Category Archives: Exhibition reviews

Best of Material World Blog: Museums, Exhibitions, Archives, Memorials

– Compiled by Aaron Glass (Bard Graduate Center) 

Since its inception, Material World has treated museums and archives not only as repositories of material culture, but as material culture–that is, material products as well as producers of culture and social memory. As institutions, they are sites of collection and exhibition, acts that have their own material and materializing dimensions.

Here are some of our favorite posts about museums, exhibitions, archives, and memorials:

Graeme Were reviews the Musée du Quai Branly a year after it opened.

Anna Weinrich examines two permanent museum exhibitions in Australia featuring Aboriginal culture and collections by a foundational anthropologist, testing out the new museology against the politics of Aboriginal voice.

Diana Young discusses her curatorial efforts to enliven museum collections in dialogue with Aboriginal artists.

Bethany Edmunds reviews two British exhibitions of Pacific material, reflecting on the role of language in framing both historic and contemporary art and material culture.

Gabriela Nicolescu writes about the aesthetics and ideologies behind changing representation of peasant culture in the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant.

The History Rising project brings together artist and curator to explore the architecture and design of exhibition space, technology, and furniture.

Paul Williams investigates the global trend for museums memorializing atrocities.

In one of the innovative formats on Material World, a conference report details the papers given in a conference called “Disturbing Pasts: Memories, Controversies, and Creativity.”

Matt Voigts discusses London’s vernacular “Ghost bikes” in the context of other urban memorials.

Anna Haverinen explores virtual memorials as means of mourning online.

Christopher Pinney writes about the salvaging of an individual’s photographic archive after monsoon flooding.

Corinne Kratz shares a link to an online archive of publications by Ivan Karp, one of our most prolific and insightful anthropologists of museums and exhibition practice.

And finally, I include one of my own book reviews to call further attention to Museum Pieces, the important 2011 publication by Ruth Phillips that brings togethers essays from her entire career working in and thinking critically about museums.

 

Authoring King’s Cross

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Who will author the future of King’s Cross? You are invited to join us for an in-person and on-location collaborative update to Wikipedia’s entry for King’s Cross Central on 21st June at The Crossing, Central Saint Martins, 1 Granary Square, London N1C 4AA.We will consider the contents of the existing article and identify what is missing and why. Throughout the afternoon, we will update the Wikipedia entry to more fully reflect the history and contemporary dynamics of King’s Cross from a variety of perspectives. Anyone with an interest is welcome to drop by between 2.30 and 5.30pm.This event is part of the Contested Spaces forum at Central Saint Martins and will be immediately followed by a panel discussion on the theme of Gentrification and Regeneration.

Rebecca Ross & Chi Nguyen

Technology and knowing at the British Museum

Haidy Geismar, UCL

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I have been thinking a lot about the power of digital imaging and the kinds of subjectivities that are built into the construction of three dimensional images as particular kinds of visualizations of museum collections. The British Museum is currently host to the exhibition, Ancient Lives New Discoveries,  an exhibition of eight mummies from Egypt and the Sudan ranging from 3500 BC to 700AD. The exhibition presents these eight mummies as individuals and showcases a collaboration with digital imaging and technology partners. Instead of actually unwrapping the mummies, CT and other scanning technology was used to look inside both the sarcophagi and the textile wrappings of the bodies, to uncover the bones and flesh within and to create new three dimensional visualizations.

 

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The exhibition showcases the wrapped figures alongside interactive screens which allow the visitor to peel back the layers, ostensibly to see into the very heart of the mummy. Each of the eight figures is presented as a named person, with a dossier describing their appearance and any known health issues, their height, date of living, and some basic facts that were put together, largely from inscriptions on their coffins, and they are displayed with other relevant artifacts.bm2Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum is quoted on the exhibition press release as saying: “This new technology is truly ground-breaking, allowing us to reconstruct and understand the lives of these eight, very different, individuals.” (and see this Guardian interactive for a full experience). Whilst the interactives are effective in demonstrating the deftness of CT scanning to look without disturbing the fabric and wrappings, the assertion that these are new forms of knowing these mummies as people was in fact jarring. With each mummy, careful discussion of the lavish care and attention paid to the wrappings, and to the carving and painting, often with gold leaf of the sarcophagus spoke to the esteem with which these figures were held and to their unique qualities as individuals. The exhibition text explained how important the stylized presentation of the cultural, carved body was in mediating the both the memory and status of the person in their own present, and in ushering them into the world of the dead, where amulets and small carvings facilitated their comfortable passage. As interesting as it was to look through the digital visualizations at the painstaking ways in which the bodily organs and brains were stored within the skeletal frame, the painting of fingernails and toenails with gold and the scattering of gold leaf within the wrappings, we learn little more of real significance about these people than we do from the embarrassment of riches within which they were wrapped and contained.

