Unedited — Alice Procter (The Exhibitionist) on Tipu’s Tiger
Institutions in the United Kingdom often hold objects that have come into their collections under opaque, violent or less than desirable conditions. Often, these histories are silenced or have been conveniently left out of the museum’s official narrative. This is where people like Alice come in. We had a wonderful, lengthy conversation about Alice about the work that museums do, and how museums can take steps towards being places for everyone.
This is the full unedited conversation with Alice, but if you’re interested in reading the edited article, you’ll find it linked here.
Alice Procter is an art historian and museum educator. She runs Uncomfortable Art Tours, unofficial guided tours exploring how major institutions came into being against a backdrop of imperialism. Alice’s academic work concentrates on the intersections of postcolonial art practice and colonial material culture, the curation of historical trauma, and myths of national identity. Her website is theexhibitionist.org. She spends a lot of time screaming on twitter at @aaprocter.
When visitors step into museums and institutions such as the British Museum and the V&A Museum, there is often the sense that not everyone, particularly those who do not overtly share in having an imperial past, realises how these collections were formed. Given this backdrop, what was it that spurred you towards starting Uncomfortable Art Tours, and why use the format of a tour to explore these ideas?
When I was studying for my undergraduate degree in art history, I did modules on topics such as imperial art, mapmaking in the 16th to 17th century, and how skin tone was represented during those time periods. One of the things I found really interesting was how unwilling people were when it came to having conversations about colonialism. It was this thing that no one wanted to talk about. You’d talk about expansion, or trade, or even exchange, but you weren’t allowed to say “empire” or “colonial forces”. We just didn’t talk about things such as the East India Company. For me, there was an obvious hole in the conversation that everyone was walking around and not acknowledging.
I was trying to find a way to make that gap visible to people, and I already had some experience as a tour guide. I figured that doing guided tours in museums could be a useful way of getting people to recognise this. It was something that really came out of doing all of these courses and modules. No one wanted to mention it, and no one wanted to think about it. By being in a museum or a gallery, you have objects that you can work with. When you’re having the abstract conversation about imperial legacies, it can often feel really vague because you’re talking about things such as identity, national ideology, mindset and self representation. All of these are important concepts, but they are often intangible. In comparison, a gallery allows you to look at these objects — their histories, aesthetic qualities, how they were manufactured, and who their previous owners were. It becomes a lot more accessible, especially for people who aren’t familiar with such conversations, or who don’t come from a background of doing art history.
I first started doing these tours in art galleries, particularly the Tate Britain and the National Gallery. When you talk about an institution such as the British Museum, even someone who isn’t familiar with colonial collections or histories would probably know that some of the objects in the museum have been stolen or taken under violent circumstances. In a similar vein, the Victoria & Albert Museum is associated very strongly with the Victorian empire. Those two institutions would have been obvious places to begin my tours in, but by saying no — we’re going to do it in a national gallery, people then had to deal with the fact that this was something that was everywhere. It wasn’t just about stolen objects, it was also about how Britishness was represented in, for example, the 1740s. These conversations needed to be had in order for us to make sense of contemporary situations as well.
It’s something that I wanted to do for awhile, and I found a way of making it work. People were interested, and now it’s kind of my full time job — which is wild to me, but it’s been really interesting.
The object or artwork-centred approach through which you conduct your tours is also really interesting. As you said, so many people have these conversations within the setting of a classroom, but these issues can be much easier to navigate and guide in a gallery space. When it comes to objects such as Tipu’s Tiger, how do you approach the artwork and how do you begin the conversation?
I would describe my approach as object-led storytelling, where I work with a physical object but also consider its presentation within a gallery space. It’s not just about a painting in isolation, but about what is in the room with the painting, what the space looks like, how people move through the space, and who gets to be in the space anyway. With Tipu’s Tiger, one of the interesting things to unpack there is that it is now housed within a museum of design, and is thus treated very much as an object of design. When Tipu’s Tiger was first created, it was seen very much as an emblem of resistance towards British rule. The object is quite reactionary in many ways, but it is about trying to find an aesthetic representation of un-Britishness, and making that both powerful and tangible. When it was first taken by the East India Company from Tipu Sultan’s palace, the object was placed in the company’s India Museum. It immediately went on public display, and it was treated as a trophy taken from a violent society that they had “saved” the world from. It went from being an object of art in Tipu Sultan’s palace, to being a military trophy at the India Museum, and now having its story focused on its aesthetic and material qualities at the V&A Museum.
