Section 1 A Critique on Conventional Interpretive Practices Museum Objects in Mausoleum and Fixed Interpretive Approach
Section 2 A Paradigm Shift in Contemporary Interpretations
2.1 Art Objects as Text and New Poetic/ Fictional Language 9
2.2 Exhibition Design as Artistic Intervention : Re-contextualize Experience of Space
Section 3 Case Study
3.1 The Surreal House(Barbican Art Gallery, 2010) A Cross-disciplinary Narrative Labyrinth Space Design and Labyrinthine Aesthetic Novelistic Language and Artwork Dialogues : An Orchestration
3.2 David Bowie Is(V&A, 2013) 20 Narrating a Living Figure The Fictional Language - Open-ended-sentence Title Museum as Immersive Stage - Archive Comes to Life
3.3 The Concise Dictionary of Dress(Blythe House, 2010) A Sartorial Interpretation in Fashion Reserve Poetic Exhibitionary Language Installation Designs as Artistic Interventions
Appendix - Image Sources
Bibliography ( word count : 5,058)
Curating contemporary exhibitions is now more than a profession of connoisseurship, but rather a creative and artistic venture. Due to a paradigm shift in the heart of interpretive ideology, exhibition-making is going more experimental even in museum context. One might observe that there is a changing status in museum objects, and a progressive transformation in the exhibitionary language - shifting from descriptive to fictional, poetic and novelistic. Artworks are also functioning as text initiating dialogues, while exhibition designs are no longer merely fabrications, but becoming artistic interventions that could re-contextualize the experience of space. Unprecedentedly, curators nowadays could embrace huge potentials in creating imaginative narratives for the present time, and thus, to further produce innovative museum experiences.
This essay aims to examine the changing attitudes and assumptions in the new interpretive paradigm. Through three case studies, it goes on to uncover the dynamic interpretive strategies undertaken which have created various unique curatorial voices. Cases include: The Surreal House (Barbican Art Gallery, 2010), David Bowie Is (V&A, 2013) and The Concise Dictionary of Dress (Blythe House, 2010).
Interpretation lies in the heart of exhibition-making. The curating process involves complex aspects involving museum object selections, message communications and exhibition design expressions. In fact, they are crucial factors in shaping a specific curatorial approach, because the way they function together could influence how a unique curatorial voice comes through. As cultural sociologist Tiffany Jenkins asserted,
Every exhibition is an interpretation. The role of the curator is to select and guide us through his or her narrative about the objects on show. [...]This can create great exhibitions, when a curator’s expertise and eye enlightens.1
While curators are seeking newness of expression, the interpretative ideology has been shifting its focus over time. As cultural critic Tony Bennett asserted in his article The Exhibitionary Complex that traditional museums’ interpretive model was aiming to ‘provide a context for the permanent display of power/knowledge’2. While contrastingly, notable essayist Adam Gopnik argued in The Mindful Museum of the contemporary, ‘[y]our first experience when entering the [...] museum should be of a work of art’3. Such changing attitude is followed by much discourse.
In 2011, London’s Saatchi Gallery hosted an Intelligence Squared debate around the topic of ‘experience vs interpretation’4, where it discussed about a shift in museum culture from object-centered to experience-centered phenomenon. It also raised an awareness that curators nowadays have changing views on the fundamental assumptions of interpretation practices. Unprecedentedly, there appears to be huge potential for curators to renew their interpretive strategies, by re-imagining the use of museum objects, narrative methodologies and exhibition design expressions.
However, as Gopnik asserted, how to build the museum of today and its exhibitions,‘there is no recipe, nor anything that we can put into fixed program’5.
What is the possibility for museums to change their sacred collections’ functions - from representing the past to presenting new messages at the moment? To what extent could curators apply a new exhibitionary language to construct new narratives? How to breakthrough from conventional presentation styles? These are questions worthwhile to look into.