I visited the exhibition with my six year old daughter and we were very struck by the figure of Tjayasetimu, a young temple singer, who was probably seven years old when she died in 800 BC. “Why did she die?” my daughter asked. Despite entering the intimacy of Tjayasetimu’s shroud and scanning her body, we do not know. We know more about her humanity from her magnificent coffin. gold-face_624x624

Most tellingly, unlike other mummies, whose carved hands are presented as wrapped within their funeral clothes, Tjayasetimu, Singer of the Interior of Amun, is presented as though she was still alive, with her hands free of her shroud. This more than anything suggested to me a sadness at the death of a child, more than 2000 years ago. The presentation of these mummies as bones, flesh, brains and organs, cannot make them more into individuals then those who crafted their memorials. Indeed, that act of humanity, to protect and preserve these bodies for an infinite future, was what was stripped away through this sterile peeking inside. I felt certain that this was not the afterlife envisaged.

 

 

Circulation, Appropriation and Visual Consumption of Crafts in Chennai.

Circulation, Appropriation and Visual Consumption of Crafts in Chennai.

 Dr.Kala Shreen

Founder & Director,Cultural Dynamics & Emotions Network (CDEN), School of History and Anthropology,Queen’s University Belfast, U.K. www.qub.ac.uk/cden
Chairperson,Center for Creativity, Heritage and Development, Chennai, INDIA, www.cchd.in

 In 2012, a world crafts summit was convened by World Crafts Council in the metropolitan city of Chennai, South India.  World Crafts Council is a non-profit organization, affiliated to UNESCO, that works “to strengthen the status of crafts as a vital part of cultural and economic life” as recounted in their web portal.  In a press meet during the summit, the President of the World Crafts Council said, “One of the objectives of this summit is to reinforce the importance of crafts in our society and culture…  Why should crafts take a back seat to other forms of art such as paintings, sculptures, music, dance and films?  Crafts are also works of art in their own way…Therefore, I also feel that craftspeople should be given the same kind of respect and social status that fine artists are given.”

This summit, among other events and activities, comprised craft expositions organized at various renowned art galleries in the Chennai city.  The organizing team of the summit said that they wanted to create an interface between art and craft and had labelled this initiative as the “interdisciplinary art-craft exhibitions series”.  A range of crafts including textiles, puppets, baskets, furniture and home accessories moved into the art space in local art galleries that predominantly hosted art exhibitions comprising sculptures and paintings in the past.  The ensuing circulation and consumption of crafts shall be the focus of my following discussion with specific reference to two examples.

 Furniture Exhibition

An exhibition, held in a renowned art gallery in central Chennai, showcased several works of furniture wherein various art elements were appropriated into their production.  For example, folk art themes were incorporated into home accessories such as wall lights (fig:1).  A set of chairs possessed hand painted back rests.  In another instance, the religious themes of the Tanjore style of painting was utilized on the facade of a wooden wall cabinet (fig:2).  The furniture drew varied comments from the spectators.  For example, the wall cabinet in the photograph received mixed reactions from different people, both positive and negative.

A fifty-one year old art collector, said,

 “I do not like the way the image of Krishna has been cut up here. The Tanjore style of painting which predominantly carries Krishna themes is one of my favourite art choices.  I have many Tanjore paintings in my house.  I admire its beauty in its entirety…The beauty of the face, the expressions on the face… To see this kind of torn up Tanjore painting is a bit disconcerting for me…  I certainly would not like to have this in my house…”

A teenager, fifteen years of age, in response to my question, commented,

 “I think it looks weird.  It is like taking a picture and tearing it up into many pieces and then trying to tape it back to together.  How can that look nice.  I like seeing a whole picture.”

This piece of furniture comprising fractured images of Krishna’s face thus provoked negative reactions to the designer’s aesthetic approach and was regarded by some as a distasteful appropriation of a religious image.  The above comments of select viewers of this piece of furniture also served as a reminder to me of reactions to the controversial appropriation of Hindu religious images elsewhere in the world.  While the appropriation of Krishna’s image did not generate extreme responses with regard to the cabinet, in the case of the Lisa Blue swimwear collection in Australia, the images of Goddess Lakshmi on the bikini and other swimsuits, angered many Hindus. In some cities in India protests were carried out and images of her collection were burned.  Many Hindus clearly did not accept the design aesthetics of the swimwear line, regarding it as a malign appropriation of an image of religious significance to the Hindus.  As a result, the collection comprising Goddess Lakshmi images were stopped from being retailed and the designer had to issue a public apology.  Thus the transition of religious art to contemporary craft or fashion can also lead to debates about social norms.

