Reading exhibitions

An important aspect of the establishment of a new museology over the last few decades has been the new awareness of the museum as a place, not only for housing, exhibiting and conservation – but also for the production of meaning (Pollock 2007:1). In order to consider the role of photographs in museums, their role in representation of the colonial past, and in the address of ‘difficult histories’,  it is necessary to consider the broader, framing questions, in which photographs operate. In PhotoCLEC we spent many hours working in exhibition spaces. This raised methodological questions: what were the frames of analysis ? How are objects, including photographs, made to have meaning in the museum space ? How might we articulate this?

Thus, we proceeded from a series of basic questions and strategies. How do the museums produce meaning by actively framing their objects?  How do we ‘read’ exhibitions – not just as form, but something that generates meaning? And what kind of meanings are we thinking of? Are they meanings intended by the exhibition makers, those of the visitors, or the meanings extracted from the exhibitions when studying them for academic purposes?

One way of approaching these questions might be to look at exhibitions in the perspective of a pragmatic theory of meaning, in other words as contextual and situated rather than inherent (Macdonald 2011). Inspired by recent art historical writing, one could develop this further by understanding the meaning of an exhibition in the context of the cultural practice of which it forms a part; a practice characterised by rule-regulated or institutionalised behaviour (Danbolt 2010:15).  The actions and choices made by the participants of this practice, both object and exhibition makers (acts of expression) and exhibition visitors (acts of understanding) are all made within this common institutionalised field. Michael Baxandall argues in a similar way for an understanding of the notion of ‘exhibition‘… as a field in which at least three distinct terms are independently in play: makers of object, exhibitors of made objects and viewers of exhibited made objects’ (Baxandall 1991). Far from static, these complex, dynamic and sometimes fraught relations vary from one exhibition to another (Vergo 1989).

So how do we map the possibilities and resources that are culturally available for the respective agents in the cultural practice of museum display? In order to approach this problem, we have to begin with an immanent analysis of the cultural product itself: the exhibition in question.  This represents a great challenge, as exhibitions are much more than performative ‘speech acts’ producing meaning through the gesture of exposure or just saying ‘look how it is’.  Consisting of objects as well as images, texts, sounds, smell, etc. they are discursive formations (Lidchi 1997) that are multimedial and multisensory in character (Bal 1996:3, Kratz 2010:15). Bal  (2006: 208) also reminds us of how narration in the museum works two ways: First, by the very fact of exposing the object; presenting it while informing about it. Second, it works through the sequential nature of the visit – the process of walking through the exhibition area – which links together the various elements of the exposition.

Analysing such narratives involves raising basic questions, not only about the aesthetics of the exhibition (the ways of telling), but also about power and representation: whose (hi)story is presented, and for whom? In short we are looking at the poetics as well as the politics of the museum display (Karp & Lavine 1991, Lidchi 2006). This implies looking for more or less explicit ideological subtexts, but also contested meanings, ambiguities, contradictions, etc. Additionally it involves questioning the particular understanding of history, or philosophy of history, which inform the exhibition narrative: are the objects contextualized or displayed in a way that is aesthetic, decontextualized and ahistorical? Another relevant issue is how the myriads details in the display (such as light design, exhibit texts, word choices) may be embedding values (Kratz 2011).  Of equal importance is the question of the structure of the overall narrative: Is it non-chronological and fragmented with little or none interpretative clues?  Or are we moving through a succession of exemplary objects in a manner corresponding to what Donald Preziosi has labelled a chronologically choreographed re-enactment of history? (Preziosi 2011:50). Other questions to be asked are whether we are looking at a manifestation of a positivist view of knowledge, or a more experimental epistemological approach to museum display (Macdonald and Basu 2007)?  And finally, how does the exhibition balance the inherent or inescapable tension between entertainment and knowledge production? Exhibitions are after all, as noted by Rosmarie Beier- de Haan, part of the leisure industry, aiming at providing experience as much as an opportunity to learn. (Beier-de Haan 2011: 196).

All these aspects contributed to defining our object of study, the museum exhibition as a cultural construction.  However, a further understanding of this medium necessitates a concrete (re)framing of our particular object within the institutional context and the dynamic relations between all agents involved: the history and agency of the museum as an institution, the different kinds of knowledge at play, interests, tensions and preferences.