07 November 2013

Developing practice course - session 3

"What is a museum" is the question we considered throughout the day, led by Ian Tucknott. By the end of the day many of us wondered if we'd now be able to look at museums without a degree of cynicism...

In small groups, we came up with various aspects: a destination; a meeting place; a collection of objects, that are significant (how is significance produced, who decides value) and communicate experience (might that experience change over time?); an organised space (in terms of objects, people, and knowledge); guardianship/stewardship; preservation, display; a powerhouse; a brand; connections to systems of power.
Working in small groups
Lots to think about already - my notes of Ian's exposition are brief but include "a space for cultural production", "hidden decisions"  and "the museum represents, thus produces meaning". Foucault got a mention or two - in terms of ideologies "flowing through" institutions, and for his neat  (too neat?) categorisaton of  epistemes, moments in history: Renaissance, neoclassical, modern, for considering the development and changing role of museums.

Again in small groups, we considered four paradigms for museums, based on Janet Marstine's introduction to New Museums Theory and Practice (2006) - museum as shrine, market driven industry, colonising, post-museum - thinking of the characteristics and giving an example or two of actual museums in each category.
By now my notes on Ian's synthesis of the 20th century cultural critique were infused with a twinge of cynicism: "oppressive space of control and power", "cathedrals for cultural and commercial imperialism", "elitism - collusive and prejudiced spaces", "department stores" - even "dead spaces", which is how Robert Smithson thought of museums.

What about "alternative" museums? Globalised 'super' art institutions like the Louvre and Guggenheim with outposts in Abu Dabi; Meschac Gaba's Museum of Contemporary African Art (recently shown at Tate Modern); Womanhouse in Los Angeles, started in 1972 by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro; Maurizio Cattelan's "Wrong Gallery".
At the break, in the caf - Rose's water bottle from Switzerland
In small groups we deconstructed the museum, looking at physical features, kinds of spaces, tools-technologies-equipment, and function/role. Important words and phrases arising in Ian's elucidation: framing; creating the encounter - through atmosphere, isolation from the real world, architecture etc.

Again in small groups, we read policy documents of different museums, looking at their aims, thinking, ideology, connections.

At the end of the day we watched a slideshow of artists whose work comprised or included institutional critique:
- Joan Fontecuberta (Fauna, also known as "Dr. Ameisenhaufen's Fauna" or "Secret Fauna", challenges the notion of "scientific truth" - video here)
-Hans Haacke (his exposés include Manhatten Real Estate Holdings, 1971)
Haacke's Manhatten Real Estate Holdings (via)
-Dove Bradshaw (in Performance 1976 she appropriated a fire hose by putting a museum label beside it; now the work is a postcard sold in the museum shop)
Bradshaw's Performance (via)
-Andrea Fraser (Museum Highlights (1989) is a gallery talk of deadpan parody, drawing attention to incidental items and showing how tour guides act as frames)
"Jane Castleton" giving a gallery talk (via)
-Fred Wilson (post-colonial perspective, eg Mining the Museum 1992)
Wilson included slave chains among the metalwork (via)
-Michael Asher (names works after the gallery, makes highly site-specific interactions, eg in Claire Copley Gallery he removed a wall to reveal the office space)
Asher's Claire Copley Gallery (via)
-Maria Eichhorn ( Money at Kunsthalle Bern’ was an exploration of the structures that enable an exhibition space to function)
-Goshka Macuga (in 2009 the Whitechapel showed The Nature of the Beast, a restaging of the Guernica tapestry that had been returned to the museum)

By then it was all swimming in front of our eyes, rather --- time to go home! (Next time: "What does 'audience' mean to you?")

But at home there was no escape from museums - that evening Tony and I watched a "Meet the Ancestors" programme that revisited two archaeological finds from the Stone Age (about 5000 years ago), one in Dorset and one in Orkney. (If you're quick you can see the show here, on the BBC iplayer - it disappears shortly after midnight on Thurs 14 Nov.)

The find in Dorset, at Cranborne Chase (right on the edge of the Dorset cursus), was made in 1997 by a farmer turned archaeologist, Martin Green at Down Farm. Aerial photographs of his farm showed interesting markings -
and he decided to investigate, clearing the area down to chalk -
The dig found four skeletons, a woman aged about 30 and three children. The bones were investigated in various ways, including with the fairly new technique of isotope analysis, which revealed that only one of the children was hers. ("So much of archaeology is what happens after excavation.")

Martin Green, a very professional amateur archaeologist, keeps a private museum in a chicken shed, shown at about the 9 minute mark on the programme,
and the bones of all the burials are now part of that museum (do they "belong" to him because they were found on his land?). Certainly he's aware of the responsibility of looking after them, and his own family history of farming links him to these neolithic farmers - "it's a way of understanding the landscape, a continuation of telling that story." (He's written about it, too.)
As you can see, it looks like a "proper" museum, items laid out and labelled, boxes kept tidily on shelves, etc - these are local finds, but some of the items were made, all those thousands of years ago, further afield.

The presenter of the programme dealt with the issue of whether such bones should be reburied. "The excavation site has been returned to agriculture, but of course without the human remains that our ancestors intended to rest here," said the voiceover; then Julian Richards explains:

"I know some people really get quite uneasy about the whole idea of digging up human remains; I don't have a problem with it personally, provided it's done with great care and respect, but what I do feel strongly about it that once we have dug up these remains we ought to keep them, we ought to look after them so that we can study them in the future, because science is developing all the time and there are things that we can do now that we couldn't do 10 years ago, and it's always going to develop. If we rebury those remains we're going to deny ourselves the opportunity of doing that, we've actually denied the possibility of those ancestors telling their story."

No comments: