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Biomedicine in museums

Greenaway has got it wrong: there is no 'visual illiteracy' — but there is a widespread 'material illiteracy'.

By August 11, 2011No Comments

The last issue of ICOM’s e-Newsletter (June-July 2011) carries a short summary of Peter Greenaway‘s presentation “The New Visual Literacy” at ICOM’s 2011 Annual Meeting, in which the British film maker showed images to encourage ‘visual awareness’ among museum people and support his dictum: ‘the image always has the last word’:

Displaying his signature wit and stage presence, he spoke of a widespread visual illiteracy due to an essentially text-based culture and discussed the global museum’s obligation in this new digital age to promote the visual.

I’m not sure I agree. Ours is a text-based culture, indeed. But I see few signs of a ‘visual illiteracy’ when I look around. Visuality is ubiquitous. There are pictures, images, signs, photographs, stills, videos etc. everywhere. Television, DVD players and visual games have inundated our homes. The web is overflowing with images. Almost every online news story is accompanied by a short video clip. Has Greenaway visited Youtube, Google Images or Flickr? Greenaway is speaking in terms of his own visual interests — but by doing so he is flogging a dead horse.

Why does ICOM support this idea of a ‘visual illiteracy’? Museums ought to be the first to direct our attention to the erosion of a common awareness about the material basis of culture. Given the ubiquitous visual and digital awareness and literacy in today’s culture, ICOM would better focus on the need for a new material literacy.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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