“Today’s art museums are committed to completing major expansion and renovation projects, and vigorously carrying out their stated missions. These missions typically are concerned with processes of acquisition, preservation, exhibition and education. The National Gallery of Art, for example, is dedicated to ‘preserving, collecting, exhibiting, and fostering the understanding of works of art.’ Similarly, the Getty Museum at the J. Paul Getty Center seeks to ‘delight, inspire, and educate the public by acquiring, conserving, studying, exhibiting, and interpreting works of art.’ Such processes are strategic, of course, and give direction and purpose to the range of programmes and services offered by these institutions. Ensuring that visitors are surrounded by works of art ‘at the highest quality,’ these processes also give rise to a particular view of the museum as an ‘object of reflection, contemplation, and discussion.’ Although unstated, I shall argue that art museums typically have other missions that are actively, if insidiously implemented through processes of representation (re-presentation), socialization, institutionalization and commodification. The museum functions as a ‘socializing institution,’ that both represents and presents cultural assumptions, as well as social and aesthetic values to young and old alike. These processes succeed in establishing an ‘ideology of aesthetic autonomy’ — the compartmental conception of fine art that segregates it to the separate realm of the museum. Simultaneously, they present ‘ideology in material form.’ The museum itself is a representation that tends to take on an independent and ultimately self-reflecting existence. In a Debordian view, ‘it is a spectacle, which, in its generality, is a concrete inversion of life, and as such, the autonomous movement of non-life.’ Through processes of representation and commodification, the spectacular museum is constructed as a frame that influences the public perception of art and society. Moreover, this ideological frame influences how the public experiences constructs of time and place, and how it comes to know about art in relation to the real world. Today’s thriving art museums – and the various processes that deliver both their overt and covert missions – are likely to have a greater impact on society than ever before.” (Bude, 2012)
In an analysis of mission statements of 59 American museums, even the tag cloud below resulting from the texts offers interesting insights. (Szántó, 2011) However the term “collect” is still most significant, other concepts like “educate” and “understand” characterising educational functions are almost as important. (The museums in this study were mostly fine art galleries, so the words “art” and “contemporary” naturally occur very often.)
Exhibition organisers have to learn to look at the display through the eyes of visitors. Temporary exhibitions attract new audience segments that, once in the building, will most often see the permanent exhibitions as well. In this way, the major works of the collection of a museum (exhibited permanently) will influence the reception of all the temporary shows – which, in turn, shed new light on pieces of the museum collection removed from their original place at the permanent exhibition to be included in the temporary one. Therefore, curators always have to plan keeping all the exhibitions of the museum in mind.
„The identification of curator and critic is supposed to explain the work he does, but it is not self-evident. After all, according to the classical modern view of the art system’s internal differentiation, distinguishing the positions of artist, dealer, collector, curator, and critic, the last two play different roles for the audience. The curator is the pantheon’s administrator, representing the position of the museum, the hierarchy, the tradition. The critic, by contrast, thrives on controversy among the contemporaries; he or she speaks out in newspapers and journals (and now possibly in blogs), stages polemical interventions, and insists on timeliness and topicality. In slightly different terms, we might say that the two stand for an antagonism between the positions of the public institution and the intellectual market. Turning history into tradition is one thing; helping define the direction of the present, another. Someone who would do both must depart from the museum and take the controversy to a different level.” (Bude, 2012)
This description of roles and responsibilities is especially true with temporary exhibitions, those that clearly want to help define the present, as Bude says. When looking at an arts and crafts show, we may ask, what the role of art and design in society is, and what could it be? How can it change our lives if we know the questions to ask designers in order to get useful answers? What is the design process, after all? How much art, how much technology? – Such questions are asked by professionals and laypeople alike. A recent temporary exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, intended to clarify these issues in a way all stakeholders can benefit.
The temporary show at the Victoria and Albert Museum can also be interpreted as an explanation of the conception, development and functional, aesthetic and sociocultural messages of the permanent exhibitions: charts and design objects from all over the world. Other temporary exhibitions are reactions to the permanent display.
I am going to begin with a very brief glimpse at two exhibitions that I was co-curator of, very different exhibitions at very different moments in time. The first one was at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford where I was curator, signalled by the black and white nature of the image. This was an exhibition as part of a series of exhibitions with a slightly imperial title of ‘Australia in Oxford’ that we curated in 1988. The primary objective of this exhibition was to emphasise the aesthetics of Indigenous Australian material culture under the constraints of the collections that were in the Pitt Rivers Museum and the fact that it had to be in harmony with the Pitt Rivers Museum as a whole. You can see the way that the Pitt Rivers Museum relatively recently has displayed boomerangs and in fact the permanent display at the Pitt Rivers Museum is in this particular way. I think Danie Mellor has produced an artwork responding to this [perhaps even] assuming that it was a nineteenth century mode of display, because in the nineteenth century they were all ordered as a row of soldiers side by side. But the constraints include the fact that when one is exhibiting a large number of objects, which in some senses was a requirement of a museum that has an emphasis on open storage and on making large numbers of objects accessible, when there is relatively little documentation associated with the object it is going to influence the way that one does it.