It’s also in a display case with other objects from Seringapatam. There’s an overwhelming focus on the use of the tiger as a motif as compared to how these objects were actually used or understood in their original contexts. I often start my tours by describing the object before giving an overview of how these objects moved between places. It helps people realise how a single object, such as Tipu’s Tiger, has had many lives, and how the viewing contexts of these objects change their narrative. It also helps people to realise the importance in the ideologies behind gallery labels and texts, and how those shape our encounters with the artwork.
It’s interesting that you point out these details as contributing to an entire viewing experience. A large part of the experience of viewing Tipu’s Tiger is silenced. It is an organ, and shares a display case with other objects.
When it comes to considering the labels and how they influence how we understand the artwork, the extended label for Tipu’s Tiger has always struck me as being written in a defensive and excusatory tone.
The label for Tipu’s Tiger begins with the sentence, “Tipu Sultan was killed when the East India Company stormed Seringapatam in 1799”. That’s written in a passive voice. It doesn’t mention the fact that he was killed by the Company’s officers, and gives the impression that he just happened to die at the same time.
Later on in the label it reads, “as was usual, the royal treasury was then divided up between the army”. There’s a whole history of looting and conflict being used as a way of creating museum collections. We know that East India Company officials were in contact with collectors and curators in London. We know that the trustees of institutions such as the British Museum, the V&A and the National Gallery are sending letters to military officials around the world at this time, expressing interest in particular objects and artworks. There’s also this mention that kills me: “the wooden tiger […] was discovered in the palace”. People already knew that the organ was there, so it wasn’t being discovered at all.
Sentences like “when visitors turned the handle at the side, noises were produced that supposedly imitated the European victim's dying wails of agony” also have a very clear angle. It focuses, overwhelmingly, on the European victim as compared to the tiger itself. That little choice surrounding the way in which the sentence is phrased then shapes how viewers experience the piece. It makes the European the protagonist, and transforms the way in which the object is seen.
Tipu’s Tiger is an organ. It is an active, loud and tangible object. It was meant to be touched, and to be played. Now, it sits isolated, muffled and silenced in a glass case. It was meant to be experienced, but now all we can do as visitors is look at it. I find it quite sad, actually. I was doing a tour recently where a musician in the group remarked on how heartbreaking it was that any musical instrument should be muffled. There are other musical instruments in the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum’s South Asia Gallery as well, and they are very good examples of how museums turn everyday domestic objects into silent things to be observed. That’s a really sad process.
Often the justification for this is that these instruments are as much about the music they produce as their aesthetic and material qualities. There will be other sitars we can listen to, and other barbats that can be picked. But when it comes to this tiger, this sadness is amplified because it’s a really unique instrument.
It’s really unique — there is nothing quite like it, and it’s absolutely incredible. Every so often a conservator cranks the organ up and plays it, but the fact that we don’t experience it the way it was meant to be experienced is a real shame.
These conservators crank the organ’s handles with gloves on…
I know, and they don’t touch it or have that contact with it.
The rest of the South Asia Gallery is filled with items such as clothing. Clothing is meant to be worn out. It’s meant to break and wear down. Whilst it is incredible that we have examples of historical dress, it is also important to remember that they look very different on the body. Textiles crease and were probably worn alongside jewels and shawls. We’re getting such an incomplete glimpse as to how they would have looked like. When we go into a gallery and see muslin dresses on mannequins, made for company officials’ wives and daughters in India, out of fabric that’s often been imported from textile mills and printed with patterns that imitate historical Indian designs. We’re not seeing them in this whole context. We’re seeing them as a dress. It is important to realise that we aren’t looking at them as markers of identity and self-fashioning, but as fragments.
