Tag Archives: curation

What is a ‘science’ exhibition?

23 Aug
Santiago Sierra, 5 Anthropometric Modules Made From Human Faeces.

Santiago Sierra, 5 Anthropometric Modules Made From Human Faeces.

It’s a gift to work with people who know what they want to do and how they want to do it. This is more or less verbatim from a recent email exchange with Wellcome Collection Senior Curator Kate Forde. I can’t disagree with a single word of it. She says:

“I’m committed to producing inspiring and thought-provoking exhibitions that make people think differently about science (and indeed art). I think exhibitions can be life-enhancing and can open up conversations about themes which are sometimes difficult or complicated.

“I believe that the integration of history, philosophy and art in exhibitions that are ostensibly about ‘science’ can help us ask questions about what science is or could be now and in the future. I am basically persuaded by those who argue that science is a cultural practice and I think this is an accessible way in for non-experts to discover more about subjects they may have had little access to in the past. 

“I hope that our exhibitions can give people a sense of confidence and ownership when discussing issues that affect us all and I think the collection is key to this because its sheer scale and variety offers us the opportunity to apply such thinking in virtually any direction. The 3-dimensional objects in Wellcome’s collections are crucial because they can help communicate on another level altogether.”

Seven takeaways from Museums and the Web 2013

23 Apr
Digital curating panel, illustration by Paige Dansinger

Digital curating panel, illustration by Paige Dansinger

I didn’t have any takeaways in Portland; one night I didn’t even eat dinner, and I didn’t get any Voodoo Donuts either. But I did go to some great sessions, meet some great people, and learn some interesting stuff. What follows is personal reflection as much as dissemination; there’s stuff to return to here.

The instrumentality of strategy. I’m writing a digital strategy at the moment. It’s not the most fun I’ve ever had. I’ve heard a lot of people in other organisations say that you don’t need a digital strategy: you need an engagement strategy, a communications strategy, or just an institutional  strategy. But one of the themes that emerged during the session on strategy was the use of digital strategies within institutions as a means of acquiring resources, attention, or recognition. It might seem arse-about-face, but the commonality of the experience (and I can feel the truth of it in my own situation) suggests that it’s not necessarily perverse, perhaps just part of the growing pains of digital departments. Sarah Hromack‘s excellent Institutional Strategy Digest zine launched at the session added a much-needed dose of humour to a topic that’s highly susceptible to pomposity.

Gamification fireworks. In a session variously titled ‘Let the Games Begin‘ or ‘Put a badge on it’, the debate kicked off as soon as the panellists started speaking. Bruce Wyman put the case for a behavioural economics of museums based not on the bottom line of cheap entry and bargains but on meaningful long-term relationships with museums. Sharna Jackson retorted that whatever the merits of the approach, it had nothing to do with games, and that badge systems often lead to karma-whoring behaviour that has serious consequences in situations like the Boston bombings. Kate Haley Goldman (who knows her games) valiantly tried to steer a middle course, but the debate was already spilling out onto the floor and into the backchannel. It was agreed at least that we may be approaching ‘peak badges’. It’s reassuring to see the critical spirit alive and kicking at Museums and the Web, not merely accepting every new innovation that the Masters of the Valley hand down.

Collaboration rules. Both the workshop I ran and the paper I presented were collaborations with people from othe institutions; the workshop with Sharna Jackson, the paper with the redoubtable Suse Cairns. Both were facilitated by the standard suite of cloud-based collaboration tools that we take for granted: gdocs, skype, dropbox. More importantly, collaboration was essential to the development of ideas. When you’re working with someone towards a definition of a shared project, there are many modes in which you can operate. Sometimes you try to write down what you think they’re already thinking (and sometimes fail); sometimes you get to try your ideas out before they’re fully formed; you can take it in turns to lead the process. Most importantly, your paper or presentation goes beyond just trying to fill your audience’s cup with the knowledge you have, and moves towards making and thinking new things.