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Basket Exhibition

At another gallery an exposition titled “Antique Chettinad Basketry” was held.  Kottans are baskets made in the villages of Chettinad in Tamilnadu, India.  These baskets, originally used by the Chettiar community for ritual and storage purposes, were appropriated by the exhibition curator into a visual display for public consumption.  At this exhibition, the baskets were mounted on display pedestals and brightly illuminated; kottan weaves were glass framed and hung on the wall; the exhibits were neatly labelled with the kottan taxonomies and pertaining descriptions (fig:3).  The visual display drew some interesting comments from visitors.  One visitor said,

‘I have seen many art exhibitions where paintings and sculptures are displayed.  This is the first time I am seeing crafts displayed like works of art.’

Another spectator said,

 ‘I never thought that baskets could qualify to be displayed in the likes of an art exhibition.’

Kottan baskets were thereby made to downplay their mundane utility and ritual context and were perceived as artistic objects as can be seen from the museum-like display and the above comments of the spectators.

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The exhibition of the antique palmyra kottan baskets also brought to light the importance of the constructed settings in the visual display of these objects (fig:4).  A set of small baskets were displayed on an antique chest of drawers alongside traditional Chettinad saris under old black and white photographs of Chettiars.  A pair of large sized baskets was exhibited below an antique painting.  This display scene also comprised an antique chair and a footstool on which were placed a vernacular newspaper and a pair of reading glasses.  An adjoining area consisted of brightly coloured baskets in various sizes and filled with vegetable and fruits.  A section of the adjoining wall comprised a panel explaining the history of the baskets and a photographic depiction of their usage in ceremonies during ancient times in an effort to tease out the baskets’ historical place and age-old use among the Chettiars.

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Many of the objects such as baskets, photographs, furnitures and paintings looked old and were used to create the setting of the ancient Chettiar lifestyle.  The visual evidence of aging seen in the objects and the props in the basket exhibition such as rusted lids on the beaded bottles, the chipped portions of the furniture, the termite eaten patches on the frames of the paintings, the black, white and faded colours of the photographs play a significant role in establishing the age and antiquity of the objects on display and projects a heritage value.  It is therefore this ‘age’ factor that places the Chettinad baskets in a privileged contemporary position in the heritage practices of visual consumption.

Thus, I have tried to briefly capture the dynamics of craft production, consumption and circulation in contemporary Chennai during an international crafts event.  Crafts are not static objects with a fixed status or value.  Rather, as seen during the above two expositions, they traverse the shifting boundaries between crafts, art, religion and heritage in their movement across time and space.

Our Writing on your things

Diana Young, University of Queensland Art Museum
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The University of Queensland Director Diana Young writes…

Since 2009 the Anthropology Museum has again had a rolling exhibition program both to enable more of its significant 26,000 item collection to be seen, to present academic research in ways that engages with a wide audience whilst challenging and expanding ideas about what an ‘anthropological’ collection can be in the 21st century.

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Eshewing long text panels the installation of all exhibtions must in some way convey ideas and context. In Gapuwiyak Calling the curators wanted a rainforest in which to hang the tiny projections of films made on mobile phones and the Museum team worked to make that forest from plinths together with the paper, mini projectors and repro retro phone handsets sourced by Miyarrka Media.

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My aim also has been to include collection things in each exhibition and initially Gapuwiyak Calling seemed to be a show composed entirely of intangible media. But a sculpture of a spirit figure arrived with Miyarrka media  and was armed with spear, spear thrower and yidaki from the collection. He resides in the gallery video projection of the forest in where he dwells.

In this double bill in one gallery space written on the body, curated by Waanyi artist Judy Watson and Diana Young, is an exhibition that is seemingly the inverse of Gapuwiyak Calling – crammed full of stuff. Both these exhibitions question received ideas about Museum processes by making them more visible to the visitor through different Indigenous interventions.

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In written on the body playfulness and visual poetry is evident in the tableau of written on museum collection things that have been arranged with used kitchenware, mirrors and anthropometric measuring devices. These have been deployed both to reassure through their worn ordinariness  and to emphasise the violence in the gesture of writing on someone else’s property.

As Watson writes in her catalogue essay;

‘To the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descendants of the places from which these museum – held objects came, the act of writing onto the objects can be seen as an act of vandalism, a sacrilege, an infliction of control by another, dominating culture.’