That gallery is just full of ghosts.
Right — it is absolutely haunted, and the way that this is presented as a design museum as well is interesting. The V&A Museum is supposed to be a museum of technology, of making and of design. You’d go to the V&A in order to learn techniques and to become a better artist.
With the South Asian Gallery, that’s meant to be viewed as the gallery of South Asian design too. Yet there are pieces in that gallery that have been made by Indian or South Asian artists to look European. There are these ivory candlesticks in the gallery that have been made in South Asia but look so French. There is nothing “Indian” about their design at all, apart from their manufacture. That doesn’t give you an insight into South Asian design at all. It gives you an insight into the tastes and preferences of British officials in Calcutta at the time.
That then brings up the question of how galleries themselves are labelled, and how objects are situated within them. Artisans often moved from place to place, and could have been informed by different traditions. How do we classify the work of a Central Asian-born artisan working in South Asia being informed by European tastes and preferences?
It sounds like a cliché saying this now, but museums are contact zones. Museums are spaces of encounter, where one can see a collision of identities and different levels of power. If you’re an art historian or a curator, you’d think that statement a cliché. Yet when visitors come into these spaces, that fact is not always visible. Often, it’s far from obvious. We then have to ask how we can make that knowledge more tangible or accessible to people. How can we get viewers to realise that objects in the museum are hybridised forms, and have resulted from decades of trade and exchange?
There are some pieces within the South Asia Gallery from Goa that have been made for Portuguese merchants. They are beautiful carved ivory figures of Christian saints, and they are created in what I would call a bilingual aesthetic. These artists were using visual motifs from creating sacred sculptures that they were familiar with, and were adapting these motifs to the new visual language brought in by European merchants. You have to recognise the multilingualism of these aesthetics and of these galleries. That’s often missing in these galleries, and it’s hard to make that visible — except it’s not hard.
In particular, the Seringapatam Medal which shares the same display case as Tipu’s Tiger, is emblematic of this aesthetic bilingualism. Artists were obviously aware of the motifs and their meanings they carried whilst crafting these works. That’s something that isn’t really addressed in the gallery either. The medal is a small object, I understand, but it carries so much meaning.
That medal shows the British lion defeating the Mysorian tiger. This motif was used widely in British prints and illustrations, and one could fill the entire gallery with ways in which the tiger was used as a metaphor for Indian resistance. The motif was invented and reinvented, both by Mysorian artists who were commissioned by Tipu Sultan himself, but also by British artists. As soon as this tiger is put on display in London, artists are coming to visit it. Artists are responding to this in real time through music, satire, and aesthetic comments.
To present something like this medal in isolation is really damaging. It takes away from the fact that there were thousands of these medals in circulation, and were representative of an accessible motif. So, how do we talk about that? How do we acknowledge that this was something that people knew about, and all because we’re no longer familiar with it now, doesn’t mean that it was this way in the past as well.
With institutions such as the V&A Museum, the impression is that there is a certain selectivity as to how far they’re willing to go with acknowledging this past. There is, obviously, no denying as to how these objects came into the museum’s collection. Yet when it comes to display and curation, we often find these stories missing. The irony also lies in the fact that these institutions are often the ones with the most resources on hand to tackle these issues as well.
Museums have more power over how we display these histories than they would like to admit. Museums are institutions of memory. If you enshrine one particular story, you’re doing it at the expense of an alternative. It’s so important to recognise that, and to own that power. As part of that, you then have to be willing to make choices that some people might not like.
I use this slogan in my tours, “display it like you stoke it”, as a way of saying that if museums and institutions are going to hold onto these objects in their collections, the least they could do is to directly address their provenance. Museums need to talk about how they’ve been displayed, how they’ve been represented, and recognise that they need to be conversational and active spaces. When you actively resist talking about an object’s provenance, you’re missing a huge part of its story. Obviously the slogan is meant slightly as a joke, but the reason that it works is because it is true. I say it in an almost flippant way, but museums have to follow through on it with honesty. There are so many pieces within the South Asia Gallery alone that are contested, or that have been sought through repatriation, or even looted. Much of it comes via the East India Company. Someone on a tour once pointed out to me that “loot” (ٹ लूट) is a Hindi word that means to steal. The East India Company brought it into the English language. If we’re thinking of multilingualism in the gallery, that’s a linguistic narrative that needs to be present. How do these pieces move, and what do they mean in these different spaces?
