Mining the Museum

From Emmanuel’s lecture exploring the concept of the gallery as a space of control, the task is now to think critically about how curation affects the history we are given. Something is unsettling to me when I truly consider why it is so uncomfortable to question this institution that promises to give insight into what is unknown. Why have I never considered what it is that gives four stone walls and grand museum titles the power of the information to be taken as fact? In thinking about how museums and exhibitions are curated, I now see how anything that is ever edited is done so with the intention of an individual or set of individuals to create a desired narrative, so why not in this context also. On reflection too many times I have been to a museum and found out something truly fascinating that I then go on to tell someone else. In the question ‘did you know…?’ the premiss is that we believe what we have been told is entirely trustworthy without questioning.

With this in mind I visited the Tate Britain’s  BP sponsored ‘Walk through British Art’ display. Being able to reflect on the lecture discussion, the power of the museum was immediately apparent when I explored the collection. With museums, and this one in particular, designed architecturally to look like temples and churches of the ancient world, the associated sanctified demeanour which we adopt evidences the authority we give to the institution.  By adjusting what we see and how we behave, how we react is then not completely unadulterated.

‘Museums shelter not so much objects as meanings, and their work is that of articulating, linking and arranging them in a network of significance. ‘ – Thomas Keenan, No Ends in Sight


Tat Britain. [Online image] Available at: <; [Accessed 20 Oct 13]

The display is ordered chronologically and begins with a group of historical paintings. In order to critically evaluate what narrative is being conveyed I looked to the images shown as well as the text that accompanies them. The labels are positioned not directly underneath the work but much closer to the floor. In a way this is an immediate positive step as it allows the viewer to see the work as they chose without a preconceived idea of how they should react. Despite this there is also a sense of anonymity that is not so reassuring. At a glance we have no idea who these people are or why they should be featured.  Within the labels the information given is also sparse, with more detail on the acquisition of the work rather than the subject or even the intention of the artist. The title ‘Portrait of a woman in Red’ struck me as I questioned who the curators intended to present as important.  This is particularly problematic as this exhibition sets out to explore ‘British’ Art and here the curators directly reveal in contradiction that many sitters favour foreign painter for their level of skill. With the subject often anonymous the apparent importance is with the named artist, who in many cases was European. Although many of subjects are unnamed they still convey a sense of power and prestige, this is controlled by the strikingly similar compositions of the works. They all seem to feature a very direct gaze and tilt of the shoulders, which create the most flattering view possible. The pose then feels contrived, ornamented with deliberate imagery to convey the sitters own intended narrative.  Now, looking to the lack of information I began to consider that it does not leave the floor open for thought but rather the curation is more controlled. With less text to question, we accept the visual narrative we are given, of these men and women being highly regarded figures despite being nameless.

With the grouping organised by date, it became relevant to consider what this was trying to say of the era. Are these the ‘best’ examples of people of the age and what does the term ‘best’ even mean? Is it the defined in most accurate or most pleasing illustration? This notion brings me back to concept of mapping and what parts and types of people are left off when documenting a certain time or place. The layout also led to some unusual curation choices. The juxtaposition between Wright’s painting of the erupting Vesuvius against an image of a child and his dogs was particularly unusual. In the idea of taxonomy these works wore placed together due to the age’s interest in nature. I really responded to the painting by Wright due to its vivacious energy. The text given expresses the painter’s desire to create a sense of impact and immense power of the natural force unfurling its dangerous wrath. However despite recognising this their decision to present these images together seemed to diminish this intention and trivialise the grave subject matter. The museum here removes something out of its original context and recontextaulises it with its own created narrative that seems undeserving to the work it recognises.

‘Artists look at museums, Museums look at themselves’ Lisa G.Corrin

Museums make us feel safe because they are about continuum. As I reflect, their authority seems to be like that of a textbook, where the printed word has a validity or power as it feels established and part of history itself. It is worrying to question these institutions as possibly by doing so could allow the meaning given to collapse. In both cases what is seen is not to be queried as it teaches us what we should know in order to become better educated or cultured.  From this thought I began to consider the concept that when knowledge is power, then the true power is in the hands of those editing what should be known.


Hatoum, M. (1985, 1995) Performance Still. Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, mounted on aluminium. London: Tate Britain

 Although this work is featured within a later room in the display due to its more contemporary dating, I found something very curious about its curation. The work immediately compelled me through its deliberate choice of display, resting on the floor, detached from the wall. The image represents bare feet almost shackled by the shoes tied with the laces, now dragging behind . To me the image evokes issues of identity and control. This journey of walking on the bare ground is emphasised in this style of display. However intriguingly in front of the work features a line of display tape. When the curation engages us to relate, with our feet on a similar level bringing us closer to a state of empathy, this line that is a prerequisite of distance is problematic. Due to curator concerns of the piece being vulnerable to possible damage it can be understood the distance is for the safety of the work. Nonetheless, whilst the photograph speaks of oppression we see this confinement again ourselves, with our viewing experience also being controlled as if we too are shackled by the institution that has brought us this very work. In a way the museum creates its own unintentional narrative about institutions of control. With those in control, seen in the image by the cold hard industrial boots, with a weight and power over the everyday man, the bare feet being a raw and universal commonality we share.
Duncan, C. (1995) Civilising Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. New York: Routledge
Keenan, T.  No Ends in Sight. In: Borja-Villel, Manuel J. and Hanhardt
Wilson, F. Corrin, L. ed. (1954) Mining the Museum: an installation. New York: Contemporary
Gheeraerts, M. (1620) Portrait of a Woman in Red. Oil paint on oak. London: Tate Britain
Hatoum, M. (1985, 1995) Performance Still. Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, mounted on aluminium. London: Tate Britain
Wright, J. (c.1776-80) Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples. Oil paint on canvas. London: Tate Britain

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