I curate, you’re irate, we debate. The presentation Suse and I made of our paper on curation was a show of two halves. I tried to outline some art and museum-based models of curation, from Harald Szeemann to Iris Barry, that should inform what people do when they seek to ‘curate’ the plenipotent digital world; Suse offered a set of models from that very world that we might better take cognisance of within museums. It was gratifying that the ideas had some traction – Koven proposed a salon session immediately following, to carry on the discussion. Some of the debate felt stuck at the level of defining expertise; Seb Chan perhaps struck a nail on the head when he said that the difference between inside and outside museums was an question of the scale of the material. The best moments for me were when professional curators from outside the web/tech milieu made interventions stressing the importance of understanding curation historically rather than as a static practice. There’s an itch there that needs to be scratched some more.

Conversation as inspiration. Jennifer Trant always used to say that if you have the option of going to a session or having a conversation with a fellow delegate, have the conversation. I’m not scoffing at that after I randomly fell into a mind-blowing 90-minute conversation with Aaron Cope on Saturday lunchtime that began with Roombas then took in curation, artisanal integers, design chairs, savage modernism, raging at the sky, International Art English, rogue routers and the nature of collections data. Other excellent conversations were had with Annie Conway, Doug Mcfarlane, Ian Edelman, Ryan Donohue, Alan Hook, Oonagh Murphy, Seb Chan, Tim Lee, Paul Rowe, and Dave Patten.

All the world’s a stage. Larry Friedlander’s opening keynote proposed immersion as the keystone of on-site digital experiences. If some of his AR examples were unconvincing, the logic of the argument that in a world swimming in images we need to see anew through strength of experience was watertight. The closing plenary brought Punchdrunk producer Diane Borger to the ballroom via Facetime to discuss the success of Sleep No More as an immersive experience. Though the idea of bringing theatre to museums is undeniably thought-provoking, the MW audience was perhaps conditioned to see theatrical productions in terms of sets: the object as prop. I wonder whether there might be other kinds of less glamourously fictive theatre that we can also learn from, such as the verbatim theatre work of Jonathan Holmes, that begins with some of the same concerns as museums (history, evidence, people) to deliver theatrical experiences.

An arcade epiphany I’ve been producing & commissioning games for Wellcome Collection for 3 years now, but I’ve always had a touch of imposter syndrome about not being a real ‘gamer’, just someone who ‘gets it’. On Saturday night in Portland’s Ground Kontrol (in the company of genuinely awesome games people Sharna and Erica), a retro arcade bar stacked with classic pintables and original video game cabinets, as I aced the first light bike level on the original Tron game, I realised that video games really are and have been my thing. My own embodied understanding of ‘low latency’ is the fire button on Galaga, hammered with a flat hand. Arcade classics like this are islands in my childhood, in the brutalist concrete shopping mall I grew up near, in the strange hotels we stayed at on school trips. But I’m still shit at Donkey Kong.

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.

Twenty Questions

2 Sep

Being a little disappointed that my own institution couldn’t take part in the ‘Ask a Curator‘ day on twitter (lack of available curators), I thought I’d try it out as a punter.

So I asked twenty individual questions of twenty different museums or archives. All were ones which I’ve personally visited sometime in the last five years (most much more recently than that, and two of which I’ve worked for). The questions were off the top of my head: there was no strategy to ask any ‘big’ questions, but they were all genuine questions that I’m personally interested in the answers to. I also tried to ask genuinely ‘curatorial’ questions, and not ones about my own professional concerns of websites, social media or online presences (I failed in a couple of cases).

Personally, while I understand twitter’s incredible ability to reach lots of people very quickly, I’m quite sceptical about its ability to transmit or exchange meaningful intellectual information. I tend to sympathise with Thomas Söderqvist’s vexation that Twitter is a distraction from the reflective thinking that we were just beginning to find in blogs.

The questions and answers are listed below. I’ve tried to detwittify them, so they can be read as simple questions and answers, shorn of addressees and hashtags; some answers are several tweets run together.

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Q. Could you ever expand your remit to become a museum of the Lower East Side through all ages?

A. Our long term plan is2 expand interp of LES history past ’35 w/ exhibits in new Visitor&Education Center @ 103 Orchard St

Barbican Centre

Q. How would you curate a show that consisted of the peculiar architecture of the Barbican Centre itself?

A. We’d tell the story of the Centre, how it came to be & commission new work in response to the space. This is also the aim of our Curve Art commissions

Institute of Contemporary Arts

Q. What do you consider to be your most successful shows of the last five years? How do you measure success?

A. Experience of the artist and the feedback from public, my colleagues and the quality of discussion the exhibition generate

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Q. Is there a natural connection between open-air sculpture and land art?

