Show and tell
The Curator's Egg: The Evolution of the Museum Concept from the French Revolution to the Present Day.
Karsten Schubert. One-Off Press, London 2000. 159pp An Empire on Display: English, Indian and Australian exhibitions from the Crystal Palace to the Great War.
Peter H Hoffenburg. University of California Press, London 2001. 418pp
With approaches to the presentation of artefacts in museums and galleries a hot topic, these two additions to the limited range of texts on the subject are welcome and hint at the opportunities and the reasons to exhibit. Both chart specific historical and geographical territories and each offers analysis of curatorial practice in its chosen areas.
The Curator's Egg is a comprehensive survey of changes in curatorial practice in museums and galleries in Europe and the US over the past two centuries, identifying the personalities, events, institutions and collections that made a difference.
An Empire on Display presents us with a selection of exhibitions in England, India and Australia - from the Great Exhibition of 1851 to the Festival of Empire in 1911 - as a way of understanding the historical economic, cultural and social context. But it also goes on to examine how that culture manifested itself in those exhibitions.
The study of exhibitions covers a huge area, in terms of concepts of display, intention and types of material. Schubert and Hoffenberg deal with a common set of issues; cross-reading the two provides a clearer understanding of the ways in which meaning can be constructed through exhibitions.
The Curator's Egg, wide-ranging and evocatively written, analyses the presentation of objects as art works. Schubert identifies the cross-pollination from the art world to museums, describing the change from the exhibit as 'specimen', to the exhibit as aesthetic object, displayed with 'breathing space'.
The museum visitor has also changed, from passive consumer to active participant.
In Schubert's words: 'From the position of barely-tolerated intruder, the visitor has progressed to being at the centre of the intellectual construct that is the museum.'
Crucially, the book acknowledges that the museum is not - nor should it be - a neutral voice. Outlining a variety of approaches to exhibiting objects, it emphasises the importance of a range of possible readings.
An Empire on Display is a comprehensive, dense and well-researched tome, slightly hampered by the author's reluctance to leave out any piece of researched information.
This is a good read for those interested in how national and cultural identity can be formed and manipulated through the vehicle of the exhibition. The book examines the permanent effects of essentially ephemeral events, prompting us to consider the responsibility that institutions have in the development of national cultural policies.
Hoffenberg's selection of exhibitions, in one way or another, deals with national characteristics. For example, at post-1851 exhibitions in England, Australia and India 'colonial courts were often situated near to British exhibits to symbolise imperial unity and power, to colonial subjects and foreign visitors'.
Schubert says 'self-analysis and critique are an integral part of (curatorial) practice'.
Curatorial practice is, in fact, about editing and prioritising material. Good curatorial practice requires one to step back to acknowledge the cultural climate.
Today, the sheer quantity of material and venues presents a challenge. Schubert suggests that far from there being an end point, towards which all curatorial practice should strive, there is a vast range of possibilities;
from rigour and comprehensive survey, to humour and parody, and all presentational combinations in between.
There are key lessons to be learnt from these books for contemporary architectural exhibitions. The classic examples from history spell out the importance of giving any exhibition a clear focus and intention, understanding its audience, having an objective and resisting the temptation to be all things to all people.
Kate Trant is an exhibition and media consultant. E-mail katetrant@ktprojects. demon. co. uk