This sentiment is played out in the film Watson made in the Anthropology Museum collection store in which descendants of the people to whom the things once belonged touch and talk to them. In Watson’s words these  ‘… are an extension of their family’s embrace, carrying messages from home’. The used kitchenware conveys similar sentiment.

Jennifer Deger, anthropologist and co-curator of Gapuwiyak Calling describes the exhibition as “…an experiment in activating a Yolngu poetics of connection in an anthropology museum; a project that, if it were to succeed, needed to do more than simply catalogue and classify Yolngu new media as contemporary cultural artefacts. Throughout the design, the media selection, the arrangement and production of wall and touchscreen texts, the challenge has been to find ways to present this phone-media in a suitably performative way, in keeping with the subject matter as well as Yolngu social and aesthetic values. For us, the art of curation lay in finding ways to re-mediate the photographs and films so as to give them new life and meaning appropriate to the broader, and yet still site specific, intercultural context of the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum”.

The performativity of Gapuwiyak Calling contrasts with the meditative stillness of written on the body.  But in this exhibition too is an intention by the curators to activate things through a richochet of relationships that destabilises the layers of information and misinformation on the museum labels ( mostly dating from the early period of the collecting of 1940s to 1960) and provide a rich visual experience for visitors.

The exhibition catalogue can be download here

 

Access to Museum Worlds Virtual Issues

In celebration of the first ever Museum Week, Berghahn Journals is delighted to offer you free access to two special virtual issues. The first features a collection of articles from eleven of our journals spanning multiple disciplines which deliver scholarly and informed opinion on museum studies. Article topics include: Museums and Education, Museums and Memorials, and Museums and Society. The second virtual issue is a collection of exhibit reviews from our new journal, Museum Worlds: Advances in Research.

Access the virtual issue: bit.ly/P0ugcB Access exhibit reviews from Museum Worlds: bit.ly/1rzHQTE

For more information about Museum Worlds, please visit our website:journals.berghahnbooks.com/air-mw

With best wishes,
Berghahn Journals
journals@berghahnbooks.com

What is a photograph

what is a photograph

 

The current exhibition at the International Center of Photography, New York, asks “What is a photograph?”

Organized by ICP Curator Carol Squiers, What Is a Photograph? explores the intense creative experimentation in photography that has occurred since the 1970s. Conceptual art introduced photography into contemporary art making, using the medium in ways that challenged it artistically, intellectually, and technically and broadened the notion of what a photograph could be in art. A new generation of artists began an equally rigorous but more aesthetically adventurous analysis, which probed photography itself—from the role of light, color, composition, to materiality and the subject.What Is a Photograph? brings together these artists, who reinvented photography.

 

Encounters: Photograph albums and their stories

Ulrike Bessel, Curatorial Assistant, Royal Engineers Museum, Library and Archive

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A new photography exhibition, open from 22nd October 2013 – 30th May 2014 at the Royal Engineers Museum, Library and Archive in Gillingham, Kent, will show a different side of the Museum’s collection. Supported using public funding by Arts Council England, the exhibition ‘Encounters: Photograph albums and their stories’ presents unseen photographs and albums, dating back to the 1850s, which have been chosen from a collection of over 600 photograph albums at the Royal Engineers Museum.

The exhibition explores the narratives that are told through photograph albums and scrapbooks. These hold an intriguing mixture of private photography and commercial prints and postcards. Until the end of the nineteenth century, photography was an expensive and complex process, so that the purchase of photographs was common practice. It is fascinating to see how the album compiler would personalise these prints by adding captions, further information and notes on experiences of their own travels.

The exhibition will further draw attention to the photographs themselves. Photography is seldom a clear reflection of reality as photographs are framed and their subjects arranged. A showcase will discuss the presentation of people – the way they portray themselves and the manners in which they are depicted by others. This is a particularly intriguing topic with regards to depictions of encountered cultures and natives. The aspect of colonial relations is central to the photography collection, which largely exists due to the expansion of the British Empire. Explorers, travellers and Royal Engineers were active all over the globe and used photography as a key documenting tool. The exhibition will look at the Royal Engineers and their uses of, and advances in, photography. The Royal Engineer Sir William de Wiveleslie Abney, for instance, helped to develop ‘instantaneous’ photography in the 1870s through a rapid gelatin emulsion process.

Imaginary museum of Marshall Islands Fine Mats

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From the Pacific Islands Report:

The museum is an imaginary place designed to showcase the historic and contemporary mats of the Marshalls. In this wondrous world, you can ’stroll’ through rooms full of historic mats in Britain or Germany, relax in the cinema as you watch a ‘Majuro Productions’ show, or go shopping in the museum store. The museum, found at www.clothingmatsofthemarshalls.com, is the result of many years of work that had its beginnings in 2004 when Maria Fowler, the daughter of Iroij and President Amata Kabua, was in Hawaii with her daughter.