“The other thing is at that particular moment in time we were very concerned to demonstrate continuities as well as to link in with the aesthetics of Indigenous Australian art. You won’t be able to see this in the two photographs I am showing, except very briefly. You can see one of the continuities in the associations between paintings from Yuendumu – that was one of the first paintings produced at Warlukurlangu – juxtaposed with works that came from much earlier collecting eras. But I am not going to dwell on that exhibition, nor am I going to dwell on the next exhibition that may be familiar to people here in that this was one of the opening exhibitions at the National Museum of Australia. (…) I think a national museum has to conceptualise itself as something which has interlinkages across the nation with that particular diversity. You want a national museum that links in with local museums and that links in with Indigenous cultural centres and that has a dynamic relationship in those particular contexts. That probably fits in with the thing that I was saying that one has to begin to see museums as a whole and that the parts are if you like little statements or speeches that come out of a whole that is highly productive and dynamic.” (Morphy, 2009)
In this case, the temporary show reflects the permanent collection, and vice versa. The museum’s collection as a whole is used to enter into dialogues with other institutions and co-organise temporary shows as interpretations of the collections of each of them. Another way to perceive temporary installations is to re-contextualise objects. (Endzweig, 2011) For a short time period, collection items leave their storage boxes and become meaningful objects again. They are placed in dioramas resembling their place of origin, where they are surrounded by other objects that help understand their meaning and use. Thus the temporary display works like the kiss of the Prince who wakes up Sleeping Beauty to return to life after decades of dreaming in her forsaken castle. The temporary exhibition that singles out a few highlights of the collection offers multiple viewpoints and rich scaffolding for the visitor to make a personal meaning of the objects.
Temporary shows often invite visitors to have a glimpse behind the scenes and see how the museum functions as a research and conservation centre. In the spring of 2012, the staff of the Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts had to face an unexpected and extremely difficult to handle situation: the planned closure of the museum building for a major enlargement of the basement and its development into a visitor centre was postponed. No exhibitions were planned for the 6-month closing period, so the museum leadership had to improvise.
They invited a successful show curated by another museum and managed to add important works that offered new insights about the theme of the show. However, their most successful move was to invite visitors to be part of exciting scientific discoveries in connection with objects that are intriguing for all the visitor types we quoted above: Egyptian mummies. Let us see why different visitor types find such an exhibition worth a visit.
Explorers find them exciting because of the new tools and methods of scientific investigation that make it possible to reveal their age, exact place of origin, diet and possible cause of death. Facilitators have an easy time motivating their family and friends for a visit, because beautifully decorated sarcophagi and funeral masks are shown at school when the history of ancient Egypt is taught. Mummies are part of the crime story and horror movie culture as well. Experience seekers are fascinated by documents about mummification procedures of later ages exemplified by bodies found in the cellar of a Hungarian church. They also find it fascinating to realise that their countrymen have discovered important burial sites of ancient Egypt and wanted to hear stories about the finds as well as the innovative restoration procedure.
Professionals and hobbyists enjoy the detailed scientific interpretation of the conservation of the human body and the documentation of excavation sites through film shows (among them, a 3D movie produced especially for this exhibition). The website including researchers’ blogs satisfies their need for scientific data and also offers further reading. Finally, Rechargers find a quiet place to linger at the museum shop and café situated next to the display and furnished with posters and souvenirs inspired by the exhibition.
This temporary exhibition was an excellent example of a display that sheds new light on a part of the museum collection permanently exhibited. After having seen the mummies, visitors often continued their walk in the permanent Egyptian collection because they wanted to see more of the art and culture of ancient Egypt.
According to Susan Pearce, an exhibition is a historic phenomenon just like the objects that are exhibited. (Pearce, 1999). An exhibition that was full of provocative, new ideas when it first opened a decade ago may seem a boring commonplace today. Temporary exhibitions bear the stamp of their age, too: they not only document curators’ viewpoints but also show how certain themes and styles were interpreted by visitors. Critiques about and audience reactions to temporary shows introduce us to the way of thinking of previous generations. The way we respond to current exhibitions mirrors the flexibility of thinking and openness to new values and ideas of contemporary society (or the lack of them). Here is a list of exhibitions just opened when this chapter was written (April-May, 2013) that offer new perspectives based on the collection of their institution.
– Ohnmacht als Situation: Democracia, Revolutie & Polizey. Ausstellungsprojekt mit Diskurslabor. (Fainting as a situation: Democracy, Revolution and Police. German language orthography used in the documentation of the show.) Frankfurter Kunstverein, 13 June – 4 August 2013
– Think Global! Build Social! (Original title is in English.) Deutsches Architekturmuseum (German Museum of Architecture), Frankurt am Main, 8 June – 1 September 2013.
– Meilensteine des Wissens – Meisterwerke der Kunst. (Milestones of Knowledge – Masterpieces of the Arts.) Zwinger, Mathematisch-Physikalisches Salon (Mathematics and Physics Parlour), Dresden, permanent exhibition opened in May 2013.
– Herod the Great: the King’s Final Journey. Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 13 February 2013 –4 January 2014.
– Juden. Geld. Eine Vorstellung. (Jews. Money. A Conception.) Jüdisches Museum, Frankfurt am Main, 25 April – 6 October 2013.
– Ice Age Art and the Arrival of Modern Mind. British Museum, London, 18 May – 2 June 2013.
– Code Breaker. Celebrating a British Pioneer. Science Museum, London, 21 June 2012 – 21 October 2013.
– Wisdom of Astraea... Freemasonry in the 18th and First Third of the 19th Century - Objects from the Hermitage Collection. Winter Palace, St. Petersburg, 18 May – 1 September 2013.