By Elspeth Hunter
The boundaries of what constitutes a museum, a gallery, a library or an archive are shifting – each are bleeding into one another, overlapping and embedding themselves within one another, seemingly creating what can only be described broadly as centres of culture and personal reflection on what was, what is, and what will be. Indeed, the desire to create a culture sector which is ever more accessible to all audiences has led to an institutionalised loosening of the categorisation that once traditionally ruled the sector. A museum is no longer a place where individuals go to witness the relics of our forefathers, but has become a site to develop one’s own understanding of today – a site to consider how we want to move forward, both personally and collectively. In this sense, the conventions used to elicit this response are varied and different for each and every one of us.
One of the many ways heritage sites and museums are dealing with this shift in focus is to invite artists of all types into the museum space/site to create and exhibit works based on the institutions collection. In the Museum Next conference held in Melbourne, February 2017, Karen Vickery, current director of learning & visitor experience at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, discusses the process of inviting performance artists into the museum space. She highlights the ability of performance art to create an “emotional resonance” within visitors, in order to “open up” the chance for the audience to experience a deeper connection with the exhibition with which the performance is related. For Vickery, this is a successful method as it offers “another lense, another way, another entry point” for individuals to access the narratives and concepts within the museums curated exhibition.
The notion of ‘remediation’ that Vickery applies to her work is essentially a method “to bring about a shift in medium, to experiment with alternative ways of describing, interpreting, and displaying.” (An idea further explored by Clémentine Deliss in her text ‘Performing the Curatorial in a Post-Ethnographic Museum’) Collaboration with other creative organisations, and offering audiences such a variety of frames in which to access and divulge an emotional response to the museological content is much more successful than what the museum can offer on its own. As their market research suggests, the performance can often put visitors in a better position to address the larger conceptual issues/narratives within society, as it forms an atmosphere of creativity and boundlessness of thought. This apparatus is just another result of contemporary challenges to the notion that there exists a ‘normative behavior’ amongst cultural heritage tourists.
For this to be a success, surely the museum and the artist have to work hand in hand, even if the artist is asking the audience to view the museum critically? But how compatible is this relationship? In order to answer these questions, we must explore the goals of those parties involved. And whilst they share many – such as the desire to open up a dialogue, to address wider audiences, to increase awareness, and for personal exposure – the artist arguably comes off worse. This can be furthered if we consider the topic of risk.
For the institution, there is also an obvious tension between the desired interpretation, and the creativity of interpretation that art installations inspire within visitors, an idea explored by Lisa Martin in her essay ‘Acts of Remediation’. To outsiders, this risk appears to be tremendous – how courageous and modern the museum is to expose themselves to the critical eye of the artist and allow them the freedom to pick apart the carefully curated exhibition – in the words of Vickery, to produce “something that you can’t predict”. Martin recognises the risks, but is of the view that the relationship is one of mutual benefit; on the one hand, the museum receives “additional legitimacy” and is given the chance to represent wider audiences, an element they usually lack, the artist is offered exposure within a new “arena”. And perhaps on the surface this as much is evident. We are offered a picture of openness, creativity and ‘risk taking’ – as visitors we feel liberated and more easily able to link the concerns of the past with the concerns of the present.
But this is not the whole truth. And whilst it is easy to examine the risk to the institution, we rarely consider the risk to the artist….
During an interview I conducted with an artist working within a cultural heritage site this year, it was apparent that the experience was not as free and open as expected, or at least not what the artist was used to as a practitioner. Despite being asked to reflect on the objects within the collection and the history of the institution as a whole, the artist found themselves restricted. Access was limited and there was a definite desire on behalf of the institution to allow creativity….within distinct borders. Words used to describe the experience for the artist were ‘limited’ and ‘stifling’. It became evident that the institution still had an agenda they wished to imprint on the public. As a result, the artist merely became curator of that which had already been curated – what does that mean for freedom of creativity and artists goals to be critically analytical? And how are institutions to learn from the increasingly multidisciplinary direction that the cultural sector is moving towards if they attempt to maintain ultimate authority?
You may ask why we should protect the artist from risk over the heritage institution? Simply put, I believe the artist has more to offer the public in terms of self-reflection than the museum does on it’s own. To carry on using this model may perpetuate typical structures of hierarchy, with the power to influence society ultimately remaining in the hands of traditional institutions…..even if we are sold a different story. When the museum becomes vulnerable, normative narratives of history are challenged.
So what will the future entail? If heritage institutions are to welcome contemporary artists, if they want to fully embrace the modern concept of a multi-functional cultural space – a cultural centre with no borders – they must bare all. From sell-out exhibitions, to the cob-webbed crevices of the archive, all must be exposed. If the culture sector is to follow this border-less path, this integrated vision for the future, museums and heritage organisations must truly become risk-takers.
Deliss, Clémentine. (2012). Performing the Curatorial in a Post-Ethnographic Museum. In Maria Lind (ed.), Performing the Curatorial: Within and Beyond Art. Berlin: Sternberg Press, pp. 61-74, p. 63.
Martin, Lisa. (2014). Acts of Remediation: Curating Contemporary Art in Cultural Heritage Sites. Masters thesis, Department of Art History, Stockholm University. International Master’s Programme in Curating Art, including Management and Law. Retrieved from: http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A745581&dswid=1651#sthash.Quglmizb.dpbs
Vickery, Karen. How can a Museum use Theatre Effectively? Museum Next Conference, Melbourne, 15-17 February 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.museumnext.com/insight/how-can-a-museum-use-theatre/