A. Hi Danny. Land art can be direct intervention or it can engage with landscape ephemerally, i.e through photography… Open-air sculpture is, simply, any work outdoors, but when sited well it has the same very direct relationship with landscape.

Birmingham Museums

Q. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about how people use the Pre-Raphaelite resource?

A. Probably that schools use the resource as it was meant for FE/HE, but feedback is they love access to images. Don’t think there have been any surprises in how resource is being used otherwise, audience research was spot on.

New Museum

Q. How important has the legacy of Rhizome been to the ‘artworld’ in general?

A. That’s a hard one to answer in 144 but, I think it is safe to say VERY

Baltic Mill

Q. Is the converted industrial space of the mill an ideal space for exhibitions, or does it have problems?

A. It’s a fantastic space thanks to a well conceived conversion, ready to take up the unusual challenges artists throw at us.

Whitney Museum

Q. Have the ‘general public’ really had as much contemporary art as they can bear?

A. No, they can probably handle a little more.

London Transport Museum

Q. Has the development of TFL and an integrated London transport policy helped you in collecting or exhibiting?

A. Yes, the museum’s collection has grown since the development of TfL. Now we cover taxis, cycling, streets, river & much more!

Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Q. What’s the expected lifespan of the taxidermied animals in your displays?

A. Our taxidermy mounts are expected to last somewhere over a century. Our oldest specimens on display are over 85 yrs old.

Science Museum

Q.  Is there a future for blockbuster science exhibitions?

A. ‘Blockbuster’ is a tricky term but we are planning two major galleries for 2014 (PDF)

Brighton and Hove Museums

Q. How much influence have grassroots local history movements like QueenSpark Books had on your new displays?

A. The voices of local people shaped the local history galleries which feature quotes and sound recordings

Imperial War Museum

Q. Do you ever get negative reactions to the large display of guns in your main exhibition hall?

A. It’s important for us to put on display, without any sense of glorifying them, some key weapons of WW1/2 & other conflicts. When HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, then Duchess of York, came to the opening of IWM London in 1936 she said ‘It is a very good thing that people should know and realise how horrible war is’

National Maritime Museum

Q. Are the sea and the sky inextricably linked, or could RO/NMM ever become two entirely separate museums?

A. When ROG became a mus in 1950s it was nearly taken over by Sci Mus. But maritime navigation is key for NMM/ROG

National Portrait Gallery

Q. When you programme your Lates, what informs the connection between the collections and eg the musical events?

A. We respond to Collection & exhibitions in creative way to help visitors engage & offer new interpretation. Good eg is event on 10/2 questioning the idea of portraiture with workshops, music, debate.

Australian War Memorial

Q. Has the memory of Gallipoli overshadowed all other aspects of the ANZAC legacy?

A. Am not sure I understand your question about Gallipoli overshadowing ANZAC legacy. Could you explain a bit more please?

Q. When ppl think of ANZACs, do they too often think only of Gallipoli; are other campaigns sufficiently remembered & commemorated?

A. Thanks. Yes, it does seem that Gallipoli often overshadows what happened on the Western Front, for instance.

British Museum

Q.What’s going on with the Bassae Frieze at the moment?

A. Plan is to improve access by having video of the frieze at ground floor when mezzanine gallery is closed & for visitors who can’t climb stairs

Te Papa

Q. Is Te Papa a museum of *everything* NZ, or are there some things you can’t/won’t collect or display?

A. A museum of everything NZ, if sig to NZ or NZ communities we collect /display, cultural considerations imp. esp human remains.

British Film Institute

Q. Where do you think the biggest gaps in the NFTVA’s collection are? What would you most like to have that you don’t?

Unanswered

Tate

Q. What would be your ideal in-gallery photography policy?

Unanswered

Given the prevailing ethos of ‘you have to mean it’ around cultural organisations’ use of social media, even 18/20 doesn’t feel quite satisfying enough (and particularly disappointing that heavy hitters Tate and BFI were the two that didn’t respond) – I was really hoping for a full house.

