Monday, 22 June 2015

Wider Context - the 21st Century Museum

Currently I happen to be working through an online course from Future Learn, which is an Open University company. It's from the University of Leicester, Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum:

I'm a big fan of such online courses - they are a great way to become familiar or upskilled in an area. Sometimes they are accredited, and they are usually free. I have filled out my various CVs with such courses, an invaluable resource for the self employed artist, but more on that another time and place.

It's quite unusual to find a course on any aspect of museum studies or curation, and this particular course is also being taken by an interesting group of people, some who are already museum professionals, and so the comments and discussions are great quality.

Some of the issues studied are about the history of museums and how they came to be the way they once were - hushed rows of display cabinets, and script of empirical knowledge. Now, of course, the contemporary museum has to respond to society, and be a cultural resource which can be used by all. In fact museums need a new definition, or term - they are more about being cultural hubs.

It's very convincing and enlightening, and a very useful study for me about contemporary exhibition ideas and interacting with viewers, etc, and yet, I still argue for a place of quiet and contemplation. No matter how wonderfully responsive to the now, I still crave the more old fashioned, cabinet-lined vaulted halls of old fashioned museums. Thinking arenas.


Of course it's terribly important who walks past the museum and who walks in. Museums are constructs of our culture for our culture. I address some of the questions in my Curious Curation Questions, but these are of course a beginning - it's an approach and a discipline. And then there are the incredibly important questions about the building itself, the feel and interior, and how objects and the stream of audience are managed. Many, many issues to consider. I have an interest in this, as a lover of museums and galleries, and a visitor. But I note how often as an artist a crossover is required into these questions, about the audience and the context where the work might be placed, and many other issues which may be placed outside the realm of the frame of the work, if you follow. The work may be a personal expression and an individual vision, but putting it out there involves a response to sets of contextual questions.

I really loved my couple of years as an artistic assessor for Arts Council England, where I was sent around the county to write a report on various galleries and museums. It really suited me to look at these with the eye of critique (rather than a critical eye), and basically see whether the exhibition and the presentation agreed with itself - did it do what it said on the tin, was it overblown, had they thought of the audience, and more detailed questions than this. Critique is so important, in this and in other media. I also review exhibitions and books, etc. Without critique, and that outside but informed eye evaluating and interpreting, all that is available about productions would be publicity and marketing copy.

Curious Curation Questions

What does it mean for an object that is in a museum, how did it get to be there, where was it from, who valued and documented it, what judgements have been made about it over time, have those changed according to changing political or socio-economic shifts, and how do we read and respond to such objects and settings in our current climate.

In what circumstance was the object made, was it made as a unique piece or one of many, why was it made, what does it signify, what forces were at play at the time, does it betray a vanished or outmoded attitude, was in made under duress or now unacceptable conditions. Was the object made from rare or everyday materials, was it made by artisan or obsolete methods, was it an object of comfort, or function, to repress, or to display wealth.

How does a museum display and care for the object, what information does it display about it, what objects does it show next to it by way of contrast, juxtaposition or harmony. Is the object ever going to be displayed or will it be stored, or disposed of. If broken, will it be repaired, restored, or perhaps copied for display. Will it be shown with historically accurate fellows, or to explain some development over time. Perhaps the object belonged to a particular person which gives it provenance, or it may be poignantly   anonymous.

Who owns the object, was it plundered, saved, bought, and if it now belongs to the nation, who may see it or access it, and if it truly belongs to everyone, what of those who never set foot in such a place as a museum.

Is there local significance to the object, and how might that resonate. Is it a relic of social history, and is that legacy still relevant in the area. Will the object spark special memories in the locality, does it represent a significant time, event or person, does it perhaps contribute to a sense of place or a specific shared memory. Is the object emotive, a sad remnant of a disaster or war, or the legacy of specific circumstances.  Is the object part of a special collection or specialisation of similar items. Is it a particularly fine example, a unique piece, or something that was once everyday but is now obsolete.

Who pays for the upkeep of the object, and for the carers and experts involved in its display. Who will write any text that accompanies the object. What are their qualifications, experience and skills. Can they respond to any sensitivities in the likely audience, and are there issues to be considered with items or substances that may now be banned or dangerous. Perhaps the object embodies political messages which are now deemed as outrageous or incendiary. Will the text be aimed at the general public, other experts, researchers or schoolchildren, and will the information be made available to those who may have special access needs.

What research is there behind this object. Is it proven that it is not a fake, and what verification is there to prove its authenticity. What is known about the maker or place of making, where the materials came from, and what else is known about any other objects which were made at the same time, at the same place or in different places. Is there supporting and additional material for those who may be interested, and how may they access that.

These and many other questions are areas for the curator to consider.                    

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