This essay aims to examine the shifting assumptions in interpretative process of exhibition-making, and uncover the changing views undertaking, which would radically revolutionize contemporary curatorial strategies that lead to new museum experiences. The discussion will be carried out in four sections. Section 1 will be an overall critique on the conventional interpretation practices based on its fixed assumptions. Section 2 will unveil a paradigm shift in contemporary interpretations, by revisiting the potentials of museum objects in meaning-making, new narrative language and open dialogues in exhibition spaces. It goes on to rethink the new role of exhibition design as an artistic intervention to re-contextualize the experience of space for audiences. In Section 3, the essay brings in three case studies to outline their innovative strategies in the new interpretive paradigm. Cases include: The Surreal House (Barbican Art Gallery, 2010), David Bowie Is (V&A, 2013) and The Concise Dictionary of Dress (Blythe House, 2010). Finally, the essay will conclude that - by liberating the interpretive processes, curators could be more imaginative in exhibition-making, and thus, create unique curatorial voices.
Section 1 - A Critique on Conventional Interpretations
Museum Objects in Mausoleum and Fixed Interpretive Approach In order to set a background to understand what curators are walking away from nowadays, firstly, it is important to have an overall examination on the underlying traditional assumptions that had shaped the interpretative practices. As art historian Janet Marstine asserted, the conventional museums were widely associated with the notion of ‘museum as shrine’6, showcasing the ‘“authentic” masterpieces that express universal truths’7. Whereas, cultural critic Gaby Porter would rather describe it as ‘simply arces of nostalgia’8, which reflected the notion of ‘museum as a mausoleum’9, as art critic Gopnik put it. In fact, no matter museums were called shrines or mausoleums, such situations were deeply rooted in the hierarchical classificatory tradition, where museum objects were seen to be narrating the only truths and the past. As art critic Steven Conn discussed about object-based epistemology in his Do Museum Still Need Objects?:
[T]hose exhibitionary practices lay a faith in the power of objects to convey knowledge, meaning and understanding - if they were properly collected, classified, and arranged’10
The curators’ conventional curating approaches aimed to encode objects with elite knowledge, while visitors were expected to decode it through the display. There appeared to be a fixed communication pattern - about what objects should mean and how they should be presented and interpreted. The curators were considered to be broadcasting didactic messages for the collections through wall texts and labels, using descriptive language without emotional touch. They treated the exhibition halls to be,as Bennett called it, the ‘space of representation’11 based on taxonomy. The whole presentation was a spatial manifestation of categorization, where objects have no relationships with each other except for the chronological and logical orders. In terms of exhibition design and objects arrangements, such formatted interpretation strategies offered minimum surprises, for centuries. Critics Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander commented that it was ‘an expected setting’12 to an extent that visitors might ‘knew what to expect when traveling to see other collectors’s objects’13. Its universal approaches of interpretation were a sort of elitism, encouraging only a fixed reading.
Apart from expectedness, there are other critique voices related to audience’s experiences. Writer David Goodman argued that the practice was a ‘stressed system rather than event’14 and most of the interpretive concerns had ignored the ‘subordination of other senses to sight, [...] by its rejection of theatre and “show”’15. Art critic Conn even doubted the centric belief in traditional narrations:
[T]he place of objects in museums has shrunk as people have lost faith in the ability of objects alone to tell stories and convey knowledge.’16
As curator Kevin Moore evaluated this situation in Museums in an Age of Paradox that the museums’ ‘fundamental purpose [was] attacked’17,thus, led to ‘a crisis of representation’18. The whole exhibition culture are now sharing a changing attitude - attempts to walk away from the traditional mode of interpretations, and desires to explore new narrative possibilities.
Section 2 - A Paradigm Shift in Contemporary Interpretations
Art Objects as Text and New Poetic / Fictional Language
Stepping into an age of new museology, the curating field is engaging in more ‘contemporary epistemological debates’19, as art critic Paul Basu called it. The new status of museum objects is being discussed among visionaries.
