Saturday, 16 August 2008

two museums

We took the opportunity offered by our holiday in West Yorkshire to investigate a few museums. I visited the Tate Liverpool for the Klimt show, had a nose around the Walker too, but for the moment I want to say a few things about recent museology referring to two very different spaces: the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield and the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford. Both of these places have been written up admiringly in the guides but I found both disappointing.

The guiding philosophy of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is that large sculptural work is done a disservice when it is cooped up inside a museum or even a museum’s courtyard. Certainly much work of the mid-twentieth century was meant to be seen in an outdoor expanse as photographs of work by Moore and Hepworth show. The Sculpture Park has many works by both of these artists among others. It occupies a huge space compared to the floor plans of most museums. Sheep graze around various figures and shapes. Yet if anything the works seem too far apart (except for those meant to be viewed together like the Hepworths, shown above in their manicured surrounds). The ‘park’ for the most part is neither a garden nor a wilderness but something in between: an area of land reclaimed from pastoral use. While this throws into perspective the constructed nature of both planned parkland and ‘wilderness’ it nonetheless seems an unsatisfactory way of arranging these consciously artful objects. The PoMo pieces would seem more at home in a shopping mall than on a bare hillside, while the mid-century works mostly beg for companions other than grazing sheep. Their relatively ‘remote’ location (a pocket of land within a conurbation) actually works against the idea of simply blundering into a field of unusual objects since the decision to visit can’t be a haphazard one (it also in these straitened times encourages those who want to melt down the works for the booming illicit scrap metal trade).

We went to the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television to look at the photography section only, yet I felt that what we saw illustrated only too well the problems faced by a museology that focuses on ‘interaction’ and dramatisation (Australia’s Museum of Sydney and New Zealand’s Te Papa share these problems). Much has been written about the evolution of the museum from the collectors’ cabinets of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries through the Great Exhibitions to the establishment of modern institutions. There has always been a tension between the priorities of research and those of entertainment (the latter often in the guise of ‘education’); between providing a place nurturing the advance of knowledge and one where ‘bums on seats’ is the primary focus. Recent museology has tried in its way to reincorporate some of the elements that were channelled off in the period that saw the rise of the large ‘fun-fairs’. I remember the enthusiasm that greeted the openings of both the MOS and Te Papa. These places would leave behind the dusty corridors of inert objects under glass. They would be ‘interactive’ (weren’t the old steam machines that would operate at the push of a button interactive too?) and they would require an effort from the visitors over and above the passive viewing of objects. The problem with this approach is only too apparent in the Bradford Museum. This presentational style rather than opening things up tends to close down the possibilities the earlier museums offered. The whole building becomes a structure channelling us through its narratives, where turning back, though possible, is discouraged. The entire space is micro-managed to such an extent that new developments in the fields surveyed often (as they do here) seem cursorily tacked on, if indeed there is any space left to do so. The result of this is that museums like this one tend to date very quickly. What was ‘state-of-the-art’ a few years back now seems dowdy. It also seems (in the case of the photography section at Bradford) at the mercy of sponsors to a highly visible degree. While it is a good thing that Kodak have put so much into this part of the museum it means that we are treated to more models of mass-market cameras than anyone but a researcher could be remotely interested in. It also means that with the shift from film to digital imaging the latter technology is barely represented (mobiles with imaging functions are not represented at all).


Cheryl Bernstein said...

I can remember when the Bradford Museum of Film, Television and Whatnot was held up as an intellectual model for forward-thinking New Zealand museums to follow. Interesting that it's looking so tired and lame today; I suspect the same is true about the holograms at the Museum of Sydney. The problem with the interactivity promoted by museums in the 90s -- which influenced Te Papa so strongly -- is, as you have identified, its very prescriptiveness: the people's stories were to be told in this way, and no other.

Laurie Duggan said...

Yes, and it's a pity really. There are still things I like a lot about the MOS though I always felt that inidentified objects in drawers (an obvious reference back to the curiosity cabinets) was, for a museum, some kind of cop-out.