An exhibition is an essay in three dimensions

Preface: In a moment of unexpected synchronicity, it seems that Ed Rodley and I have both been thinking about metaphors for museum exhibitions, with reasonably divergent conclusions. My recommendation is that the two posts should be read together, allowing us to cover some different but complementary ground.

 Two of the greatest luxuries that accompany doing a PhD are those of autonomy of time, and the odd opportunity to participate in events like a masterclass with curator Helen Molesworth. Prior to the start of the AAANZ conference in Sydney this week, the AAANZ invited one-two PhD/Masters students from Fine Arts research programs around Australia and New Zealand to participate in masterclasses with each of the two conference keynotes. It meant that around 55 students got to sit down for free for three hours with either Thierry de Duve or Helen Molesworth, and discuss their work, their research and their thoughts.

Conversation in my masterclass crossed a reasonably diverse range of subjects, from feminism and gender perspectives in art through to the power or otherwise of objects. Where things got really interesting for me, however, were discussions about curatorial practice. Helen spoke of her belief that the essay exists as the best or primary way for making an art historical argument, and that when she curates an exhibition, she is motivated by the urge to make an essay-like argument in three dimensions. It was a perspective that really resonated with me. Many of the most compelling exhibitions that I’ve seen are those that make a case for a particular reading or understanding of (art) history – whether I agree with the argument or not.
(The same could be said for the best dissertations, which are often those that make a single clear argument and leave out unnecessary chaff and distractions, but that’s a topic for another day.)

But if the best exhibitions are indeed those that make three-dimensional an essay or argument, how do we carry such an urge into the digital space? How do we make digital an argument that involves physical objects? Are there elements unique to the digital environment that museums can exploit, much as the best exhibitions utilise the things unique to their medium to construct material statements? And what does this mean for current thinking about crowd-curation and getting public input into the exhibition during its creation?

Following the masterclass with Helen, fellow PhD student Travis Cox and I went to explore the current exhibitions at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, happening upon a Sol LeWitt display. Travis is a bit of a LeWitt junky, and we spent some time discussing the LeWitt retrospective at MASS MoCA in the USA, which is on display for 25 years. If an exhibition is an essay, then this is a textbook; a tome dedicated to defining (and fixing) the impact of LeWitt’s work. Of course, the analogy is not perfect, because a book has an order in which it must be approached, whilst an exhibition can often be sauntered through in any order, leafed through page by page without concern that the order will be wrong.

Still, here we have an idea that a great exhibition is an argument, it’s a proposition. It does not merely reflect what has been discussed before, like oh-so-many undergraduate papers. Instead it makes a stand, it pokes at a new way of thinking without necessarily pretending to the only approach to the topic.

And with this in mind, what I want to know now is how we continue an argument that starts in the museum proper onto the Web? In David Weinberger’s Too Big To Know (p95), there is a discussion about Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books, and a new model for physical books that could make possible the communication of “the fathomlessness of the archives and the bottomlessness of the past.” Weinberger offers this succinct capturing of the ideas in Darnton’s essay.

“[S]tructure it in layers arranged like a pyramid.” At the top would be the “concise account.” Second, there would be “expanded versions of different aspects of the argument.” Third, there could be documentation to support the top two layers. Fourth, include “selections from previous scholarship and discussions of them.” Fifth would be teaching tools. The sixth layer would aggregate reader commentary and exchanges.

Could we take a similar approach to the link between the in-museum essay in three dimensions and its online counterpart?

Finally, I cannot explore these subject even for a moment without linking to this amazing description by Elif Batuman of Orhan Pamuk’s museum of innocence, the “world’s first synergetic novel-museum.” This is a completely off-beat way of thinking about this problem, but an interesting and wonderful read and project, and absolutely worth considering in this discussion.

For the next ten years, writing and shopping proceeded in a dialectical relationship. Pamuk would buy objects that caught his eye, and wait for the novel to ‘swallow’ them, demanding, in the process, the purchase of further objects. Occasionally an object refused to be swallowed, as happened with some carriage lanterns and an old gas meter. Pamuk published The Museum of Innocence in 2008. It resembles less a museum catalogue than a 600-page audio guide. A ticket printed in the back of each copy grants one free entry to the museum. By that point he had already acquired nearly all of Füsun’s belongings, so the museum could, in theory, have opened the next day. But Pamuk was worried about the example of Edouard Dujardin, the French writer sometimes credited with pioneering, in a largely forgotten text called Les Lauriers sont coupés, the stream of consciousness. Pamuk didn’t want to be Dujardin. He wanted to be Joyce. It wasn’t enough just to build the world’s first synergetic novel-museum. The museum had to be a thing of beauty. He hired a team of artists and curators and worked full time in the museum for several months, taking naps on Kemal’s bed in the attic.

