Making the case for museum games

23 Mar
High Tea, from Welcome Collection

High Tea, from Welcome Collection

This is an opinion piece co-written by me and Martha Henson published today in Wellcome News (a publication whose audience is based in scientific research rather than museums). It’s a little bit provocative….

Opinion: “Museums need more compelling games”

Martha Henson and Danny Birchall

Do you play games? We might dismiss them as childish, but in his 1938 work Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga argued that play is an essential component of all human culture. The chances are that you enjoy playing something – whether it’s Angry Birds or a round of charades at Christmas.

Globally, gaming is big business, with a market worth an estimated $50 billion (£30bn) in 2011 and a demographically diverse audience with an even gender split. But it’s not just about numbers: the dedication of gamers to the pleasure of play means time spent at the console can exceed that spent with a feature film or novel.

The educational potential seems obvious. So why have museums and educationalists, with all the information and resources at their disposal, failed to make more than a handful of really compelling educational games? The work of game designers and researchers such as Jane McGonigal (author of Reality is Broken) and Channel 4 Education (including the Wellcome Trust-funded Routes) has amply demonstrated the power of games to bring both children and adults cultural and scientific ideas in new forms.

But many have assumed that any game-like feature is enough to engage people, and tacking minimal interactivity onto a barely disguised didactic lesson plan has unfortunately been the dismal standard in this field. However, others, such as the Science Museum, have begun to harness the potential of games for learning. The physics-based Launchball game was hugely popular and they have just released Rizk (about climate change).

We’ve had our own success recently with High Tea, a strategy game centred on the dubious actions of the British Empire in the run-up to the Opium Wars of 1839. From over 1.5m plays in its first fortnight after release, plus comments, reviews and survey responses, we can see that we have achieved both a wide reach and our educational aims.

Why are these particular games successful? Because they put gameplay at the centre of the experience and use experienced digital agencies to deliver this. These examples are a great start, but surely more could be done in this area.

Games might seem a trivial way of approaching the public with new ideas, but the playful and exploratory impulses that draw gamers to great games are still largely untapped as a means of engagement. By pushing boundaries ourselves, we hope to show others what can be achieved.

Museum of codes

18 Mar

snake! by Joe Dunckley, on Flickr (2009)

Once I got the opening hours straight, I was straight over to what must be the very closest museum (as the crow flies) to my workplace. After a year in storage and transport, UCL’s Grant Museum has reopened in a new location, on University Street.

I never visited the Grant before it moved, but it seems the fundamental organisation of objects in glass cases and their labelling hasn’t changed (there’s a nice A-Z of pigeonholes by the entrance that are curatable, with aesthetic echoes of Keith Wilson’s Things and Mark Dion’s Welt Wissen installation).

The major change is the addition of technology. Primarily: the use of QR codes to identify and share information about objects; the use of iPads as interactive displays; and a framework which links in-gallery and online comments together into a ‘conversation’ about the objects. It looks like a relatively small technology budget has been used very imaginatively.

QR codes themselves I can take or leave. There seems to be some springtime of love in London for these curious 1990s Japanese throwbacks: everyone has them on their printed ephemera and posters. In the ‘looking cool’ stakes, they’ll soon be so over-used that by summer they’ll either look tacky or be invisible. Functionally: I recall Mia Ridge saying something about simple, quick paths to information, and if you have a smartphone (and a signal – no in-house wifi at the Grant) they do work as a simple trigger to open a webpage or application.

The iPads sit on a ledge at the bottom of the cases. In a custom-built app you can flick between a question, an opportunity to comment on that question, a QR code to identify the question that links it to others’ responses in the museum and online, and a live twitterstream (common to all iPads) of comments related to the Grant Museum as a whole.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the use of iPads is their function as a chameleon device: they’re small touchscreens that can do almost anything that you want them to. The first time I saw an iPad in gallery it was simply stuck to a wall displaying a short film on a loop, which had paused because the battery was running low. At the Grant, they’re properly mounted and power-tethered, and fulfilling a function most museum people probably think of as ‘kiosk’ (As in a small self-contained interactive. I had some discussion about whether my definition of a ‘kiosk’ or even ‘mini-kiosk’ was correct – the most persuasive argument against being that kiosks stand separately from the objects, where these iPads are intimately connected to the displays.)  Like PCs were twenty years ago, iPads might be powerful precisely because they ‘re mass-production objects that can easily emulate existing, known functions. But there’s absolutely nothing special about them being an iPad as such (that is: there’s obviously potential for generic tablet computers in galleries).

