Monday, 16 July 2007

the reflexive museum

and so i wandered over to the manchester museum...
even here in the proverbial 'dreaming spires' its clear that the city’s relentless pursuit of change, reinvention and renewal isn't to be avoided. the whole of the university corridor is under reconstruction and huge billboards loudly boast at every turn that this current inconvenience is to be patiently borne whilst a £650 million campus is built for us. rather dwarfed by the emerging new skyline, the museum sits snugly in the eye of it all, the personification of victorian ideals and values, intimidating, fusty or irrelevant according to your personal peccadilloes...
except that upon examination, the museum has in fact undergone something of a transformation of its own, both physically and symbolically, pre-empting the mood of the larger institution to which it belongs and quietly getting on with emerging as a rather intriguing addition to the cultural scene of the city.

"museums –well they’re a bit staid aren’t they? somewhere that dusty old leather patched boffins live, doing boring and arcane research on musty old fossils..
..only school kids and retired spinsters go to museums, don’t they?"

actually nothing could be further from the truth. the victoria & albert holds regular late night happenings, the british museum has started opening the doors to its great hall till 11pm for drinks and events, and i’ve even heard a rumour about speed dating nights…
museums are fast becoming the place of choice for the chattering classes, a fashionable place to hang out and be seen.

how on earth did that happen? i remember when i was a girl museums were quite the thing, and crowds flocked to see the curiosities of the world laid out all under one roof, but over the last century or so they somehow lost their mojo and everyone forgot all about them and started to go to the art gallery instead. beguiling with their neutral white space, these new temples to knowledge, truth and beauty purported to be arenas free from restrictive narratives, democratic places dedicated to simply focusing on the art object, pure art for arts sake, for anyone’s and everyone's aesthetic appreciation…

a powerful art myth but one that still has its adherents. artists predictably were the first to recognise the didactic nature of the art gallery, and from Duchamp onwards have been tackling the complex dynamic effected by the white cube’s invisible strait jacket; a sanitised stifling space dictating what we see and how we perceive it, determining our overall relationship to art by entirely separating it from our everyday experience. the history of 20th century art could be said to be the history of artists’ constant campaigns to disrupt and subvert the power of the institution, to create a conversational dialogue with the audience, giving rise to locational or site specific work responding directly to the social / cultural milieu, the geographical and physical space it finds itself in. contemporary practitioners continue to be determined to find representational spaces that operate outside or apart from the somewhat commodified territory of the gallery, a space which has been much criticised for dictating and managing our total viewing experience, leaving no room to think for ourselves, or respond to the work independently.

there are a plethora of examples and experiments of this kind of discourse about the nature of art and its purpose. once you start looking there’s art everywhere - the big screen; wall or graffiti art; commissioned public artworks; or even diy artist run spaces like Apartment, an inhabited flat on the edge of the city that shows contemporary work by young artists deliberately and almost disconcertedly intimate in its vernacular, familiar domestic set-up.

whilst these various socially aware, off the plinth, locational generation of conceptual art practices have been emerging and even become commonplace, another drama has been quietly unfolding – a phenomena of artists rediscovering the museum, an institution so overloaded with enlightenment victorian values and didactic messages that even museum staff came to find rather burdensome. if the art gallery could be accused of playing a trick of neutrality with the audience, the natural history or archaeology museum, whilst created with a set of conventions and strict rules of its own, seems a veritable playground to artists with the luxury of relative freedom from museology’s own discourse. as the debate within the museum world raged from the late 1980’s onwards about its very nature and history, artists were rediscovering the 'cabinet of curiosity' aspect of the early museum, intriguing places of awe and wonder, stuffed to the gills with creative inspiration.

out of the ashes of this debate is a quiet revolution.
at the manchester museum is the alchemy project, an initiative which facilitiates an ongoing series of artistic interventions into the fabric of the museum, at turns subtle, audience friendly or provocative. recent highlights include a series of evening talks by the current crop of alchemy artists, a welcome opportunity to understand more about the nature of the institution, the dissecting of its collections by new rather unconventional approaches and research, ongoing collaborations between artists and museum specialists, plus a chance to delve into the bowels of the museum and handle little seen artefacts. everyone's favourite, the ancient egyptian gallery, has a fascinating addition to its display, creating a timely debate on our contemporary attitudes to death and burial and the cultural treatment of the dead, by including the work of contemporary artists and craftspeople who create vessels and funerary containers for use today.

pop in on a spare afternoon and discover a material, metaphysical, inspirational world. nothing is what it seems in this victorian cathedral as it embarks on a grand adventure of reflecting on and encouraging debate on its place in the 21st century.

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