This week’s homework – an article about museums

This week we had to read this article, ‘Taking Part in the Museum’ by Sabine Breitwieser. The article is about the changing role of the museum relative to the evolving role of the artist over the last few decades.

Sabine breitwieser

Sabine Breitwieser

It starts off by observing that since the mid-1980s, a new demographic of visitors seemed to be going to museums, attracted by an attempt by museums to appear more up-to-date and modern. It asks: is the museum really no longer what it once was? In other words, a place of edification and contemplation, where art is appreciated by people of a similar social-economic background and level of education.

People looking at art

People looking at art

Visiting a museum has recently become more of an spatial experience rather than a chance to just look at art from a distance. The museum has become a ‘space of congregation’ rather than contemplation (p.6, quoting Catherine Wood, Curator of Contemporary Art and Performance at Tate Modern, 2012). Museums don’t just show objects and images, they now have to cater for video, performance, installations and interactive artworks. The artist has become the subject rather than the producer of the object.

Audience participation: Martha Rosler, Meta-monumental Garage Sale 2012

Audience participation: Martha Rosler, Meta-monumental Garage Sale 2012

So, the article asks, what role should museums today play? How can visitors and artists take part in the museum? How can museums adjust to this new ‘feel good, event-oriented culture’ (p.9)? How can museums respond to the ‘triadic mission identified by Kaprow: to educate, to preserve cultural history and to stir action?’ (p.10). How should the sort of interactive art the article talks about be displayed within the canonical institutional context?

Kaprow has ideas of what a museum should now be

Kaprow has ideas of what a museum should now be

The article also talks about the great opportunity this recent ‘turn’ in art offers for museums. Contemporary art is given great monetary value, and attracts great attention from different social classes, and this pulls in the visitors to the museums. Museums should capitalise on this to showcase issues of public concern.

The article finishes with another question (it contains a lot of questions): Could we imagine an art museum that was not merely a collection of valuables but a deposit for the public sphere, which could be accessed and utilised by all kinds of stakeholders? (p. 15)

My personal opinion is that this change is a positive thing. I struggle enough to engage my children in art but when they feel that they can take part in it they seem to get something more positive out of the experience than if they are just required to observe.I try to take them to exhibitions I know will engage them and allow them to be more than mere observers.

We came across this notion of the museum’s traditional role clashing with the role of the participant at the ‘Just Do It’ exhibition we went to at Manchester last year. There, one of the exhibits we came across was simply a darkened room containing just a radio and some chalk. We weren’t sure what we were supposed to do so we started to doodle with the chalk on the walls as we could see that other people had done the same, but were swiftly told off by museum staff and told to ‘put the radio on and doodle on the paper provided while reacting to the music’. This left us feeling stifled and confused. We had been left to participate but expected to respect the limits. Perhaps the museum has some way to go yet until it can shed it’s old skin which it has worn for such a long time.

'In honour of red things' at the Just Do It exhibition

‘In honour of red things’ at the Just Do It exhibition


Breitwieser, S.. (2013). Taking Part in the Museum. Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context, and Enquiry. Issue 34 (autumn/winter), 4-15

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