The questions asked on iPads I feel less enthusiastic about. Any visit to a museum sparks dozens of questions in my own mind that I’d rather discuss; though obviously germane to the displays, whether pets are preferable to wild animals isn’t really something I have an opinion about. I almost certainly fall into the category of over-involved as far as museums are concerned, though; and a good question can definitely be a spur to an interesting conversation.

However, the one question that provokes a (rather spiky) response from me via an iPad (I have to half-crouch down to use it) is this one:

Should science shy away from studying biological differences between races?

Studying the differences between people from different parts of the world was common in the past. Now, in more enlightened times, such science has become somewhat taboo, possibly due to the fear that conclusions would be drawn that could be considered racist. Should some topics be off-limits to science, when the potential outcomes are unknown? Is it racist to say that different races are biologically different?

Now there are genuinely interesting questions about race and science, that are particularly pertinent to the collection of Robert Grant, a thinker who influenced Darwin, whose own theories were influential on European attitudes to race.  But this is not one of those questions. It sets up an entirely false opposition between scientific ‘knowledge’ about race and subjective interpretations of racism, and precludes people (including me, with my spiky answer) from saying anything more interesting about anatomy, science and race.

The linking framework uses Tales of Things, a website/smartphone app that keys on QR codes to link personal stories to objects. Something like Bruce Sterling’s idea of a ‘spime‘, adding surplus aura to everyday objects is an interesting approach. It seems harder to join the dots once you’re outside the museum – you can contribute to the ‘race’ debate above directly on the Tales of Things website, but you have to know what you’re looking for. In addition there’s a Twitter hashtag (#GrantQR) which can get a bit meta-, as some of the conversations I was having about the technology after I visited have apparently been showing up on the iPads….

In fact, the most interesting conversation I had about interconnectedness came when I asked an invigilator whether it was OK to take photographs. Yes, for personal use only, I was told. The idea that ‘personal’ photography exists in opposition to ‘publishing’ photographs is, I think, a completely unsustainable proposition. Sharing is fundamental to the personal use of photographs now (and hurrah for that). Photography still causes anxiety in some museums – to take a photo is to take something away and potentially create your own node, your own focus for comment and discussion. At the Grant (very sensibly), the only concern seems to be commercial exploitation, and so after some consultation, I think we agreed that it would be OK to post the photos on Flickr under the appropriate noncommercial licence. And I’ll be back with my camera, because having been distracted by the technology, I didn’t even get as far as the Jar of Moles.

What’s going on here is very interesting – and testament to the benefits of being a university museum close to a Digital Humanities department on hand to help (rather than having to grow the expertise organically yourself, a huge challenge for small museums). Naturally, there are lots of places online to find out more:

QRator website
UCL Digital Humantities blog on the QRator project
Andrew Hudson-Smith’s blog on the project
Claire Ross’s blog on the project

Visual AIDS

21 Feb
When They Get AIDS, We'll Get a Cure. Enema Productions / Wellcome Library

When They Get AIDS, We'll Get a Cure. Enema Productions / Wellcome Library

Last September, at the Copenhagen conference of medical museums (which is increasingly beginning to seem like a foundational moment for a lot of current thought processes), I was irked by a presentation by Roger Cooter and Claudia Stein on the topic of an exhibition of AIDS posters, in which they said something like…

here, as elsewhere, they were ‘framed’ in agenda-serving classificatory narratives embedded in bricks and mortar. Indeed, from the moment such objects become collectors’ items and are stored and/or displayed as artifacts they become epistemologically loaded through the very process of objectification.

The implication seemed to be (peppered with a handful of the kind of posturing that accepts theoretical analysis as the only permissible standpoint) that there could be no institutional presentation of AIDS posters (for example) that was innocent of, or capable of critique of, its institutional context.