“I met with my old friend MaryLou Foley and she took me to the Bishop Museum. It was my first time there and MaryLou introduced me to Betty Kam, who took us to the back of the museum to see the mats,” Maria said. ”That’s when I saw the historic jaki-ed for the first time. I nearly cried. There were over 10 mats and while I was looking at them and seeing how beautiful they were, I thought to myself that we really need to revive this skill.”

Maria went to back to Majuro full of ideas. At the time she was working with the Director of the University of the South Pacific’s Majuro campus, Dr. Irene Taafaki on compiling a book of traditional Marshallese medicine (Traditional Medicine of the Marshall Islands: The Women, the Plants, the Treatments by Irene J. Taafaki, Maria Kabua Fowler , and Randolph R. Thaman, IPS Publications). The pair began to think of how they may revive the art of weaving the jaki-ed. But first Maria knew they were going to need someone to be a patron of a project of this nature. “It so happened that Iroij Michael, my uncle, is really into reviving the culture. We went to see him and he said: ‘It’s about time that someone is interested in the culture!’” [...]

From that humble beginning, Maria and Irene went on to hold weaving workshops and also an exhibition and auction of jaki-ed, now held every year at the Marshall Islands Resort to coincide with Culture Day. In recent years there have been apprenticeships around the country in which many dozens of young women have learned how to make the finely-woven clothing mats. These trainings were sponsored by the RMI National Training Council, while the Australian Government has supported the creation of the virtual museum. With the help of these and many other organizations and individuals, the art of making jaki-ed has been revived and you can see the old and the new in the Marshall’s new museum.

 

From the Image to the Lecture Slide: Exercises in Anthropological Ventriloquy

Eleanor Williams  &  Theophile Desarmeaux,  UCL  Anthropology

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The lanternslides exhibited in ‘From the Image to the Lecture Slide: Exercises in Anthropological Ventriloquy’ emerge from the depths of the UCL Anthropology Department’s Material Culture Room, part of UCL Museums and Collections.  From this cave of curiosities, the exhibition excavates a medley of largely anonymous ethnographic lanternslides, which were used for teaching anthropology during 1940 and 1950.  Today, a variety of slides are re-cast into three mock lectures that both explore the breadth of the collection and interrogate the use of images for teaching.

Lecture 1: We, The Tikopia: A Sociological Study of Kinship in Primitive Polynesia

The first lecture reveals the collection’s cornucopia of slides and questions the images’ instrumentality within a teaching context.  Employing a random number generator enabled the curators to have minimal input in the lecture’s creation.  To select the images, random numbers were applied to the list of slides.  An arbitrary narrative to accompany the images was obtained from Raymond Firth’s 1936 ethnographic monograph We, The Tikopia: A Sociological Study of Kinship in Primitive Polynesia.  Pages of the book were selected according to random numbers and text was extracted from the pages’ first indented paragraph.  The curators explore how the encasement of these multi-vocal images within the un-related narrative may manipulate one’s interpretation of the image.  However, the images simultaneously emancipate themselves from and subvert the narrative by visually bringing new meanings to the text.

Lecture 2: Duplicates

The second lecture concentrates on the collection’s duplicated images.  By exploring ‘the duplicates’ the lecture brings to the fore the slides’ materiality and resultant polysemy.  The material disparity of the duplicated images, in terms of their framing, inversion, enlargement and magnification, are examined in the lecture.  The varying material qualities cleave the same slide into two highly different images.  By contrasting pairs of duplicates, the curators explore how their varying materiality offers an avenue through which the images’ polysemy may be unleashed.  The curators question what the implications of using slides with different material properties might be when used for teaching purposes.

Lecture 3: The Image Speaks

The third lecture provides a space in which the most unruly and restive of the lanternslides may be revealed.  The lecture investigates the spectrum of the images’ semantic contents and aesthetic qualities that exists within the collection.  The selection exposes the images that confounded the curators during their exploration, due to their qualities such as blurriness and either under or over exposure.  The images’ incomprehensible nature and their ability to seemingly evade anthropological categorisation, led the curators to question how these slides might have been used for teaching.

[Editor's note: during their tenure in the teaching collection these slides have largely been separated from any contextual information and provenance. They are thus presented here as they emerge and are experienced within this particular archive, which is of course an archive that rests on the problematic histories of anthropology, photography, and colonialism. If anyone has any commentary or context to add to specific photographs, please either contact us directly or add to the public comments in this posting.]