So, what do you think? Is an exhibition an essay (or an album or a mix tape)? And if it is, how do we continue an argument that starts in the museum proper onto the web?

14 thoughts on “An exhibition is an essay in three dimensions

  1. A museum exhibition is first and foremost a museum exhibition and it is temporary [ok, you can argue that the 25 year long Sol Lewitt exhibit has a sense of permancency, but it too will come to an end] and usually inwardly focussed on its theme and the collections/concepts being presented. A website can outlive and outlast the exhibition by decades and the website can link to a an array of related objects, ideas, and information. For over a decade now museums have tried to replicate the experience of an exhibit in an online website. This has really limited the accompanying websites and silo’d and isolated these websites into time-bound frames. Jasper Visser’s July 10 blog posting cites Jim Richardson’s open letter to museum directors blog posting related to MuseumNext that states, “The solution I believe is for museum websites to become hubs for ideas, publishing platforms which allow institutions to pursue their missions by sharing knowledge and inspiration with the public.” I recommend that museums rethink the exhibit website framework. As Elliot says in ET, “Free the frogs.”
    Jane Sledge

    1. I absolutely agree with you. The Internet and exhibitions have absolutely different conditions that make them suited to very different things. I don’t think that the museum should be seeking to replicate the experience of an exhibition online at all. But that’s not to say that a museum cannot continue a discussion that begins in the museum space – or even well before that (as per Ed’s post, which almost sees the exhibition as the culmination of a process that starts far beforehand) – into the digital environment.

      On Twitter this morning, Mia Ridge brought up spacial narratives and linked me to the Neatline site, which “allows scholars, students, and curators to tell stories with maps and timelines.” Now this sounds like it starts to touch on interesting ways through which a museum exhibition, which starts as an “essay in three dimensions” can then be structured in different layers (recalling to me the scaffolding idea that Seb and Ed have both spoken about) using the things unique to the digital medium.

      This idea that of the exhibition as an essay isn’t new. But I think why resonated with me is because if curators are thinking of their role as making an idea or an essay in three dimensions, because that is the condition and possibility (and limitation) of the museum space, then it might be useful to apply that same thinking to the digital space and ask what in this space is uniquely possible and suitable that is not possible (or suitable) in other spaces.

  2. Hi Suse, thanks for the shout-out. Was great to spend time talking with you!

    I’m not in a position for a longer reply at the moment (never really got the hang of iPad typing…) but wanted to throw in my two cents. Excuse any misspellings!

    Yesterday during the aaanz conference I attended a series of presentations discussing how the museum can connect with a wider audience through digital technologies. Some great ideas were discussed around how to expand those exhibitions through apps and online (including a walkthrough of the new app for the contemporary gallery here in Sydney) however what I was struck by during the presentations was the continual passive nature of the approach to engaging an audience. The papers that were presented on ‘engaging audiences’ all discussed how to give the audience MORE information, rather than how to actually create a dialogue. For myself, when bringing an audience into the online sphere there needs to be a way for feedback, for dialogue, to develop. If an exhibition is an argument (which I loved as a curatorial manifesto) then surely in bringing it online there should be a place for replies (that are as well considered as the original argument of course…)

    1. Travis, agreed – it was lovely meeting and hanging out.

      There are a couple of interesting things that emerge for me from your comment. Your observation that audience engagement (often) emphasises giving more information surprises me at first, because most of the tech conversations I have about engagement don’t necessarily seem to be on those terms. At the same time, with so much information about seemingly everything available online, it wouldn’t be surprising if questions about the types and amounts of information they need to supply have emerged in new ways. What do you think is a good balance? Can museums now supply less information themselves, knowing that there is so much information available beyond their walls, or instead should they seek to contribute more and better information to the broader information network? Is their role to channel information or make it?

      The next complexity emerges in your idea that online there should be a place for well-considered replies. A good exhibition is like a form of physicalised academic research that can take years to come to fruition. However, unlike academic research, there is not necessarily opportunity for peer review. The closest that occurs is through art criticism and writing once the exhibition is installed, but it would be super-interesting if there was a mechanism through which exhibitions could be peer reviewed in some way. (And I wonder, then, whether the exhibition should or could then change in response to that peer feedback?)

      However, if you really want to make an exhibition open to replies online, then it is also important to know that much of the discussion might not be well-considered. It won’t necessarily be a debate b/w peers. Because an exhibition takes place in a public arena and often with an imperative for serving the public, it is the public who may feel compelled to respond, and not only other experts or people trained in the vocabulary of its specialty, so the debate could be anything other than well-considered. Is this still ok?