Museums such as the V&A have plenty of experts on their staff, but they’re not the only experts in the world. There are also different types of expertise too. There might be material expertise, or the perfect curator for objects such as Tipu’s Tiger, but emotional knowledge is also important in helping us understand these objects empathetically. There needs to be room for that too. Decolonisation isn’t a metaphor, and it’s something that you actually have to do. Museums are colonial institutions, so you can’t decolonise a museum. In order to get anywhere close to the process of decolonising a space, you have to rethink what a museum means, who it is for, what it is doing, and what it should be doing.
Conversations around the provenance of museums’ collections have been picking up, in particular, the terminology that’s been used to describe this is the need to “decolonise the museum”. That’s something that everyone has been saying as a buzzword, almost, but there really isn’t a consensus as to what that means either.
Decolonisation isn’t a metaphor, and it’s something that you actually have to do. You have to start with your staff rooms. Museums are colonial institutions, so you can’t decolonise a museum. In order to get anywhere close to the process of decolonising a space, you have to rethink what a museum means, who it is for, what it is doing, and what it should be doing.
A large part of the conversation also stems from the fact that museum spaces are often deemed as unfeeling or unemotional. They are devoid of the emotional knowledge you spoke of earlier, and that’s something I’ve been struck by as being an incredibly European sentiment. The association of institutions such as museums with the Enlightenment has often meant that concepts, ideas and abstract notions have often been put at the forefront of the collection’s narrative. With this, there wasn’t any space left for the real emotional effect and power of these objects.
We have this notion of the museum as a space of enlightened knowledge, but the founder of the British Museum, Hans Sloane, used to host parties where people could touch his collection. For him, it was all about experiencing the object. His approach to his collection was very haptic and multi-sensorial, and this often resulted in a very emotional experience. Somehow that’s been squashed down into this narrative of Enlightenment where we understand things by studying them.
I think a lot about crying in art galleries, which sounds like a strange thing to say, but when is it okay to be emotional in front of an object? When you see something that has a very violent past, does the space let you experience your emotions, or does it push you towards walking along and staying calm? That’s something that you really should be aware of when you’re in institutions such as the British Museum and the V&A Museum. When are you allowed to be emotional? Are you allowed to be moved by something that’s beautiful? Usually that’s okay, but you’re not allowed to be moved by something painful in the same way.
There isn’t actual physical space for visitors to process their emotions in. Often, other visitors are pushing past you, or there are no benches for you to sit on to ponder what you’ve just seen.
This is something that more museums are beginning to address. The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. has an amazing processing space at the end, where viewers who’ve gone up the historical galleries then come up to this place with water and quiet. It’s a very cathartic room, and was deliberately built in by the museum’s architects. They knew that space had to be made for the trauma and pain felt in those galleries. They’ve also built in little booths where visitors can record their thoughts or responses to the museum’s collection, which will then be collected and added onto the museum’s history. That’s so important, and so many of the more traditional art and anthropology museums can really learn from that approach. It puts the visitor’s experience, particularly their emotional health, at the centre of what the museum is doing. There are museums with human remains in them, objects that have been taken under violent circumstances, and artefacts that have literal blood on them. If you don’t make room for the fact that people are going to respond to that honestly and humanly, you’re really failing your audience.
Visitors are also often saturated with the viewing experience as well. Often visiting a museum is tiring work because there are just so many things to see, and because of this, there isn’t really even time to entertain the possibility of an emotional response.
Exhibition fatigue is real, and it’s hard to deal with sometimes. One of the amazing things about galleries that are free is that you can come and go as you wish. If you’re able to, the experience of having one-on-one time with a single object is really powerful. That’s not readily available to everyone, and that’s a real shame.
But it’s important to understand that it’s natural to feel emotional in front of things — that’s who we are as people, and those aspects are really important to consider in the face of rethinking what and who museums are for.
