The Museum of the Self

The act of exhibiting lays in the concept of displaying objects to create a narrative and follows the same pattern of building a discourse, in which the message is imposed by the act of the curator. While the curator designs the space in the name of the public, visitors themselves play a fundamental role in defining the purpose of an exhibition.

While in the past, museums and galleries, by being guarantors of knowledge, have always played a role of superiority on the public, nowadays the relative positions have experienced a shift of hierarchy.  The technological revolution and the growing mass-culture of the 21st century have contributed, in fact, in a consequent democratisation and growth in popularity of cultural institutions. ‘In the emerging new relationship it will be the public, not the museum, that occupies the superior position. The museum’s role will have been transformed from one of mastery to one of service’ (Weil, S. cited in Conn, S., n.d.).

Boris Groys, in the article ‘Politics of Installation’ (2009), defines the art spaces as an ‘extension of neutral, public urban space’ in which ‘multitudes can view themselves and celebrate themselves, as God or Kings, were in former times viewed and celebrated in churches and palaces’. The sacrality that used to be attributed to the museum or gallery is now concentrated on the viewer, who’s focus doesn’t necessarily lay on the displayed items of interests but rather on the other spectators. Exhibition spaces have thus being assimilated by the power of mass culture into arenas ‘for the self-display of bourgeois-democratic’ (Conn, 2010).

If you can’t see the art very well, we might ask what you can see. Then answer is, I think, each other. (Conn, 2010)

In 2013, Karin Sander, a German conceptual artist, realised an installation entitled ‘Identities on Display’, which perfectly represent the paradigm shift that cultural institutions have been through the 21st century. Being composed of 26 display cases serving as glass cloakrooms, the idea on which the installation is based is simple: each visitor is invited to deposit their items in the public view cabinets. The artwork is therefore centred on the viewer, which, in this case, also assume the role of the curator as much of the exhibited object, while ‘revealing individual identities and cultural references, embedded with a sense of normality and the banal’ (Lab’Bel, 2013).

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Identities on Display, Karin Sander, Berlin, 2013

Normality, in term of mass-culture, is, in fact, the place that exhibitions have entered. Having left their original elitist aura, such institutions are now attracting record numbers of spectators while also entering the world of capitalism. Therefore, the contemporary art spaces are designed to include a heterogeneous experience, made of restaurants, cafe, bookstores, gift shop and the like, which focuses on visitors as ‘costumers’, rather than only ‘viewers’.

The museum, for example, has increasingly been treated as an object itself. As explained by Stephen Conn, in the book ‘Does Museum Still Need Object?’ (2010), the building of the Guggenheim in the 1930s and its futuristic design have determined a trend in museums architecture: designing ‘signature’ buildings that would attract more visitors.

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Guggenheim, New York 

The director of the Guggenheim, Thomas Krens, provides the perfect definition of exhibition spaces: ‘great collections, great architecture, a great special exhibition, a great second exhibition, two shopping opportunities, two eating opportunities, a high-tech interface via the Internet, and economics of scale via a global network’. Today art spaces have evolved into social events, attracting people of all kinds, fostering an exchange of information ‘where people can learn as much about themselves as they learned about art or science’ (Conn, 2010).

Bibliography: 

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