While it’s nice receiving a flood of answers to all your questions, disentangling the stream of tweets enough to even present them as a list of questions and answers in this blog was a job in itself (and a trending hashtag is by definition not worth following; it’s not merely spam that makes this so). Given also the @you method of most replies, the rudimentary  representation of ‘conversation’ in Twitter’s web interface & the ephemeral nature of the individual tweet, Ask A Curator wasn’t a very communal experience. You could see a lot of it going on, but seeing what was actually being asked and answered was much harder. It would be interesting to see whether museums will end up presenting their own Q&A lists in more readable forms.

Though the success of projects like this is usually measured in amplitude rather than quality of signal (and also speed of reaction: I’m conscious that if I don’t publish this post today, the level of interest in what it has to say will rapidly wane, as people move on to new things), the real question is whether the project achieved its own aims of giving the public direct access to curators:

“I hoped that this project could give the public unprecedented access to the passionate and enthusiastic individuals who work in museums and galleries and also break down barriers within these institutions, where all to often social media is still the remit of the marketing department.”

I’m not sure it has.

Five answers contained what I’d classify as ‘interesting facts’ – nuggets of useful/intriguing information. About half the answers I feel could have come straight from a marketing or press department without having to ask a curator; a few were almost offensively woolly (but then some of my questions were also a bit lame).  Answers I found particualrly disappointing  were ICA’s refusal to pick a favourite show (no-one can really disagree if you say Nought to Sixty), and the British Museum, who answered about the Bassae Frieze only in terms of access and specifically not with curatorial/conservation information. Only with Yorkshire Sculpture Park & IWM did I feel like there was anything approaching a momentary  ‘conversation’ around a shared subject of interest.

Only three included links to useful parts of the organisation’s website. About half the new museums that I followed did the creepy thing of following me back; two sent me a DM.  It definitely made a difference when a named curator was answering, like Whitney’s Gary Carrion-Murayari or the National Maritime Museum’s Rebekah Higgitt, who answered from her own Twitter account.

I don’t think Twitter quite does the job. The phenomenon is interesting enough to want to see it done properly. But do the infrastructure and resources exist for museums to have really in-depth conversations about their collections and exhibitions? How would you do it? Do museums have to forge these greater depths of communication alone, away from the shoutfest of a designated day?

Another question is whether ‘Ask A Curator’ only exists because Twitter offers this peculiar combination of individual communication and mass event, or because people really want to talk about collections. Organiser Jim Richardson says he’d “be unlikely to use Twitter again for this kind of event”. I definitely think it’s worth trying again, differently.

Is this curation?

4 Apr

Most spellcheckers I use don’t even recognise the word ‘curation’. But obviously, it’s what a curator does, right? Curators are people who work in museums and galleries and archives and whatnot, but the basic function of their job is to select and arrange the stuff that we consume, from art exhibitions to film nights. But now that there is a) a superfluity of digital objects, from flickr photos to youtube videos and b) we spend much of our time online saving pointing these objects out to each other, we’re all really curators, aren’t we? In a post requesting better tools for people to ‘bundle’ and share ‘atoms’ of social media across a variety of platforms, Robert Scoble lays out the basics of this point of view:

First, who does curation? Bloggers, of course, but blogging is curation for Web 1.0. Look at this post here, I can link to Tweets, and point out good ones, right? That’s curation. Or I can order my links in a particular order. That’s curation. Or I can add my thoughts to those links, just like Techcrunch or VentureBeat do. That’s curation. Or I can do a video like Leo Laporte does and talk about those links. That’s curation. Or I can forward those links to you via email. That’s curation. The editor who sits in a big building at New York Times or your local newspaper that chooses what content you’ll see in your newspaper is a curator. So is the page designer who decides what story is at the top of the page.

Scoble goes on to discuss need to create ‘bundles’ of stuff, which can be shared in a web whatever-point-oh kind of way (ie interoperably and transparently). By the time he gets to telling us that “brands would be able to advertise on bundles”, you realises that he’s talking about something very different from what a museum curator actually does (or perhaps not: is exhibition sponsorship ‘advertising on a bundle’?), and actually rather facile. Nevertheless, he’s articulating a commonly-held, if often tacit, point of view about curation.

