The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

5 November 2013

Transformation #5 - In case of emergency, break convention

Rachel Souhami teaches at Imperial College London, commenting on the museum world. She also runs 'Museum Showoff', an event becoming very popular in cities across the UK.

So we've had already this morning, she says, the ladder of progress and the cycle of fashion. Now she wishes to talk about the full-stop of no and the dithering of hesitancy, using two case studies: Tate Modern, and the Jameel Gallery at the V&A. The first broke convention by creating a new mode for the display of modern art. The latter did not, appearing instead like a shiney version of its predecessor, despite being based on a response to 9/11. Why was Tate Modern able to show transformation and break convention and the V&A were not? Many factors are in play here.

Tate Modern started to redevelop itself in 1992, in conditions influenced directly by the Thatcherite government. In this environment, museums were encouraged to innovate in terms of fundraising, compete with each other for money and visitors. Museums even today have to operate in a competitive marketplace and yet retain intellecutal integrity.

Until Tate Modern, the display of modern art was still operating in the model of MoMA - the chronological displays of movements and grand masters, hung widely spaced in neutrally coloured rooms, with no intrusion from the outside world. The Tate itself had initially adopted this model, as Souhami shows us with a map and images taken from Serota's 1996 Experience or Interpretation.

Tate Modern might have broken this convention, but the questioning of the museum's role in framing art had come from artists and academics since the 1960s. In spite of this history of opposition, many museums stuck with this model, despite being well aware of the contradiction between their practice and the work of art historians. Why this dichotomy? Such questions are addressed in Hazthausten's The Two Art Histories: The Museum and the University.

The decision to make a new Tate Modern was a response to the political, financial and environmental conditions of the time. So the modern collection was moved onto a new site. But the two new museums thus created (Tates Modern and Britain) would have to be able to survive. A new museum of modern art would face a competitive global market. They were weak in many areas: no pre-1940 North American work. A conventional chronological approach would show these weaknesses; so it had to do something else. It had national rivals for collecting objects in which it was deficient; the National Gallery, the V&A.

So they 'synthasised a new modern'. It rejected a master narrative, displayed multiple histories of artworks. The displays drew on other fields - art history and Documenta - to create an identity and create a new modern art hang.

On the other hand, the reluctance to change the display of art can be seen in the V&A. After all the issues that came in light of 9/11, there was a great deal of discussion about representation. So Mohamed Abdul Latif Jameel, a businessman, dedicated money to the redisplay of the Islamic Galleries, untouched since the 1950s. For all of the creators, this was a brand new and challenging task. They tested their ideas and functions on the touring exhibition, Palace and Mosque. It highlighted that Islamic Art, itself a contentious term, is not homogeneous, and focussed on cultural communication and representation.

But in the final galleries at the V&A, the display of the collection was privileged over all the other issues. Most of the interpretation is about the materials and processes that made the beautiful objects, displayed as jewels. There are only a couple of pieces of contextualizing information, and these are extremely easy to miss. Safavid and Ottoman works are intermingled, with little to separate their different approaches to art: you have to watch a film, which is easily missed.

This is odd, in the context of Palace and Mosque. But at the time, the museum was reconceptualizing its identity as a museum of art and design. A few months before the opening of the Jameel Gallery it released its Future Plan. Part of this master plan used the British Galleries as a benchmark for its display; Souhami suggests that it was competing with its local rivals, and doing so by reasserting its historical identity - and that involved a museum often critiqued for its Orientalizing tendencies. With a new team who didn't want to do things the museum as institution didn't like, it is perhaps unsurprising that there was little change.

Institutional identities are both at stake here. This is a difficult issue for museums and museum makers - museums solidify culture and have a power to shape social and cultural understandings. But they have to be able to hear and present these understandings, and be open to change - yet they are often only able to do this if the need is pressing. They need to learn to value engagement with new modes of thought rather than the perpetuation of their own identity if they are to change and survive.

Identity and change; the danger of ignoring both is marked. The need to survive, the need to perpetuate the self, the need to be, are all entangled with the task of redevelopment and redisplay. The consideration of both, within the contexts of the surrounding environment, is never an easy task.

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