Inside/Outside: Criticising museum practice

Posted on September 8, 2012

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Given the ostensible parameters and protocols of the call for contributions to this volume, I am given to imagine myself as one of a group of contributors situated “outside” a (museum) “profession” and “looking in,” as a “scholar who has written books about museums but who [is] trained and work[s] in other disciplinary areas.” In accepting the generous invitation to contribute to the collection, I am nonetheless placed, however provisionally, and according to the self-admittedly tentative nature of the editorial formatting of the volume, in a curiously dichotomous relationship to those “looking from within the profession.”

So says art historian Donald Preziosi, by way of locating his contribution to the 2006 book Museum Philosophy for the Twenty-First Century (pp74).  His statement raises interesting questions about the positioning of those who write and speak about the museum and its profession, and their space within or external to it. This is particularly the case, given that only pages before, Preziosi issued a provocation that:

There seems to have been, at least among “insiders” or museum professionals, an endemic, across-the-board abandonment of critically engaged and historically responsible attention to the fundamental questions about the functions and social and political roles of museums. The disjunction between the “external” critical and philosophical literature relating to museums, museology, and collecting and that emanating from “within” the profession is very great and growing. (pp70)

He critiques the sector as an outsider, a position he has been “placed” into, simultaneously arguing that those on the “inside” have abandoned “critically engaged and historically responsible attention to the fundamental questions about the functions and social and political roles of museums.” It seems he slays “insiders” for their lack of engagement, whilst distancing himself from such a position.

Is his criticism of museum professionals valid? Honestly, I don’t know. The conversations I have within the sector are often highly engaged and highly critical; in recent years there has seemingly been a noticeable turn towards theoretical and critical discourse. Yet most of the time business as usual continues (as it must). Critical reflection is a great luxury, but one often far removed from the practicalities of actual work.

Still, his ideas leave their stain on me because I can’t identify exactly where I am positioned within the sector. Before my first conference, my PhD supervisor cautioned me that as soon as I mentioned that I was an academic, I might be dismissed summarily as unable to speak to the ‘real concerns’ of the profession. And I know from discussions with now-close friends that this indeed happened (although fortunately not to such a great extent as to prevent later connection). As such, I now go out of my way to prove my credentials as a legitimate member of the museum community. I work in museums, I volunteer. My friends and colleagues, those whose ideas I respect, are museum professionals far more frequently than academics. I spend as much time working in the sector as possible, and hope that it’s enough to clean me of the taint of “outsider”.

But paradoxically, perhaps it is this very mark of difference that gives me the most freedom to criticise and speak to the philosophical concerns of the sector. Were I welded to a single institution, any criticism that I might make could be seen implicitly as a criticism of my home museum. Being outspoken under those circumstances could cut too close; creating internal tension that would make the business of getting work done much harder. Speaking out from the outside comes with a freedom rarely afforded to true insiders, because the possible costs are only personal and not institutional. (Incidentally, I also wonder if this isn’t at least part of the reason that the MuseTrain authors have chosen to stay anonymous thus far.)

This issue is on my mind now for two reasons. The first is because of a conversation I had with an old friend yesterday. He is an artist whose early work highly controversially questioned some unspoken and seemingly unquestionable ideas here in Australia. This work, which he was not “allowed” to make but did anyway (his then youthful naivety giving him a sense of bulletproofness) raised and continues to raise very significant critical questions. It also left him out in the wilderness as an artist, unshowable for a significant period of time afterwards. Now, with hindsight, he questions his own right to make the work that he did, to critique the situation in the way he did; doubts raised in part because of his outsider status from that community. His right and ability to ask questions are diminished because he is on the outside, but they are questions not being raised elsewhere or from the inside. Preziosi’s criticism of the museum profession equally rings true of my friend’s experiences as an artist.

In addition, I am starting to think more carefully on my position in this sector as the end of the PhD looms more forcefully on the horizon. Although I still have more than a year until completion, there has of late been a small chorus of people asking what I intend to do after it’s finished. Will I go into academia, or work in a museum? Where do I want to work? What do I want to do?

They are difficult questions to answer with any certainty or clarity of vision. Once I make a choice, particularly between working in a museum (insider) or as an academic (outsider), then I am effectively choosing to align myself in a particular direction. I am either in; or I’m out. I can speak as one of you, or I can choose a different voice altogether. It will become harder and harder to straddle the divide between the two, which is what seems to make the current space I inhabit so interesting.

Museum philosopher Hilde Hein introduces herself and her position in the sector in the preface to The Museum in Transition: A Philosophical Perspective with the inclusion of this paragraph (pp xiii):

My own experience with museum practice and with theorizing about museums has been gained through internships in museums and more than two decades of academic investigation. By following both of these avenues I hope to have found common ground between those who reflect upon museums from a cultural perspective and those who know them by working inside.

She intentionally positions herself as someone who can speak from within, and without. Is this a necessary requirement for those who do wish to consider and critique the institution as theorist? Are her reflections upon museums more or less critical as a result of this urge to bridge the divide between professional and theorist? Are they more palatable than if she did not spend time in institutions? Is it, in fact, the place of museum professionals to critique the institution, or to work towards its effective functioning?

Obviously this post comes by way of my own existential crisis career concerns, but I wonder if it doesn’t scratch at a larger and more pervasive itch. Do museums need “outsiders” to critique and provoke discussion about fundamental issues? Or can those working within the sector, or within particular institutions, ask unanswerable (and sometimes un-askable) questions and continue to function effectively on the inside? Are there people who do manage to successfully straddle the divide between insider/outsider, or is it inevitable that in a relatively short time I will have to choose?

What do you think?

Posted in: Ideas, Museums, Personal