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Biomedicine in museums

The tendency towards event culture in contemporary museums

By September 12, 2009No Comments

The Copenhagen Doctoral School of Cultural Studies is organising an interesting conference in Copenhagen on 6-7 November. Under the title “Event Culture: The Museum and Its Staging of Contemporary Art”, the conference will discuss the changing role of the art museum and the role of contemporary art within the art museum during the past decades — particularly how museums as institutions for preserving and producing knowledge “for eternity” have increasingly become “arenas for experience and events of the moment”:

The shared tendency between museums and contemporary art towards staging and performing ephemeral events and experiences changes the fundamental functions of the museum within a broader cultural context and might indeed change the very role of art in society as well.

I believe this is an interesting and timely topic for science, technology and medical museums as well; especially the three ways in which the conference is supposed to handle this topic is very relevant for the STM-museum world:

First, the organisers point out that “the idea of preservation was central to the founding of museum institutions” but that preservation seems less important today:

Rather, the focus has shifted towards another core aspect of the museum institution, namely that of public accessibility and audiences. This indicates a shift from substance and solidity towards activity and performance; the representation of history, which can be considered an important motive for preservation, has gradually become less outspoken, while representation of contemporaneousness in various guises simultaneously has grown in significance. This raises many questions, among them the questions of what knowledge the museum institution produces and which public demands it facilitates.

They also maintain that these changes “manifest themselves in a tendency towards privileging the temporary exhibition over the permanent collection”:

The permanent collection regarded as the sum of the preservation efforts of the museum institution seems largely to have become a burden rather than an asset, whereas the temporary exhibition is viewed as the medium that holds the potential of drawing a large number of audiences. This tendency is followed by a growing number of freelance curators that work independently of institutions and consequently outside of museums with permanent collections. The expertise of the curator has changed from classical art historical knowledge and skills to knowledge of ‘the state of the art’ of the art scene and that of ‘story telling’ or generating narratives. This raises questions of the role of the curator both in and outside museums today, and of the qualifications, competences, skills and responsibilities of the curator.

Finally, they suggest that these changes “are evident in the privileging of the thematic exhibition format over the chronological exhibition format, and the group show over the solo show”:

Classical art historical exhibition formats such as the monographic exhibition and the survey show are superseded by exhibitions that concentrate on thematic groupings of art works, often disregarding principles of chronology, history, style and medium in favour of staging connections or ‘dialogues’ of a thematic or formal nature between artworks. The raison d’être of the exhibition seems in general to be moving from that of generating knowledge to that of creating events and sensations, stressing the theatrical and spectacular qualities of artworks. The innovations in the field of exhibition aesthetics raise questions of what kinds of context that are being provided and what kinds of knowledge that are being produced in museum exhibitions, and how the audience is supposed to, and indeed given the option to, engage in this production.

All these three topics are extremely relevant for the way we think about the changing practices and roles of STM history museums as well. Not that the tendencies haven’t been discussed before, but this conference addresses them head-on and in one comprehensive setting.

Deadline for registration: 22 October. See further

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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