Facts and Fictions: The Histories of Museum Display and Installation in Cultural History

By Bessire, Mark H. C. | Art Journal, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Facts and Fictions: The Histories of Museum Display and Installation in Cultural History


Bessire, Mark H. C., Art Journal


Facts and Fictions:The Histories of Museum Display and Installation in Cultural History

Mary Anne Staniszewski. The Power of Display:A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. 370 pp., 204 b/w ills. $55.

Emma Barker, ed. Contemporary Cultures of Display. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with the Open University, 1999. Essays by Christoph Grunenberg, Anabel Thomas, Sandy Nairne, Elsbeth Court, Nick Webb, Alice Maher, Willie Doherty, and Fionna Barber. 272 pp., 60 color ills., 120 b/w. $50; $27.50 paper.

Both The Power of Display by Mary Anne Staniszewski and Contemporary Cultures of Display, edited by Emma Barker, can play a vital role in introducing the extensive power that museum displays and institutional agendas have on the presentation and reception of art in a museum setting. Having recently developed a syllabus for a course on the history of display, I found that both of these books introduce important aspects of museum presentation. Barker's is the first textbook dedicated to this topic and should be seen as an excellent introduction. Staniszewski's in-depth analysis illuminates how museum display defined the visual, social, and political interests of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and its impact on twentiethcentury museum installation. In many ways these two books represent the "academification" of museum display as a legitimate discourse within the discipline of art history. It is thus not surprising that they were published soon after MoMA organized The Museum as Muse exhibition in 1999, which was accompanied by a major book discussing the importance of artists who use the museum as a subject in their art.

Issues of museum display and theories of collecting have been part of the education of the most recent generation of art historians. From a personal perspective, several exhibitions helped to construct the conceptual focus of my maturing as an art historian and curator, including the 1984 MoMA exhibition Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern; the 1988 Center for African Art (now the Museum of African Art, New York) exhibition Art/Artifact; the 1989 Whitney Museum of American Art, Downtown branch exhibition Desire of the Museum; and Hal Foster's essay "The 'Primitive' Unconscious of Modern Art, or White Skin Black Masks;" as well as Thomas McEvilley's, William Rubin's, and Kirk Varnedoe's letters in response to the "Primitivism" exhibition in Artforum. James Clifford's book The Predicament of Culture (Harvard University Press, 1991) was also crucial. Issues of context, museum display, cultural imperialism, institutional authority, and the representation of the "other" were all foregrounded in the popular discourse generated by the "Primitivism" exhibition. This is not to say that these exhibitions and writings began this discourse, but that these events together were a major watershed in the history of museum display.

The sixth and final volume of the Open University/Yale University Press series Art and Its Histories, Contemporary Cultures of Display, edited by Baker, is organized in three parts "The Changing Museum," "ExhibitionIsm," and "Art in the Wider Culture," with essays and case studies by a variety of authors. It provides European case studies that are particularly stimulating for non-European readers. Part one includes case studies on the Musee D'Orsay, Paris, and the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery, London; part two examines africa95, London, and Les Magiciens de la terre, Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1989; and part three introduces the expansion of the Tate Gallery in Liverpool and Saint Ives. Each of these studies addresses different topics through specific examples of exhibitions and cultural events. Throughout the book, the closer the discussions are to the case studies, the more engaging the text. The overviews, however, such as the introduction and discussion of blockbuster exhibitions, are laden with institutional information presented in a pedantic style that often deadens the topics and is of little interest to those outside the field of art history and museum work. …

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