Sometimes when you’re confronted with your response to an artwork, it can often be difficult to express or verbalise just what it is that one is feeling. Museums such as the V&A are quickly becoming mere tourist destinations that people include on their to-do list when they visit London. Tourists visit the Cast Courts, have a quick waltz around the permanent galleries, before setting all of that aside for the rest of their day. The institution doesn’t always seem to encourage people to really dwell upon what they’ve seen and give form to their thoughts.
These collections can be very overwhelming, and it’s easy to express that emotion in anger. It’s completely natural to feel angry in museums as well. You don’t have to go into a gallery and cry. You can also feel outrage, and that sort of righteous indignation is an important response to have to the collections. Yet, that’s not socially acceptable within the context of a museum space either. One could feel angry at the fact that their community was misrepresented or not represented at all. That can lead to people feeling rejected by the space, and it perpetuates the sense that museums are for some people and not others. If you’ve had an angry response to something you saw in a museum, that only proves the point that you and your voice belong there. Yet, there’s no obvious channel for communication between museums and their visitors. Firstly, you can never get in touch with museum curators. Secondly, there isn’t a socially palatable way of saying: “Your exhibition hurt me. It made me angry and upset because you misrepresented my history, my experience and my community”. That’s a very difficult thing to communicate, and because of how museums are set up at the moment, the onus of communicating that is always on the viewer. I don’t think I’ve ever gone into a gallery and felt like the museum wanted to hear what I had to say about it.
I think that’s the point though. Institutions might prefer that sort of power dynamic, because it leaves the authority about their collections vested in them. Certain institutions, like the Tate with their Tate Exchange, have tried reaching out to their audiences directly through talks and panels.
More museums, especially in the UK, are taking on youth committees, so they put all the work of decolonising the institution on 19 to 25 year olds! It’s always children! I’m within that age bracket as well, but the burden is often placed on high school kids or university students who are just learning this for themselves as well. That means that all the responsibility is placed upon them as well, as compared to being on the institution. I’ve met some amazing people that have been involved in these programmes, so it’s not to say that they’re bad things. They’re super important. But when you have somewhere like the National Gallery, where pretty much their entire decolonial response is coming from their young people, something is really wrong there.
And these responses aren’t consistent as well. These programmes last anywhere between three to six months, and then what happens after that? There is no continuity dedicated toward something as important as this.
These programmes are also almost always unpaid.
Coming back to the idea that museums need to decolonise, often how that’s being done is with a surface level diversity project like this. You get the box-ticking, “We have a more ethnically varied staff room than we had five years ago”. Okay, that’s a good thing. But also, you’ve got to make sure that your new hires that are coming in to diversify your institution feel able to share their opinions, responses and experiences. You need to have an integrated, diverse staff across the hierarchy too.
They need to be empowered to make change with the adequate resources. If an institution hires a curator who is of a minority ethnicity, the curator should have the resources on hand to put together shows, talks and programmes that reflect this shift towards diversity.
In order to progress through these institutions, you have to play the game. You have to have the right kind of approach, and to be fairly tame in the ways you curate. There is an aesthetic and a brand that these institutions are trying to maintain, so it’s very rare that you get someone coming in at a senior level who is able to say, “Alright, we’re going to start from scratch”. It’s a funding thing as well, and it’s about who can afford to go for postgraduate degrees, conferences, and internships. It then becomes a very small, self-selecting community of people, usually, with a great amount of inherited privilege. And you wonder why museums are all so boring and same-y. Well, it’s because all the curators went to school together. Maybe in twenty years time, we’ll be able to say that all the curators in London were involved in the same youth programme and decolonising institutions. I hope that happens, but as with all these things it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of generational change.
It needs to be something that is actively sought as well. On the part of institutions, they won’t really push for this change unless it is demanded of them as well.
An element of this is that the people who are in these institutions, and particularly the white museum professionals, have to use their privilege. They have to say, “Well, I’m grateful for my job, but I can’t do everything”. There are going to be voices and perspectives that you cannot give.