I was irked because I had recently made and written about a selection of AIDS posters from Wellcome’s collection in which I made a particular effort to demonstrate the diversity of the collection by highlighting posters which were critical of the Wellcome drug company, promoted homeopathy, and had had discernible links to radical traditions such as Atelier Populaire. Wasn’t this enough, I asked Cooter and Stein, to which their answer was (reasonably) something like well, we’re not here to criticise you personally: this is a bigger issue about the politics of aesthetics.

Five months later, I’m thinking about AIDS posters again, this time in the context of a term devoted to medicine and visual culture. In some ways, using the AIDS posters as an essay topic gives me an easy way in: I’ve already looked at the material and know what’s in the collection reasonably well. In another, it’s harder, because the academic framework in some ways obliges me to regard what I’ve already thought and written as somehow naive; a stage of investigation superseded by theory.

The essay question goes something like:

How does the Wellcome Library’s archive of AIDS posters help or hinder the understanding of the multiplicity of discourses in which AIDS posters have been seen and discussed?

Starting points: Susan Sontag, whose AIDS and its Metaphors is interesting for its almost total absence of reference to visual metaphors: it’s not like Sontag doesn’t do visual, but when she’s literary, she’s very very literary, and AIDS and its Metaphors very much takes its tone from Illness as a Metaphor. One thing I’d previously noticed in my ‘naive’ research was that the HIV virus itself (an obviously rich source of medical and military metaphor for Sontag and whose distinctive trumpet-flowered globe frequently complements medical discussions of HIV) very rarely appears as an image in any of the AIDS posters in the Wellcome Library collection.

Sander Gilman has written two close visual analyses of images surrounding AIDS. One compares the iconography of AIDS in the late 20th century to the early modern iconography of syphilis, noting similarities in the way its sexual transmission is represented (and the shift in stigma from male victim to female source of pollution) and the portrayal of the isolation and deviance of its sufferers. The second examines the ‘body beautiful’ as a (HIV-)positive image of (homo)sexuality in AIDS posters, deferring the experience of death and dying with eroticised images of risk. He contrasts this to ‘high AIDS art’ which addresses the real physical and mental distress of death and mourning. (It’s interesting to think in this context that while AIDS posters are now generally acclaimed as a successful model of communication and joint purpose in the struggle against AIDS, ‘high’ AIDS art, like David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in my Belly, which deals with precisely the issues of death and mourning that Gilman describes, was recently removed from display at the Smithsonian following right-wing political pressure.)

Then comes the issue of ‘visual culture’ (or ‘visual studies’), as in the course title itself. In terms of ‘medicine and visual culture’ you can take this more or less at face value as a descriptive phrase: the course is about the history and construction of medical images. ‘Visual Culture’, however, has also come into academic existence in the last twenty years as a separate subject with a tenuous and antagonistic relationship to traditional ‘art history’. It attempts to overcome the high art/low art dichotomy that Gilman finds between posters art such as Wojnarowicz’s)  by taking ‘the visual’ as its domain, but takes its methods more from anthropology and cultural studies as from traditional aesthetics. Academics like Douglas Crimp, who edited the issue of October in which Gilman’s comparison of visual representations of syphilis and AIDS appeared, are more or less working in the field of ‘visual culture’.

The world of academia is full of ‘turns’, and this ‘visual turn’ was a response to, and influenced by, the ‘cultural turn’ in literary studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Entirely coincidentally, at the same time I happened across a facebook link to this article about Andrew Ross, victim of Alan Sokal’s Social Text hoax, which was also interesting in mapping out some of the territory of the ‘cultural turn’. From an autobiographical perspective, I can also see that I was last in academia, studying English Literature in the early 1990s, during the beginning of the decline of this turn to theory, and probably would have been a happier and more successful student without it; needless to say, such a historicising perspective on academia itself was not made available to me at the time.