If Scoble comes across with the typical arrogance of a tech blogger demanding that his industry produce tools that meet his needs, the reaction of New Curator, You are Not a Curator, is almost an anti-manifesto:

You are, at best, a filter. You may make a name for yourself by excelling at some kind of selection process, but you are not a curator. “Curator” does not mean “I have good taste”. That just makes you some kind of fleshy gauze for the rest of us. The good come to us whilst all the pus and snot that came through your information media streams stay on your side. You are a makeshift step before a more advanced algorithm is invented.

Also, anyone calling themselves a “curator” when it is clear that they are dealing in merchandise should have their thumbs removed. You are not trying to fool us into believing that your job is anything outside marketing, branding and selling. Be proud of what you do without assigning the make-believe title of “curator” to sound more important. You have not reached some cultural apex through the range of shoes you have on offer. You are not a Connoisseur of a Stock-Take.

You Are Not a Curator. Don’t worry, there’s no shame. Just keep repeating it to yourself. You aren’t an editor of a newspaper by just simply choosing what articles to print. You aren’t an army general by simply shouting, “Charge”. So an inflated sense of worth in your Pick ‘n’ Mix does not a curator make.

I have becoming increasingly frustrated by the nonsense being stuck to the term “Curator” because people struggle to find the word for “Someone (Else) to Sort Through This Rubbish”. I still maintain that a curator, a job with actual skills, is starting to be abused by people from industries notorious for abusing definitions. This is why I sometimes despair at my Museopunk group when they start straying into territory that I covered in the Death of the Curator articles and calling it punk. It’s all well and good to get lots of involvement from your visitors/users/patrons/etc. but if you don’t have it based around an honest-to-God curator, do you know what you end up with?

Reality television. Prove me wrong. Very high participation from an audience who get to crowdsource the answers/outcomes/selections to the most base and voyeuristic products of the underculture.

It’s tempting to dismiss this as semantics. Scoble means one thing by the word, New Curator another. Scoble sees advertising as necessary grease in the wheels of new media; NC is snobbish about reality TV. Nevertheless, there is something real in flux here, a genuine decentring and opening up of the practice of selection and presentation, to a nearly bewildering extent. From the raw materials at your disposal you can present the world with endless interesting, artful and carefully-chosen collections of stuff. Some people are very good at it. But that you are, or are not, a ‘curator’, does not automatically follow.

Museum Cultures Symposium

21 Mar

Museum Cultures Symposium
Department of History of Art and Screen Media, School of Arts, Birkbeck

Friday 12 March 2010

Annie Coombes introduced the symposium and the Birkbeck MA in Museum Cultures, focusing on three recent innovations in museum cultures themselves: digital experimentation, commemorating genocide and museums as social and community agents. Her own work focuses somewhere between the latter two: she highlighted some contrasts between popular and successful South African site museums, and the emergence of Kenyan ‘peace museums’. In South Africa, at Robben Island, where a national liberation narrative is presented in the context of a place where significant events took place. At Robben Island, tours are frequently given by former prisoners, but their narrative privileges the role of the ANC at the cost of the PAC or Black Consciousness Movement.

Peace museums, very small collections of artifacts and media, often housed in only one room, have emerged in Kenya as part of reconciliation efforts since the post-electoral violence of 2008, but she highlighted the Lari peace museum, built in a location where longstanding social divisions between former Mau Mau and former members of the Kanya Home Guard went back to a traumatic event in the national liberation struggle. Such museums, she argued, through their presentation and reinforcement of fragmentary lived experience, for a local audience, provided an alternative to the grander and less subtle narratives of national liberation embodied in places like Robben Island.

