There is a man behind the curtain

Posted on July 23, 2011


In a couple of weeks, I’m giving one of my first ever lectures. The subject is Museums, Galleries and the Politics of Institutions, which is a thoroughly juicy and exciting topic. Colour me excited!

I’ve just started ‘building’ my lecture, but already I’ve had an unexpected realisation about both teaching and museums. Until now, it’s never really occurred to me the extent to which every class I’ve ever attended, and every museum I’ve ever visited, constructs the information and stories within. The message is not just built around what is important to say, but also on what will fit within the limitations of time and space; on what will make a compelling story; and on the personal whims and preferences of the information architect.

This observation is so obvious, I don’t quite understand how it hasn’t smacked me square in the jaw before. As much as I’ve ‘known’ that museums can never tell ‘truth’ since every story has innumerable sides, the reality of that situation had never occurred to me so starkly until I had to create a lecture on the subject.

You see, I want to give the students insight into the historical development of museums; to educate them about (some of) the myriad of ways that the choices made in museums are political; to equip them to start seeing museums and exhibitions through critical eyes; and, ideally, to inspire them and capture their imaginations. And I’ve only got an hour in which to achieve all this.

It’s a big ask. Due to the time limits, I will obviously have to leave out far more than I can include, and the things that I do decide to include will be those that are both relevant/important and that reinforce the narrative direction I decide to construct.

And that’s the kicker. The information that makes the cut will be the information that best helps me tell a compelling story – one that is logical, and memorable, and in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The examples I use in the lecture will not necessarily be the most critical – they will be the ones that best help make my argument. I’ve looked at the examples used by the lecturer who gave the course last year, and they are entirely different from my choices. He and I used the same subject as a starting point, but each of us constructed a very different lecture – and a different story.

Yet most students will probably hear my lecture and believe that the information I give them is the canonical stuff that they need to know, simply because of the forum in which it is presented. In choosing works of art to focus on, I will be privileging those works and artists simply by drawing attention to them in the context of a lecture. It is a great responsibility. If I choose (intentionally or by neglect) only to talk about works of art by men, or European artists, or painters and sculptors but leave out video artists, then I too am guilty of neglecting to present a whole perspective about the subject… and yet I will have to make said choices because of the limitations of time. Therefore, my lecture is every bit as political as its focus.

Curators too are faced with these difficult choices. It is never possible to include everything when constructing an exhibition. Doing so would probably make the exhibition less clear and less impactful. But visitors don’t necessarily consider this. Most visitors will accept at face value that what is included is there because it was the most deserving – not because it best illustrated a point, or was the only appropriate work in the museum collection. This is precisely why museums are such political institutions.

I have known this at some theoretical level for years. I’ve taken dozens of courses at University and worked in museums for a little while. But it was not until constructing my own lecture on a subject that is so open-ended, with many possible paths that the journey could take, that I gained real insight into the extent that my own knowledge has been constructed around the ‘curatorial’ choices of my teachers. It’s been fascinating.

I think we have a responsibility when teaching people about history – or anything – to provide them with a story that is clear and legible. Without that, they are unlikely to learn at all. But I also think that we as teachers – whether in universities or in museums – have a responsibility to remind people that what we select for such a purpose is not the be all and end all of knowledge, and that the lecture or the exhibition is a great starting point but it should not be the final destination.

And I think this is the ultimate message that I am hope to get across to the students. I am going to use the process of constructing a lecture as a metaphor for the process of constructing an exhibition, and show them that there is a real person behind the choices that get made – and that those choices have real meaning. Thus, I think I will finish my lecture with a statement like this:

This lecture, like a museum exhibition and like every lecture you’ve ever sat in, does not tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
It weaves one story of the history of museums. It leaves out more than it includes.
It is not neutral. It is never neutral.

I hope they get the point.

Posted in: Museums, PhD