But then, returning to Cooter and Stein’s key published text on AIDS Posters, ‘Coming into Focus: Posters, power and visual culture in the history of medicine’ I was gratifyingly surprised to find a narrative which framed the emergence of Visual Culture as coincidental, and entwined with, the period in which AIDS posters as a communication medium emerged. Marx’s eclipse by Foucault, whose biopolitics centred on the body, produced new theoretical approaches for which the representation of AIDS in televisual media, advertising and art provided plentiful exemplars, and a consequent ‘focus’ on posters as a subject. There are few academic papers that are almost exhilarating to read, but this was one of them. The approach I found irksome as a museum practitioner is more fruitful in an academic context.

The question of how to construct an essay out of this, however… if the question stands, it seems that I should be testing each instance of theory, from Sontag to Cooter and Stein, against the ‘reality’ of the archive (which of course has its own aesthetic politics in the history of being collected by a private collector in the first place). In some ways this seems a reasonable alternative to looking at the posters through the ‘lens’ of theory; but it might be difficult to avoid becoming a historical walkthrough of the theories available, or worse, a mere rehearsal of Cooter and Stein’s arguments. Perhaps a stronger thread of argument needs to be found.

Museum through a lens

7 Feb
Your work is forgotten...

Your work is forgotten.... by Bob and Roberta Smith

Street art constitutes the vast majority of what hangs on the actual walls of the museum without walls. Given the broad institutional boundaries and lack of restraints, it remains a wonder that there remains such a limited repertoire of subject and style. Graffiti doesn’t constantly surprise you any more than an art gallery does.

With street art, though, that normally redundant practice, taking two-dimensional photographs of flat objects,  is an important part of the game. Having abandoned your (anonymous) work to the vagaries of weather and municipal buffers, you can revel in its genuine ephemerality, but photography is evidence – published books of street art are documentation, not reproduction. And for the photographer, capturing a choice piece of work is not only part of exploring a new or familiar environment, but also of entering into a potential relationship with the artist. Publishing a photograph of something you found pretty and being told, after the fact, ‘that’s by Bobbyphonics’.

Less so in the gallery, where we already know what everything is, and are likely to take a picture of the label after the work, just so we get the metadata correct. But even in a gallery the visitor-photographer is more than a weak echo of the official installation photographer. Taking pictures in a gallery is performative: it records your own visit; it’s interpretive: photographs of objects from new angles and in new lights show new truths; and it’s also (without over-egging the ‘media’ part of that particular pudding) social: we can share photos of artworks we’ve seen as meaningfully as photos of people we’ve met.

At the Kinetica Art Fair, the third eye culture was in full effect. It was hard to walk from one stand to another without getting between an artwork and someone’s camera. The hectic atmosphere feels like a challenge to capture rather than regard, to take something away and create your own something out of it. Still, the nature of kinetic works seemed to provide a rare justification for cameras that record moving image, and for Flickr’s display of same.

But Kinetica is, after all, an art fair, somewhere transient, to shout and trade. In established museums and art galleries, official photography policies are moving more slowly. Object museums like the V&A lead the way because there are few ‘rights’ issues with historical and antique forms (unless they are particularly uncomfortable), but even contemporary art galleries are moving away from blanket ‘no photography’ policies.

But there are some unresolved issue about taking and using the photos. In Birmingham and Walsall this weekend, being allowed to take photographs meant: 1) signing a piece of paper saying that any photographs you took would be for ‘personal use’ only. 2) Being given a sticker with a picture of a camera on it to let gallery invigilators know you had signed said piece of paper. Even so, there were still some exceptions: the main floor of the Bob and Roberta Smith-curated ‘Inner Life of the Mind’ exhibition was strictly off limits because it contained ‘works from the Tate’ according to the main desk.

The restrictions on use suggest that the galleries understand that taking photographs can be an important part of visiting an art gallery; but that they’re still a little uncomfortable with the use of the actual photographs themselves (perhaps because the reproduction of artworks is embedded in a artworld system larger than small galleries; but also because digital photography has fundamentally changed the nature of photographs). Personally, I’m dubious about the validity of a contract I’ve signed but haven’t been given a copy of; and consider posting images on Flickr well within the bounds of ‘personal’ use.