Senior curator Dr. Anita Herle is one of the critics that criticized against museums as mausoleums, and argued that ‘objects may have entangled and transitive lives both before and after they enter a museum’s collection’20. Herle’s core suggestion was that museum objects should separate from the past and seek for new meanings at the present. However, what kind of new meanings that objects could produce? Herle went on to elaborate:
In the late twentieth century, much research on material culture has drawn attention [...] The underlying notion is that objects do not necessarily have fixed meanings.21
Similarly, Dr. Kylie Message also asserted in The Shock of the New: Unity and the Modern Museum, ‘ object of display comes to function symbolically, as an image’22 and has become ‘free-floating or self-referential signifier[s]’23 - which means, objects’ meanings should no longer be fixed by curators’ descriptive text. Rather, as art critic and curator Bruce W. Ferguson clarified,
Art objects have now been included within the larger semiotic field of a ‘language paradigm’ [...] and are transliterated as the equivalents of ‘text’.24
In order words, museum objects now become flexible signs and linguistic tools, which allow free associations, and are open to adapt to a diverse range of innovative interpretation strategies.
Taking this as a point of departure, new narrative structures become far more manipulative. Critic Susan Crane asserted that there is much potential for museum archives to allow random encounters with lateral associated meanings, ‘rather than the singular linear narratives that tend to formed from it.’25 That is to say, museum collections may now transform to be neutral materials to manifest curators’ creativity in story-making.
On the other hand, there are also progressive changes in the exhibitionary language. As Dr. David Harvey cited, postmodernism is ‘not just function but fiction’26 and there emerges a new awareness that museums are a place of production of meaning, where dynamic dialogues are more valued than singular, didactic messages. In Susan A. Crane’s words, museum are now evocative places where ‘subjectivities and objectivities collide’27. Art historian Ivo Maroević also highlighted, in the new paradigm, ‘the museum exhibition is a poetic message [...]The language of the museum is more poetic than logical’28.
Nevertheless, in order to clarify, this is not to say that the new interpretative processes would totally abandon the use of text-based practices such as labels and wall texts, but rather, an array of diverse creative dimensions will be added to it. As art historian Alan Wallach asserted,
[A] successful exhibition not a book on the wall, [...] but a carefully orchestrated deployment of objects, images and texts that gives viewers opportunities to look, to reflect, and to work out meanings.29
The key argument here is about orchestration - which will create new layers of meanings. The relationship between exhibit objects, the use of language, the presentation of them is now changing - from expected to unexpected, from linear to lateral, from silent to orchestral. Yet, the question remained: how could this ambitious narrative structures be implemented? In contemporary settings, spatial expression is a discipline awaiting for exploitation.
Exhibition Design as Artistic Intervention : Re-contextualize Experience of Space
In parallel, while exhibitions’ narrative structures are changing, the role of exhibition design is shifting to a more significant position accordingly.
Traditionally speaking, exhibition design’s definition was stemmed from the practice of presenting precious objects to the audiences in museum context. As art critic Rachel Barker and Patricia Smithen asserted, ‘[d]isplays are the interface between the visitor and the machinery of the museum’30. Such interface would serve as a vehicle to transmit curators’ messages, from high in the hierarchy down to the audiences. The conventional practices have dictated how exhibition design should function. Even the word - display - could have a strong association with the act of placement of objects in a static manner. Thereby, exhibition design was considered to be no more than a backdrop for artworks or a fabrication for the gallery space. Such craftsmanships had made it a discipline stayed in a subordinate position for centuries.
Not until the contemporary eras, when notable exhibition-designer-curator Harald Szeemann and artistic director Rudi Fuchs applied artistic interventions in curating- as critic Debora J. Meijers cited, they used ahistorical exhibitions to experiment potential spatial dialogues with museum objects31 - since then, the world started to realize the art of exhibition-making.
