Photography in the Museum Displays 3. Strategies of display: destabilizing the didactic reading

What strategies can be used to acknowledge work of photographs through the categories or framings proposed here? There are pressures of objects to produce certain meanings. But preferred readings and strategies of understanding can be set up. This can be done through captions, which guide the viewer to selected parts of the photographs and the information or ideas to be communicated. Format decisions such as size and colour become important here. They can position photographs in the past or the present, they can play with affect and therefore produce certain meanings whilst suppressing others. For the signifying qualities are to be found not only in the content of the image, but through the forms of its material presentation.

Given the expectation, and therefore perceived appropriateness, of the uses of photographs in the didactic space of the museum as statements of ‘a reality’ with the status of document, it is difficult perhaps to do conceptual things with photographs [link into reflective mode].  The “Ways of Seeing’ Gallery (Gallery 36)  in Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery (UK) employs a very different approach. The gallery focuses on raising questions – about authenticity, origin, or collecting for instance -- using nineteenth and early twentieth century photographs not to state facts but to disturb the visitor’s assumptions about what they are seeing.  Who’s view is it ? Are we looking at a ‘reality’ ?

However, this might not be enough to destabilize the didactic reading and in the case of photographs of the colonial past. The political weight of these photographs is such that they cannot be destabilized by just asking questions. Often such photographs appear to condone specific histories, reinforced through the reality effect of photographs in general.  Most curators in UK that we talked to shied away from using photographs, especially those related to more ‘difficult histories,, while at the same time they accepted the efficacy of photographs as history in the gallery space. The skillful handling of this tension is demonstrated by the successful integration of photographs in BECM. Maybe the success of that strategy, depended on the consistent and full use of photographs to carry the narratives in the gallery rather than a piecemeal usage which might be understood as collapsing into fragments and mere gobbets of information, subject to recoding by the museum visitor. The photographs created a context for one another, and expanded the narrative in different directions pointing to a wider visual rhetoric of the colonial past.