And so all of which is really no more than being by way of introduction to four photo/video sets on Flickr of exhibitions and art I enjoyed over the weekend:

Kinetica Art Fair 2011
Street Art in Digbeth
Len Lye at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham
Bob and Roberta Smith at the New Art Gallery, Walsall

Core course week 11: Museums of heritage

5 Jan
Paul Reas, from the series Flogging a Dead Horse, 1993

Paul Reas, from the series Flogging a Dead Horse, 1993Paul Reas, from the series Flogging a Dead Horse, 1993

Notes from  class: 14th December 2010

The final class of the term was taken by Fiona Candlin, assistant Dean of the home team in the Department of History of Art and Screen Media, and course leader this year for the Museum Cultures MA. One of the interesting things about the core course has been the relationship between the set reading and the content of the class. Sometimes the relationship has seemed tangential; sometimes more direct. In Fiona’s case, the set reading of Robert Hewison and Patrick Wright, critiques of the ‘heritage industry’ was something she set out from the start to challenge.

She began by describing the expansion of the museum sector, and particularly the private portion of the sector, in the twentieth century. In the early years of the century, Sir Henry Miers’ survey of the museums of the Commonwealth counted in the UK 23 national museums (ie directly funded by central government), 267 municipal museums (ie funded by local government), and only 139 private museums: the weight of museums lay firmly in the public sector.

By the 1950s, a post-war expansion began, and by the 1960s there were something like 900 museums in the country, but the proportion of private ones remained between a third and a quarter. It wasn’t until the 1980s and a huge boom in the number of museums (to over 2,500) that the balance shifted to what it is today: something like a 50/50 split between public and private museums.

‘Independent museums’ have been variously described and segmented by the Museums and Galleries Commission and its successor the MLA; the evidence seems to be that most private museums are small independents with incomes of less than £50k/year. Kenneth Hudson’s European survey of the 1990s suggested that 75% of European museums fell into this category. Many are volunteer-run and have a single subject or theme.

It’s in this context that museums of the industrial past emerged in the 1980s, at a time when the economic transformation and deindustrialisation of England’s North was at its height. The response: a sudden burst of scepticism from the likes of Hewison. Fiona passed round the catalogue to the Cornerhouse exhibition  Flogging a Dead Horse: Heritage Culture and Its Role in Post-industrial Britain, a collection of texts and photographs that describe ‘how tradition is being turned into tourism’. Paul Reas’ photographs of heritage centres in action have a dash of Martin Parr about them: photographs of photographers photographing the ‘inauthentic’, the family fun day out in an idealized past.

And here, the charge laid at the door of Hewison, and Reas et al seemed to be that of sneering (ironically, Hewison’s own account of visiting the Wigan Pier post-industrial theme park begins with an excoriating criticism of George Orwell’s own sneering at the inhabitants of Wigan in the book that made the ‘pier’ famous). Fiona pointed out that Hewison talks about the new heritage museums collectively, but picks out only large museums of the recent industrial past, like Wigan Pier and Ironbridge Gorge, as examples.

The ‘heritage-baiters’ in return were attacked in the 1980s by proponents of new community history like Raphael Samuel; and in quite vitriolic terms too. Wright’s additions to the new edition of ‘On Living in an Old Country’ bear witness to rifts that were never quite healed, though he seems genuinely fond and respectful of Samuel himself.

(Perhaps further reading would be profitable here, because without the texts, it seemed hard to understand the objections of what seems to be basically leftist historians with a critique of the commercial exhibition of the idealised industrial past. As a former Trotskyist and also former chair of a community arts/history organisation, I feel it should be possible to unite a commitment to telling working class history with a reasonably sophisticated theoretical approach to the ways in which it is routinely traduced and simplified. Moreover, in my capacity as the latter, I recall no great alliance between the old community history organisations and the newly-emerging heritage museums. We worked for years on an oral history of Brighton’s fishing community at the same time as a fishing museum on the seafront was being opened; I remember some struggle to get our book displayed in its shop with appropriate prominence. The council certainly didn’t give us the impression that they were greatefully building on our own achievements).

Since the 1980s, though, how has the museum landscape changed? Though some heritage attractions like Wigan Pier may have closed, activities common to them like dressing up, object handling sessions and interactions with ‘actors’ playing historical people, have become mainstream activities for many museums. Study may have failed to keep pace: independent museums are still more likely to be discussed in the realm of ‘heritage studies’ rather than museum studies.

