Debate: Artistic interventions in the museum

Yesterday we were joined by Janet Marstine - Director of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall. She gave a lively presentation on several examples of the work of Fred Wilson, an artist who works with collections and institutions to produce installations and exhibitions - institutional critiques - which comment upon exclusion and inclusion and challenge hi-lo hierarchies in museal interpretation and practice.

(In retrospect, the talk made an interesting counterpoint to today's brown bag seminar (as blogged here, by Jen, earlier). Together they have made us think about what engagement *is*, and *who* is it for?#)

I, for one, was a little unsettled. Who are the intended audiences of Wilson's work? Visitors or institutions? Surely his rejection of textual interpretive material (because of its historical relationship with authority) must negatively impact upon the very visitors with whom he wishes to engage and to give permission to, to think more deeply, to challenge and construct their own ideas? Because, crucially, there is apparently nothing in-gallery - at least in the examples Janet spoke about - to indicate that the space encountered by visitors is a thoughtful art installation, as opposed to standard museum display. I imagine, for the average visitor, bewilderment and/or disinterest would result. Not to mention, fostering an inadvertent reassertion of the cultural superiority of the authoritative museum. One would need the necessary cultural capital - the nous - to grapple with the complex and, let's face it, fairly impenetrable (except for us museos) ideas and traditions which Wilson's work seeks to subvert.

There can be no doubt that Wilson's own inclusive practice (working with the whole institutional workforce - front-of-house staff included as much as senior curators) is a good thing, and neither that his presence in the institution leaves an indelible mark upon the future practice of that museum and its individual members of staff, as Janet pervasively argued. But does he meet his own aim to make the museum a more socially inclusive space?

And, while we're on the subject, how much of the social inclusion agenda is about assuaging middle-class guilt and making *us* feel better?*

What do you think?

#A point shamelessly stolen from Julia!
*I may be being deliberately confrontational here. ;)


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