges will be made each day (check the website or ring the museum for timings). And the kind actions required vary in nature. Twomey worked with former pupils of the Foundling Hospital School, museum supporters, local residents and children in care to come up with suggestions that range from ‘smile more’ and ‘buy a Big Issue’ to ‘don’t use any new plastic bags this year’ and ‘put flowers on a stranger’s grave’.
Those who choose to accept their challenge will take the cup away as a permanent reminder of a shared experience and a commitment to reach out to others. The museum, meanwhile, would like the growing band of participants to report back. Messages, which might take the form of a photograph, a video or a simple written account, will form part of the ongoing display and appear on the website, creating a unique record of doing good in the capital.