  3. I’m not really sure if supplying more information is the best way to approach audience information, and the demonstration of the MCA app showed it to be well considered in it’s layering of information (didactic panel/longer description in-app/further long form information on the website), and I did enjoy that the museum was making a push towards including video of installation of work and interviews with artists. Along with information produced in-house, museums should also be curating and presenting information gathered from other sources and presenting it in an objective way and allow the audience to synthesise and form conclusions at their own pace. A difficult proposition and one much easier said than done.

    As an aside: I’ve just realised I overstated the dearth of discussion around interactivity in the panel within my previous post. There was discussion from the NGA on their Slow Art program and also of the (Art Gab?) discussion group program run by… someone, my notes are unclear on the exact details… But, anyway I think that these programs are really fantastic, but limitations (that were acknowledged) on numbers that could participate in these programs mean that there is still a very real lack of a way for a non-art-educated general public to engage, learn and experience the museum in a non-threatening way.

    As for the right-of-reply to exhibitions, my note on ‘well-considered’ replies was a specific acknowledgement of the fact that where there is a place for user-generated content online (in whatever form) there will be trolling in its many guises. Well-considered replies, for myself, merely mean that it is more than a knee jerk reaction. ‘It was crap”, is not appropriate. “It was crap because I didn’t understand it”, while not much better at least gives a reason for the view held by the author. “Most of it was crap and I don’t think its art because it didn’t look like anything but I liked the painting of the sunflowers”, is much better. At least from there a (healthy) debate can progress. The poster may not change their mind about non-figurative art but the hope is that through a dialogue there could at least be a challenging of ideals (on all sides!) and even learning experiences that the gallery could then take away and utilise to improve education in the future.

    Of course that’s all incredibly idealistic.

    1. “Along with information produced in-house, museums should also be curating and presenting information gathered from other sources and presenting it in an objective way and allow the audience to synthesise and form conclusions at their own pace.”

      This is an interesting perspective Travis. Where do you think this should take place? In the exhibition space itself, like footnotes? Online? On an app or mobile website? In exhibition catalogues and books? And is objectivity something that museums can or should strive for? If an exhibition is an essay writ in objects, that is successful when it probes or provokes a new perspective, then it is not necessarily objective at all (if such a thing exists). Should museums be providing a he-said, she-said version of history?

      Former NYTimes journalist Linda Greenhouse has recently written a piece challenging “he-said, she-said” journalism, in which she considers notions of truth in journalism. She writes:

      In “The Elements of Journalism,” Kovach and Rosenstiel make a distinction between two kinds of truth: correspondence and coherence. “For journalism, these tests roughly translate into getting the facts straight and making sense of the facts.” They call for a “journalism of verification” to replace a “journalism of assertion”: “A more conscious discipline of verification is the best antidote to being overrun by a new journalism of assertion.”

      Do you think it is the place of curators, and museums more generally, to make assertions (as per the essay-as-exhibition school), or to seek verification instead? And would the answer be different for science and art museums?

      1. Please make assertions. Make smart assertions based on evidence, but make assertions. Objectivity is a dead end, primarily because it’s a myth. The act of interpretation injects a subjective perspective into any work. And museums without interpretation are just catalogs of stuff, piles of trinkets. There’s no future there.

        Rather than striving to maintain our thin veneer of objectivity we should be making as many of our processes as possible as transparent as possible to the public. Let’s say to everyone, “Here is our interpretation of this, and over here is all of our homework so you can see how and why we arrived at that interpretation. Please, feel welcome to draw your own conclusions, but at least put some effort into it like we did.”

        I don’t think buy the “objective” story from anyone anymore. No one really believes in our objectivity, but when we do all of our work behind closed doors they draw their own conclusions about how we arrived at our subjective interpretations. If we want to have some impact on society (I hope we do) we have to be willing to challenge people. When people are challenged their first response is a defensive one. They’re going to look at whatever they don’t like and write it off as “academic bias”, “pseudo intellectual” or “caving to pressure from ” and then continue thinking whatever they want without consideration of any evidence. If we put the process of interpretation front and center in our galleries, it will encourage people to consider how interpretations are formed and not just what they are.

        This will be especially important when we start adding public input to the list of things we consider when we interpret our collections. If we aren’t fully transparent when we engage with the public and solicit their opinion, many people will simply think it’s a token gesture and that their input isn’t really being heard. If we aren’t transparent right from the start people will start to engage with us, and then slip away over time as they feel less and less important. “It sounded like they wanted to listen to us, but it doesn’t feel like they are.” Getting them back after that will be harder than engaging them initially was.

        We have to show people how we do what we do, or it will start to lose meaning to them.

      2. I’ve been thinking about these issues for a few days now and I’m starting to believe that it depends on the audience that the museum is targeting.

        Science is fact-based in a way that art can never be. Gravity works the same no matter what language you speak (unless that language is Martian…), but the very act of discussing an artwork beyond who/when/medium (and even then the ‘who’ is often troubling) is completely fraught with subjective biases and possible subconscious selective blindness of information. The place of the gallery is to challenge, question and seek answers without conclusions, the viewers place is to look, engage and consider.