As artist Judith Barry asserted in her article ‘Dissenting Spaces’,
Increasingly, [...][there is a] sway of another kind of exhibition design, one designed not simply for display, but specifically for consumption, to cause an active response in the consumer, to create an exchange.32
The discipline is now expanding its notion as mediation between museum objects, space and visitors. To express it more explicitly, exhibition designer Elyse Gehring put it this way:
[E]xhibition design involves itself in creating experiences in real-time, utilising space, movement, and memory, to facilitate multilayered communication’33
In this sense, visitors are no longer considered to be passive readers of the encyclopedic exhibitions but an active voyagers in the exhibition journeys. In order to enhance visitors’ experiences and explore the potential of narratives, curators now embrace more spatial interventions - such as interior-architecture and theatrical installations - to transform the museums’ spaces into a fictional environments. As art theorist Mieke Bal put it, ‘installation [...][could be considered to be] a medium for narrative expression: combining objects in a specific way to make a "story" ’34. The designed exhibition spaces are no longer a site of preserve, but become a stage for orchestral experiences. As anthropologist Conrinne A. Kratz asserted in her article ‘Rhetorics of Value: Constituting Worth and Meaning through Cultural Display’:
Yet the range of media and communicative resources combined in exhibitions produce a total experience, an overall [...] synesthesia that is more than the sum of its parts.35
In order words, exhibition design transcends itself to be an artistic practice to add aesthetic values to new curatorial strategies, infusing dramas and theatrical effects. Eventually, it contributes to create a recognizable curatorial voice. In the next section,
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8 Robert Lumley (ed.), T he Museum Time Machine: Putting Cultures on Display, (London: Routledge,1988), p.101
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12 Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motiokn: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, 2nd ed., (Plymouth: AltaMira Press, 2008), p.235
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14 David Goodman, ‘Fear of Circuses: Founding the National Museum of Victoria’, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, Vol.3, Issue 1, (1990), p29
15 David Goodman, ‘Fear of Circuses: Founding the National Museum of Victoria’, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, Vol.3, Issue 1, (1990), p20
16 Steven Conn, Do Museums Still Need Objects? , (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), p.7
17 Kevin Moore, Museum and Popular Culture, (London: Leicester University Press, 1997), p.1
18 Kevin Moore, Museum and Popular Culture, (London: Leicester University Press, 1997), p.1
19 Sharon Macdonald and Paul Basu (eds.), Exhibition Experiment, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), p.51
20 Laura Lynn Peers, Alison Kay Brown (ed.), Museums and Source Communities: A Routledge Reader, (London: Routledge, 2003), p.194
21 Laura Lynn Peers, Alison Kay Brown (ed.), Museums and Source Communities: A Routledge Reader, (London: Routledge, 2003), p.194
22 Kylie Message, New Museums and the Making of Culture, (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2006), p.64
23 Kylie Message, New Museums and the Making of Culture, (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2006), p.64
24 Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson and Sandy Naine (eds.), Thinking about Exhibitions, (Oxon: Routledge, 1996), p.176
25 Susan A. Crane (ed.), Museums and Memory, (California: Stanford University Press, 2000), p.3- 4
26 David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p.97
27 Susan A. Crane (ed.), Museums and Memory, (California: Stanford University Press, 2000), p.7
28 Ivo Maroević, Introduction to Museology: The European Approach, (Munich: Verlag Dr. Christian Müller-straten, 1998), p.278
29 Steven Conn, Do Museums Still Need Objects?, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), p.7-8
30 Janet Marstine (ed.), New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006) p.96
31 Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson and Sandy Naine (eds.), Thinking about Exhibitions, (Oxon: Routledge, 1996), p.9
32 Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson and Sandy Naine (eds.), Thinking about Exhibitions, (Oxon: Routledge, 1996), p.311
33 Elyse Gehring, ‘What is Exhibition Design?’, Works in Progress..., (2011) <http://elyseworksinprogress.wordpress.com/2011/01/16/what-is-exhibition-design/> [accessed 18/05/13]
34 Mieke Bal, Looking in: The Art of Viewing, (Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 2001), p.162
35 Conrinne A. Kratz, ‘Rhetorics of Value: Constituting Worth and Meaning through Cultural Display’, Visual Anthropologist Review, Vol. 27, Issue 1 (2011), p.25