When I do these tours, I’m very aware and open about my position as a white Australian who grew up in Hong Kong and London. I have a very colonial history, and every moment of my life has been shaped by a legacy of empire. But my experience of that, as someone that comes from a Northern European white background, is very specific and very much about the opportunities that has afforded me. I try to be very conscious of that, and I also try to make sure that the people who come on my tours are aware of their own privilege and their own perspectives within that. We all have a responsibility to address these things, because we all live within a legacy of empire. Some people feel it more keenly than others, but just because you don’t know about it doesn’t mean it is not there.
There is this idea, particularly amongst an older demographic, that is if I haven’t personally experienced something, that it therefore doesn’t matter or exist. This is true of all sectors, but I feel it is particularly prevalent in the arts and heritage sector. People somehow tend to feel their own experience the most authentic and the most important, but fail to realise that they can’t speak on behalf of everybody. A lot of curators are used to living in a world where their expertise makes them untouchable, and that they don’t have to talk about their own potential pitfalls because of this fantasy of objectivity. There’s no such thing as objectivity. Everything is subjective — some people just have self awareness.
That’s exactly what museums use to shield themselves from the sort of criticism they’ve been getting. The official narrative about the museum as an objective or neutral space has always been used to deflect the need to acknowledge other stories or other perspectives. It always intrigues me as to how myopic some can be towards the inherent structural bias of these institutions.
Nothing is neutral. There is no such thing as neutral. I don’t know why we still have to have these conversations about whether museums should or should not be neutral. It’s so bizarre to me. It’s something that I really hope we can all agree on soon because it’s honestly boring to keep having this conversation. The overwhelming majority of people recognise that this is a problem, but there still is a group of loud traditionalists who call for objectivity. They say that museums should not be political, should not have an opinion and should represent everybody — but the truth is they’re not representing everybody. They might as well stop pretending and own up to the fact that they can’t represent everyone. I dream of the day that I don’t have to start conference papers with statements such as, “museums are not neutral, and this is why”.
It’s really strange, as you say, that we have to keep going on about this. The lack of neutrality is something that particular groups or demographics of people will find obvious. Somehow in order to really get change through the doors, those you have to convince are the ones least affected by this sidelining.
That’s always the case, isn’t it? Change is only as effective as the people who are most resistant to it. I guess that’s a terrible way to phrase it, but if you want to change something in a museum, it doesn’t matter if the majority of your audience and your staff recognise it. There’s always going to be a sticking point, and as long as we’re stuck on this fantasy of neutrality, that sticking point is often a very conservative, traditionalist and often regressive ideology. If you want to make a difference, there’s always going to be someone that says no. Which is natural, we experience it in all elements of our life. But there is a real fear and anxiety about rocking the boat too much in the context of museums. I really wonder why the arts and heritage sector is struggling so much with this. Obviously every sector has its own set of issues and is dealing with similar concerns in their own ways, but there is this total paranoia that I’ve seen in museums.
It seems as if the inherent security of a museum’s position lies in its ability to be a so-called objective institution. There’s this sense that if museums own up to this, that they’d lose their standing and thereby undermine decades of work.
People don’t want to admit that they make mistakes, and this is something that comes up quite often on my tours as well. People will often say, “But you know, no one’s perfect. Surely these historical figures were just trying and doing their best. How would you feel if someone talked about you like this in the future?” And I say, well obviously I hope they do that. I know that I’m not flawless and beyond reproach. For the most part, we’re all doing what we think is right in the moment. There is no such thing as best practice — there is just better than the last one. So when museums have this response of, “Oh, what if in five years time we realise that we’ve made a horrible mistake?” The answer is, in five years time, you fix it. But right now, you’re sitting on a mistake that you’ve had for so long. You’ve got to do better, and you have to keep trying to do better. I wonder if this is something that comes from this being such an inherently nostalgic industry — but it’s no excuse.
It’s not about allocating blame or about better or worse. It’s about taking responsibility for things you have enabled in the past, and are continuing to enable, with the goal of being better. There is no such thing as perfect.