Core course week 10: Museums of experiment and critique

5 Jan
Growth and Form, ICA, 1951

Growth and Form, ICA, 1951

Notes from  class: 7th December 2010

Back to familiar territory in the penultimate week of the core course with Ben Cranfield and a discussion of my former employer the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Ben’s doctoral thesis was on the ICA and its role as a changing place for the display of art in the post-war period.

Ben took as his starting point for the critique of museums the reception of Adorno’s description of museums as “family sepulchres for works of art” as an indication of the museum as a place of symbolic death. He identified the ‘museum studies’ position as located in traditional museum spaces that excludes certain other spaces of display; posits the audience as passive; understands the museum as a place where culture and criticality are neutralized; and concentrates on a primarily narrative and representational discourse about museums and their totalisation. (I’d have to say that he was probably a little ahead of the class here on his presumption of our preconceptions; quite a bit of the core course seems to be dedicated to the effort of dislodging opinions I didn’t know I had).

In reasonable opposition to this position, however, he suggested that we might ask how an understanding of alternative spaces of display (such as the ICA) might shift our understanding of the function of museums. Asking this might involve some curatorial studies, or at least the sociology of art, and examining the relationship between institutions and networks for radical possibilities or new codes of power. Also we might consider:

  • New cultural categories
  • The emergence of temporary exhibitions
  • The change in the figure of the curator

The ICA was founded in 1947 as a temporary exhibition space with a club room, relying on a combination of private and public funding to establish itself. Ben circulated Herbert Read’s letter to The Times of 26th June 1947 appealing for support for the new organisation. It stressed the breadth of artforms the ICA would consider, an international perspective, and the sense of the ICA not just as a space but a movement.

Read’s idea of the ICA was a place where a common ground for contemporary culture could be found, a place for a ‘unified culture’ built through exchange between artists and their consumers. Roland Penrose’s brief for an exhibition space was ‘not as a static place but a creative place’. Read described the ICA as ‘a laboratory, not a museum’, ‘ an adult play centre’ and a ‘daring experiment’.

Despite this talk of experiment and laboratory, Ben stressed that the ICA was not then conceived of as a countercultural organisation (as it has been since), but as the spearhead of a new post-war consensual culture. Analogs to the ICA that we might consider include the Bauhaus, Unit One and Black Mountain College: multidisciplinary centres driven by a vision of a transformation of artistic culture in general.

(As an ICA employee some sixty years later, it’s interesting to reflect that despite all the structural and cultural changes the ICA has been through, some of this idealism persisted, in warped but recognisable fragments. Certainly the notion of countercultural activity had long subsided, with minimal embarrassment about intimate relationships with corporate sponsors, and the idea of any kind of avant-gardism had been replaced by trendsetting – evidence of subsequent success was the only necessary justification of our patronage. But the idea of the ICA as host to people rather than objects, a place of ‘creative exchange’ definitely persisted, even in minds forged by style magazines, who thought that contemporary art largely existed as a kind of free idea pool for advertisers.)

Key figures in the ICA’s formation: Herbert Read, an establishment anarchist, keeper of ceramics at the V&A, and author of influential interwar books on art such as Art and Industry (1934) and Education Through Art (1943); Roland Penrose (after whom the ICA’s current series of exhibition mini-catalogues are named): a collector, artist, gallerist and bankroller of the early ICA. A friend of the Picassos and promoter of European modernism; Dorothy Morland, the ICA’s first director; Richard Hamilton, an exhibition organiser and co-founder of the Independent Group; Lawrence Alloway, director of exhibitions.

Ben noted that though the Smithsons and Paolozzi were closely associated with the ICA, neither were formally part of the structure. John Berger’s involvement was brief: in the mid-1950s part of the ICA committee, he resigned in protest at their opposition to ‘kitchen sink’ paintings and continued his critique of the ICA from the pages of the New Statesman.

