British Museum

James Putnam

independent curator and writer senior lecturer in Curatorial Studies, University of the Arts, London

The British Museum

The Contemporary Arts and Cultures programme Education Dept. London WC1B 3DG UK

Museum as Art ... Art as Museum

Museum displays are by their nature a form of visual communication - the arrangement of objects in display cases, the configuration of plinths and labels are essentially formal constructions that have an aesthetic and conceptual significance to the viewer. As we know, Museums evolved from the Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities, which existed in pre-Enlightenment Europe. This early ancestor of the museum possessed a special quality in tune with the creative imagination, a quest to explore the rational and the irrational and a capricious freedom of arrangement.  We can find parallels for  this tendency in the assemblages of various artists. Although the 19th century encyclopaedic approach  represents the very antithesis of methods of display in the modern art museum, the two types are in fact connected, not merely through the process of museological evolution but also because many contemporary artists have been inspired by the wider notion of the museum which such places embody  that is to say as an institution, an idea and a practice.

When a group of objects is exhibited in a display case, a kind of visual construction or statement is involved, suggesting that they have some formal or cultural relationship one with another. This principle has inspired artists to imitate museological classification, arrangement and labelling as well as to investigate the museums political agenda and autonomous,
>official=  view of history. Artists have examined the educational practices of museums, creating works which question the conventional role of the museum visitor as being merely a passive spectator. Collaborations with practicing artists have offered individual museums an opportunity to take an objective look at their traditional approaches to the display and presentation of their collections and thus learn more about themselves and their audiences. The increasing trend towards these collaborations has in some cases involved rehanging existing collections or redesigning gallery spaces. In this way the probing instinct of the creative mind counterbalances the sense of permanence and order associated with the museum in a constructive dialogue and ideological exchange.

 Artists have increasingly turned their attention both creatively and critically to a reappraisal of the ideas and systems of classification traditionally associated with curatorship and display. Methods of taxonomy, archiving, storage and other aspects of curatorship have been variously appropriated, mimicked or reinterpreted. Assemblages of found objects or artists possessions have served as an extension of the artists studio, a storage area where both ideas and materials are evaluated. Many artists have exhibited their collections as art - an entity which they call >museum=, thus contributing to a fresh understanding of the nature and role of the museum. I will show examples of artists museums, examine the way artists parody and incorporate museological practices in their work for both a critical and aesthetic end.

Artists continue to create interdisciplinary art, such as video, performance and site-specific installation, that could no longer be classified within traditional categories of painting, sculpture, photography etc. and which can prove complex for museums to collect. Furthermore digital art contests the museum=s very notion of the rare and unique. This dialogue between  contemporary art and the museum subverts the conventional linear presentation of  time -  Museum=s strive to collect the art of the present yet is it really contemporary once it is confined within the museum walls?


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