These institutions then go on to have an impact on the display and curation of cultural institutions outside the West. It ends up being a matter of the precedent being set in places such as the UK and America, which trickles down in some shape or form into institutions all around the world. When these models or modes of operation are applied to a different place, it often begins to fall apart quite quickly because they no longer serve any function outside of the centres of colonial enterprise. It no longer is a problem confined to institutions in the West, but has an effect on how the arts is consumed all around the world.
If you set that precedent and that standard that everyone is working in the shadow of, then you also have a responsibility to step aside. It’s tricky to say that Western museums shouldn’t be the standard because they are, and it’s very difficult to break from that. But one of the ways that could happen is for museums to really be creative with how they used their platforms. If an institution like the V&A Museum turned around and said, “We’ve been doing things in a rather traditional way, but this is why it doesn’t work anymore. We’re going to try something new, and make space for these new possibilities”, we’d see a global change as well. But it takes institutional bravery, and someone needs to go first. We haven’t had anyone who’s willing to do that yet.
It’s so messy — there’s no neat answer to any of this, but it’s all about being willing to try, and willing to fuck up. If you make a mistake, you deal with that mistake. But there’s no point sitting on your hands and hoping that things will go as they always have done. Museums are going to become irrelevant unless they come to terms with this.
We need to start rethinking the role and position of museums now, when there’s still a certain level of goodwill and respect towards these institutions. Museums are not perfect, but they still have a place — they just need to find that place. We’re going to get to five or ten years down the line, and I think that goodwill is rapidly disappearing. Museums need to get on with it, or there won’t be anything to get on with.
Or they’ll really just end up being places that people just come to as something to check off a list.
And they’re already becoming that. Museums are already getting dustier, and kind of colder in terms of their relevance. That’s a real shame.
Conversations in the board room probably reflect this shift as well. We’ve seen a real obsession for museums with visitor numbers and retail earnings.
Their emphasis on retail has gotten them into some real controversy lately as well. There were some arguments posited after the V&A Museum’s recent Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up exhibition about the appropriation and commercialisation of Kahlo’s legacy. It was awful. Really, £200 flower crowns — is that how you respect a queer communist? There were all these people who defended the museum’s decisions by saying that they had to make money somehow. Yes, but not like this!
There are more institutions that are increasing their ticket prices as well. I didn’t go to the recent exhibition at the Tate, Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy. It was £30 per ticket. When I go to exhibitions, I always go with the intention of reviewing and sharing them on the Internet through my podcasts or my Twitter feed. I will always share my responses, because I think it is important to share my immediate reaction to what I’m seeing in galleries. I didn’t go to the Picasso one because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to recommend it. It could have been the best show in the world, but it couldn’t have been worth that price tag. It created such an exclusive space that was not open or accessible.
That exhibition was also problematic for other reasons. I found it strange that we were still talking about Picasso as a genius, but not of Picasso as manipulative in engaging in a relationship with an underage teenager, Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was only seventeen years old when they started dating.
Right. There were all these questions surrounding the representation of women in that space as well, and how we deal with gender and age differences, the exploitation of sex workers and the violence against women. There was nothing in that show that would have been interesting to see. It just seemed so out of touch. I can see Picasso paintings whenever I want, but it just so happens that I don’t often want to.
If that exhibition had presented the narrative in a completely new way, that would have been a completely different story. It’s a shame that you have to think about it in such a commercial way, but you do have to. You have to weigh up the ticket prices of exhibitions in relation to what you’re getting out of them.
Definitely, especially because the price of one ticket often gets you into only one exhibition and there can be multiple exhibitions in the same location happening at the same time.
Yes, so you have to decide what you want to do.
And sometimes the display techniques are tired, and you find yourself unenthused or uninspired at the end of an expensive exhibition wishing you hadn’t wasted all that money.
Some of the best exhibitions I’ve seen have been at free galleries — and that says a lot. If you can put on an incredible show, and its free, why on earth are you charging £30 to see the same, boring Picasso exhibition?
There are definitely new ways of doing old things, but there always seems to be this resistance towards that.