Ben then introduced Habermas’s idea of ‘ideal speech situations’ and the suggestion that the ideal of the ICA, the ‘equivocal utopian moment’ of its founding lay in a desire for art criticism as a conversation between artist and viewer. We looked at the early history of the ICA through its exhibitions:

40 Years of Modern Art, 1947, was an exhibition held in the basement of the Academy Cinema on Oxford Street, a presentation of Modernist European Art, drawn from British collections: a conventional survey exhibition.

Growth and  Form, 1951, a science and art exhibition based on D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form.

Parallel of Life and Art, 1953, in which Nigel Henderson and the Smithsons began an assault on neo-Palladian architecture.

An Exhibit, 1959, involving Richard Hamilton, Victor Pasmore and Lawrence Alloway, in which the structure of an exhibition, a reusable template, was presented, without images to fill it: a space ‘to be played /viewed/populated’.

At the end of the 1950s the ICA was moving away from being a place of consensus. The role of the mass media became increasingly important, and burgeoning American imperialism made pro-Americanism ever more problematic. Tensions were evident in This is Tomorrow in 1956 (at the Whitechapel not the ICA) which contained both cheerful pop collage, and also the chaotic and distinctly unoptimistic prospect of the Henderson/Paolozzi/Smithsons collaboration ‘patio and pavilion’. This is Tomorrow, however, also offered new uses of the display space, with collaborations between architects, artists and designers oriented less on objects than on the use of the gallery space.

In all this, however, while hierarchies of display and artistic practice were challenged, some older structures of class and gender, as well as unreconstructed notions of art itself, went (surprise) unchallenged.

One of the class, a social history curator, pointed out how little of this history of development applied to the curation and display of social history artefacts. Ben suggested that a split in the attention of ‘museum studies’ was visible between discourses of education and engagement, which focused on objects and history (the domain of ‘social history’ museums), and discourses about overall concepts of institutions, which focus on galleries of art as such.

Ben ended by suggesting that perhaps the baton the ICA long carried, of questioning and pushing the nature of the display space, has now been picked up by non-contemporary art organisations (perhaps ones like Apex Art) which are free to deal with curatorial issues beyond the domain of the art museum, where organisations like the ICA have worked themselves into dead end with their concentration on art. Though of all the dead ends the ICA has found itself in recently, this may not be the worst.

Core course week 9 part 2: Museums of stolen objects

20 Dec
Benin Bronzes, Victoria & Albert Museum

Benin Bronzes, Victoria & Albert Museum

Notes from  class: 30th November 2010

Though delayed in her arrival since week 7, Fiona Macmillan won the raw teaching skillz award for the term by holding 90 minutes of rapt attention on the subject of 200 years of international law appertaining to cultural objects without so much as a single powerpoint slide. Law’s not a subject you’re used to hearing about in close conjunction with culture outside of the censorship or IPR; still rarer to hear elements of recognisable left-wing stance in a law lecture (but then barely two weeks later it was Birkbeck’s school of law that took the lead in a radical occupation at Birkbeck).

It’s not news that some cultural objects are disputed property; the removal of cultural treasures as spoils of war has been going on since the Peloponnesian wars of antiquity. But only since the end of the Napoleonic Wars has cultural heritage been subject to a regime of international law.

Fiona’s lecture revolved around four key international agreements:

The first of these, the treaty signed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 first established the idea of cultural heritage that links a people, their territory and significant objects. Napoleon’s looting of Europe (some of the extent of which still furnishes the Louvre) and of Venetian art in particular occasioned the need to return cultural property such as the Horses of Saint Mark. That the Vienna treaty worked only in a proximate fashion to correct the immediate past is evident in the fact that there was no question of returning the horses to Corinth, from where Venice took them in the 13th century.

The Vienna treaty, however, also enshrined the notion of the inviolability of sales contracts and free trade, another important element of international law which is not always reconcilable with peace treaties between states. The 1816 sale of the Parthenon Friezes by Lord Elgin to the British government is popularly assumed to be on the basis of an illegal theft of Greek patrimony; in fact Elgin had obtained the necessary legal permission from the Turkish mandate.