Gabriel Koureas discussed the foundation of the Imperial War Museum through its first director, Sir Martin Conway, and his attitudes to mountaineering, masculinity and the appreciation of the beauty of art. Like the ICA, the IWM was at first peripatetic, finding host venues for its exhibitions, the first of which was held at Crystal Palace in 1920. Its didn’t acquire its current home, a former hospital with a trademark psychiatric panopticon structure, until the 1930s. Conway’s concern was the assertion of masculinity & individuality against the suburbanisation of everyday life, and he considered art, like sport, to be a necessary and vital part of human life. The history of war through the presentation of objects (rather than say through memoirs, like that of ambulance worker W M Floyd) replaced war’s literal and traumatic connection with working class male masculinity (in that their purpose was to be operated by young working class men to kill other young working class men) with an aestheticised relationship in which their appreciation formed part of acquiring the previously aristocratic possession of taste.

Pat Simpson presented part of her ongoing research into the State Darwin museum in Moscow, and its relationship to Darwinism and soviet science. Founded in 1907 by Aleksandr Kots, the museum uses a combination of art, taxidermy and objects to engage visitors with evolutionary science. Darwinism as an evolutionary theory was identified with the radical left before the revolution, and enjoyed favour in the initial Bolshevik period. The museum was called on to provide evidence of microevolution in the diversity of animal furs when the rouble had collapsed and fur was one of the USSR’s few reliable currency-generating exports. Mendelian Darwinism lost favour from the thirties with the emergence of a Lysenkoist model of evolution that harked back to Lamarck, and the inheritance of acquired characteristics (vernal wheat and a remade Homo Sovieticus). The objects, however, from stuffed elephants to sculptures of primitive man, having no inherent truths, were simply rearranged to represent prevailing theories. Since 1989, the museum has acquired a new building and an apparent rapprochement with orthodox Darwinism.

Fiona Candlin, editor of The Object Reader discussed the decline of handling objects, and tactual associations with connoisseurship as function of curation during the last two centuries. Beginning with diary evidence of eighteenth century visitors to museums handling objects, she worked forwards to the late twentieth century when handling objects becomes an ‘access’ activity for ‘non-traditional’ (read working class) audiences at the same time as contemporary art moves away from the (touchable) object and into performance and relationally aesthetic work. The recognised virtue of connoisseurship, heavily dependent on touch and associated with the white cotton gloves of an expert depended on the integration of intellectual and technical knowledge, the kind of knowledge necessary to tell real from fake objects. Its decline was less due to the postmodern academic deconstruction of connoisseurship itself then with the expansion of the UK’s higher education system, the increase in students studying museum subjects and distance learning, all factors which made intimacy with objects less possible. The closure of the Museums Association diploma and professionalisation of museum jobs also distanced the intellectual appreciation of objects from their practical handling.

During the Tory era, when cultural heritage organisations were expected to produce popular blockbuster shows, the V&A took the lead in separating cultural knowledge and expertise from collections management, a practice that has now become the norm. After the Labour victory of 1997, commercialisation was renounced, but social inclusion and education were prioritised, with a corresponding de-emphasis on the inherently tasteful knowledge of the ‘curatorial caste’. Curatorship has moved into a kind of showmanship; Frieze magazine has compared curators to film directors, artists, editors, authors and CEOs; meanwhile the title of ‘curator’ is applied to many other activities such as programming (most of which involve some kind of selection): intimate knowledge of objects is no longer its characteristic. Opening objects to handling by the public suggests a corresponding transfer of ownership: museum collections now ‘belong’ to us, but a simultaneous emphasis on the visual creates a more democratic picture of museums, because the sight of objects is equal to all.

Silke Arnold-de Simine discussed the phenomenon of DDR Museums, and their relationship to memories of everyday life. The memorial landscape of the DDR is divided between memorials to oppression, and displays and collections around everyday life in the DDR, a country which effectively ceased to exist in 1989. She concentrated on two examples, the commercial DDR Museum, a visitor attraction in Berlin, and the Documentation Centre of everyday Culture in the DDR, both of which seek to create some sort of picture of life in the DDR separate from a commemoration or preservation of the mechanics of the oppressive regime itself. Both are controversial to some extent for their concentration on ‘ostalgie’ (the culture that fetishises objects like ampelmännchen), but claim to deal with the gap between personal memory and political cultural memory. The two institutions differ: while the DDR Museum caters to international visitors, the Documentation Centre aims for a more comprehensive picture of diversity through catalogued objects and associated donors’ stories. There is room for a ‘reflective nostalgia’  which also functions in some ways as a critique of post-Wende German capitalism.