Reflecting on Museums Through Museum Exhibits

This week’s readings about Fred Wilson’s exhibit “Mining the Museum” reminded me of a museum exhibit I visited at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which collects and exhibits modern art.  According to the museum’s website, the exhibit, called “how far how near”, “centers around the key question of how museum collections and exhibition policies historically and today are limited and challenged in relation to geographical emphasis.”  The exhibit featured a variety of works by African artists in an attempt to broaden the Stedelijk’s traditional focus on European art, and many of those pieces of art explicitly addressed questions of if and how cultural classification is possible in a world increasingly dominated by globalization.  (To read more about the exhibit, visit the website: http://www.stedelijk.nl/en/exhibitions/how-far-how-near)

Like the Stedelijk’s “how far how near” exhibit, Fred Wilson’s “Mining the Museum” attempted to use a museum’s collections, exhibited in a museum space, to interrogate the norms and definitions of the museum itself.  Lisa Corrin’s article “Mining the Museum: An Installation Confronting History” says that “Mining the Museum” wasn’t the first time an artist had “created a museum-critical work for a specific institution”, and I’m sure, in the two decades between “Mining the Museum” and “how far how near”, many artists and museums developed exhibits designed to critique the very museums in which they were displayed.  Corrin’s article clearly shows how “Mining the Museum” was a powerful experience for both outside viewers and the museum itself to consider how ideas about history are created through seemingly impartial museum exhibits.  Similarly, when I visited “how far how near”, I was forced to consider the geographical biases in the Stedelijk’s collecting policies, which I might not have been as aware of otherwise.  The exhibit also made me wonder about whether our cultural and geographical categorizations of art and artifacts are as simple as we like to make them seen.  Does it really make sense to categorize an object, especially in the modern era, as from a specific place in a world increasingly dominated by globalization, where ideas and materials flow regularly between places?

While Corrin’s article highlights the potential of exhibits like “Mining the Museum” for redefining the concept of museum itself, I also wonder what limitations may arise from using a museum’s collections to try to critique the museum itself.  How critical can you truly be of the museum, either an individual one or the larger concept, when your work uses a museum’s collections and exists in a museum’s spaces?  What benefits and drawbacks are there from critiquing an institution from within, in contrast to from the outside?  I also wonder if diversifying a museum’s collections and exhibits, while making the museum more inclusive and self-reflective, also serves to bolster the institution of the museum, and ultimately keep intact all of its potentially oppressive and exclusionary policies.  If a museum was founded to collect only European works, or to steal and exoticize art and artifacts from non-European countries, can those histories ever be “corrected”, even if collecting policies are changed and representations are expanded?  In other words, can the museum–or any other institution founded in oppression and exclusion–ever escape its own history?

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