Fast forwarding a century to issues of restoring cultural heritage raised by the two world wars, Fiona considered the removal of cultural objects as a deliberate tactic to erase social and cultural identity. Under the Nazis, ‘entartetekunst’ or degenerate art was destroyed in a purge of progressive modernism; likewise judaica was targeted as part of the genocidal assault on Europe’s Jews. (Interestingly, not arising in class: both degenerate art and judaica were thought worthy of display by the Nazis, the former in a travelling exhibition; the latter in a museum in Prague; as if the detachment from living culture through exhibition were a necessary precondition of absolute destruction). The destruction of cultural treasures as an assault on national identity has arisen since: the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001 and the looting of museums in Baghdad in the wake of the US invasion in 2003.

Many works of art looted in the second world war, however, were not destroyed, but preserved for their financial value, and some ended up on the international art market. This again raises the problem of return when restitution is measured against the preservation of contract.

At the end of the war, two sets of conventions were enacted by the international community: those of Bretton Woods, governing international finance and free trade; and those of Dumbarton Oaks establishing the United Nations and its subsequent policies including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was on this territory that post-war decolonisation began, as the question of a nation’s right to its people, territory and cultural objects was raised again in the context of formerly European-controlled territories in Africa and Asia. In this context, Bretton Woods established the dominance of free trade and contract law in the international movement of objects

As the formerly colonised looked to regain the objects that had been removed by colonisers to the metropolitan museums of the imperial capitals, those museums began to emphasise both the safety of their custodianship, and also the role of the objects in documenting the coloniser’s relationship with the colonised, establishing a competing national claim.

Enter the second treaty, The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 (…phew). The UNESCO convention looks at rights to cultural objects through the paradigm of nation states. This makes the issue of objects belonging to indigenous peoples, whose existence is not co-terminous with national territories (such as Southern African sand people) problematic, because not being state actors, they are invisible to international law.

Aboriginal Australians, for example, who have only been allowed Australian citizenship since 1970, have only recently had their claims for the return of ritual objects and human remains supported by the Australian state. Their losses during the colonial period are compounded by their invisibility to international law. The third key treaty, the 1983 Vienna Convention on the Succession of States in respect of State Property, Archives, Debt also ignores indigenous peoples.

A distinction needs to be made between the return of objects and their restitution. Where return may be achieved by a number of means, restitution requires an acknowledgement of culpability for the removal of the object, something former colonisers are not keen on. The 1970 UNESCO Convention, for instance, is not retroactive, and therefore cannot address the issues of objects removed during the colonial period. Existing facts of possession by museums tend to dominate (in the realm of trade and contract law), where decolonised states’ demand that the failure to return objects constitutes a violation of their right to exist as a state has yet to be tested or proved in law.

Illicit removal continues, less as a product of war and conquest than of an international trade in looted artefacts. Most countries have laws that prohibit the export of historical and culturally significant objects, and it is these laws that the 1970 UNESCO convention privileges and enforces. In this context the Parthenon Friezes, legally acquired, are the property and ‘cultural heritage’ of the UK; and legally sold British paintings would become the property of the US if exported there. However, countries whose own laws did not until recently prohibit export, such as Cambodia, cannot look to UNESCO for return or restitution.

The fourth and final piece of the legislative jigsaw is the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. UNIDROIT is not part of the United Nations’ framework of international law, but a private international law organisation with less than a quarter the membership of UNESCO. Nevertheless, where enforced, the 1995 Convention gives legal teeth to the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Though the UNIDROIT convention similarly lacks restrospectivity, it does refer to the rights of tribal and indigenous peoples, and signatory states are obliged to pass into law the means for indigenous peoples to make claims. The effectiveness can vary: where New Zealand is a signatory and has passed laws regarding Māori cultural patrimony, Italy and Greece as signatories have made no effort to include Roma people in its implementation; UNIDROIT does not specify particular indigenous groups.

One aspect of UNIDROIT provides for restitution of objects, but where the possessor of an object  has ‘good title’ (ie has complied with international trade and contract law), they must be financially compensated for its loss. In this framework it is much easier to obtain the return of stolen objects than of illegally exported objects.

However, it seems that all of these agreements remain inadequate in the post-colonial world, where powerful metropolitan museums still have the power to lobby their state governments against accession to international treaties that provide for the return of stolen objects.


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