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Biomedicine in museums

How often do we think of exhibitions in terms of curatorial intention?

By September 3, 2008No Comments

We are right now preparing for the next exhibition, Design4Science. It has been on show in Sunderland, Manchester, Cambridge and Stockholm — and will open here at Medical Museion in mid-January 2009.

It strikes me that we actually have two in-house names for it. Usually we call it Design4Science, but sometimes some of us speak about it as “Shirley’s exhibition” with reference to the fact that it has been curated by Shirley Wheeler at the University of Sunderland.

What’s the difference? Well, the first is the way we usually refer to exhibitions. To speak about them in authorial terms is not so common. There is something about exhibitions — as opposed to books, films, theatre performances, operas etc. — that speaks against putting the curator (the auteur) in the center.

Authorial intention used to be a minefield. In 1946, Wimsatt and Beardsley coined the notion of the ‘intentional fallacy’, i.e., that literary interpretation shouldn’t assume any authorial intention (in other words, no biographical readings of literary texts): “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art”. Twenty years later Roland Barthes took New Criticism a step further by declaring the author to be ‘always already’ dead (‘The death of the author’, 1968).

For decades, poststructuralists decentered the author as the originating source of meaning for the literary work. Authorial intention was a tabu area for most of the second half of the 20th century. But we live now in 2008 and authors are live and kicking. Fiction writers are cultural celebrities, biography is a popular best-selling genre, even academically respected. Poststructuralism is so last decade.

But what about museum exhibitions? Have they ever suffered from the attack on the ‘intentional fallacy’? Has there been a new criticist tendency to disregard the intentions of the exhibition curator? Has there been a poststructuralist decentering of the exhibition curator?

Or maybe the questions are wrongly stated: Maybe exhibition curators have always already been decentered — and still are. Maybe the discussions about intentionality and the ‘intentional fallacy’ never really reached the museum world, because the auteur never has, and still doesn’t, play the same role in the collective mind of museums audiences as it does among book readers and critics?

In other words: When did you last read an exhibition review that focused on the curator instead of the content of the exhibit? Cf. how most book reviews center on the author and film reviews circle around the instructor.  

Any ideas?

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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