        However, a museum aiming at the general public audience should, I believe, present as much information as possible about the works, but in a way that allows the audience to peruse it at their own pace. This allows the audience to draw their own (subjective) conclusions. This information can of course include essays (whether visual or written), but the most important thing is that they are underscored by differing interpretations so as to not convey that ‘this is THE reading’. Like I’ve said before, this is a difficult prospect and I certainly don’t have the answers of how you develop an information system that acts as an ‘introduction to arts’. Note too that this doesn’t preclude an essay style show from existing, but the general public need to understand the complete subjectivity of the final exhibition’s narrative.

        If the museum is targeting an art-educated public, then does it need to spend time cultivating new visitors into diving deeper into art history? Surely the audience already has a more sophisticated understanding of the gallery/works and is also in a position to discover new information without the hand holding that may be needed in order to engage a lesser-(art-)educated person. I’m having flashbacks now to my rant at the end of Helen’s masterclass…

        Also, I agree with Matt Popke, below (or above?) that this all needs to be as transparent as possible in order to encourage engagement with an institution that is often seen by the masses as being all smoke and mirrors.

      3. Matt, I agree with you on most of this. I note that you talk about “when we start adding public input to the list of things we consider when we interpret our collections.” Do you think it is a fait accompli? Is it a when, and not an if? I’m not entirely convinced that it is, or not in normal practice. It still seems in many cases that it is only a token gesture. Do you think it will become more integrated with normal museum work?

        Also, do you think our preference or move towards transparency is supported or expected by the general public?

        Travis, there is an idea I want to pick up on from your response too. Is science (being “fact”-based) less subjective than art? I’m not sure I agree with you here. There might be facts of science, that when an object is dropped it falls in response to a force that we know as gravity. But the history of gravity, for instance, is going to be full of thousands of incremental events that have added to our knowledge and understanding of it, and what it makes possible, and how it relates to other things. But in an exhibition, there might be space and budget available to explore 10 of them. Suggesting that it is fact-based does not mean that it is less subjective than an art-historical exhibition. Two different science curators might choose different objects to demonstrate its effects, or might pull out different biographical stories to illustrate the ‘facts’ of the science. I would argue they are still making an essay or assertion about what is important.

        I’ve just been reading Bruno Latour’s From Realpolitik To Dingpolitik, and he argues that “transparent, unmediated, undisputable facts have recently become rarer and rarer. To provide complete undisputable proof has become a rather messy, pesky, risky business.” Even in science, which so often does seem to be objective, revolutions in thought occur that challenge even underlying assumptions of how normal work is done. (I’ve touched on this a little here So I’m not sure I agree with you that science exhibitions make assertions any less than art museums do, although maybe they can give the impression that they are more fact-based. (BTW – I’d love someone from a science museum background to challenge me here.) What do you think?

      4. We seem to have hit the allowable reply depth!

        I hadn’t really considered science in regards to it’s historical background, instead I was thinking about formulae and such. I totally agree with you that there are many historical narratives leading to our current understandings of something like gravity (or evolution!) and some things are still unknown (measuring the higgs field/the higgs boson come to mind). Therefore a curated exhibition within a science museum should, and will, have a definite narrative to convey.

        My point, was that within science there is an ability to say something akin to “In this plane of reality at this point in time can measure how quickly something will fall using this formula” (Do I mean formula? Someone more sciencey than I should feel free to correct me here). For me this is different to, “The artist painted this picture of flowers because he liked flowers and had just grown these flowers and btw they are also symbolism cos he was thinking about his sisters grave where he planted them”. So death of the author can affect an artwork much more so than a scientific theory as the theory sits within an ‘objective’ world of real-world application that can show it is correct whereas a work of art sits within a nebulous space of complete subjectivity.

        How then do I explain a statement made by the artist themselves about their work? This statement is still just one subjective viewpoint, (hopefully) artists realise that their work will be contextualised by the society/time/place in which it is viewed. We have no control over this, all we can really do is make art that we feel speaks most clearly to our intended purpose.

        So then the museum is a place to convey information, and information always has a subjective leaning, a narrative coloured by the habits of the individual. The job of the museum shouldn’t be to objectively state facts because that’s an impossibility, instead it’s about conveying a narrative without shuttering debate to dissent from others.

      5. @Suse,

        I don’t think the public is clamoring for transparency right now. I don’t think the public will ever collectively say, “We want transparent museums.” But the organizations that choose to go that direction will draw more support, attract bigger crowds and may just do a better job of serving their mission. Those that don’t may see tough times ahead as an entire generation grows up already accustomed to the idea that they can and should double check whatever the “experts” tell them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s