There’s also this trend of doing 24 hour openings for exhibitions, and I find that really frustrating. I did it once. I went to the Royal Academy of Arts’ Ai Weiwei exhibition at 3am, because that was the only time for which I could get a ticket. It was the weirdest experience of my life. Going to a gallery in the middle of the night is really unpleasant. It’s not much fun. It’s creepy, it’s weird, and you have to go wander around the city at night. You do it once because it seems kind of cool and exciting, and it’s one of those things you can say that you’ve done, but you’d never do it again. So I don’t think that’s a solution to exhibitions that sell out.
Again, I missed the V&A Museum’s Frida Kahlo exhibition because I couldn’t get a ticket. It says a lot about an institution when that exhibition was fully booked out, and the only way you could see it is if you bought a gallery membership for about £70 a year. It comes back to the point of culture being so expensive and so elitist.
And it doesn’t make for a good viewing experience as well. I remember going for an exhibition at the V&A Museum a couple of years back, Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, and that was packed. Everyone had their faces pressed up against the display cases, and you couldn’t even properly step back to look at the dresses because the room was full of people just jostling with each other.
I wonder what would happen if an institution like the V&A Museum or the Tate said that they were not going to be doing any temporary exhibitions for the next three years. Instead, they’d work with what they already have and do something interesting with it. Just redisplay what you have, or do exhibitions drawn from your collections. I think that would be so interesting, and so much braver.
Some of these institutions, like the British Museum, have been experimenting with commissioning contemporary responses to their collections. It would be interesting if these responses were better publicised or got more space within these galleries.
And then to accession those responses afterwards, instead of just treating it as a one-off event where a contemporary artist comes in with a response that is later brushed off.
Definitely. If the whole entire process of how these responses were crafted was documented, and more time was given to these commissions, I think they’d actually make for much more interesting conversation. The historical collections of these museums do have an impact on working artists today.
Often with temporary exhibitions, museums borrow extensively from other collections instead of tapping on their own. As exciting as that is for international museum partnership, that’s not really the point of me coming to a particular institution. If I’m at the Tate, I want to see the Tate’s collection — not the Centre Pompidou’s collection. If I was interested in the Pompidou’s collection, I would go to Paris.
This is something that the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney does, by moving its permanent collections around fairly often. Obviously I would like it if they did it every three months, but they do it a couple of times a year. They take a theme, and create an entire gallery display and curatorial narrative just using things from their own collection. It’s really creative, and it means that you see things on quite a high rotation. Sometimes you’ll see the same object being used in a completely different way.
That actually helps audiences develop a better and more comprehensive idea of how artworks and art objects can be understood.
Definitely, and I do wish more museums would do that. That is the challenge that I would like to see more museums rise to — just work with what you’ve got. Save that money. Stop having that panic about how you’re going to get visitors through the door. Just do something new with what you already have, in hopefully a very creative and engaging way.
Again in Australia, the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, is famous for being so completely weird. The owner, David Walsh, is a very eccentric character, and nothing about that museum is traditional. They constantly redisplay their collection, and its so exciting because you can go and never see the same thing twice.
When museums keep most of their collection in storage, it doesn’t actually benefit the public much because audiences don’t even get to experience these works.
It’s heartbreaking, to me, to not have access to that, and for that to not be visible. If you are a museum professional working with these collections, you have a responsibility to make them engaging and relevant. If you can’t do that, you’re not very good at your job. That’s a really harsh thing to say, but it’s true.
With the recent Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy, some institutions have said that they weren’t displaying their Pacific collection because there wasn’t enough interest in the region. There wasn’t a designated gallery for these objects either, and this was attributed to audiences’ lack of desire to see them. As a museum, you should be making that desire. If you can’t take the thousands of incredible objects you have from Oceania, Australia and the South Pacific and make them interesting, then you don’t deserve to have them. Give them back. If your audience doesn’t want to see them, but you’re still hanging onto them, something is wrong.
I say all of this and do all the work that I do, because I want museums to be better. All of the criticism, response and disruptive stuff I do with these tours come from a place of genuinely wanting museums to be good, and knowing that they can be good. It can be fixed, but somehow we just can’t get past this traditional idea of museums as conservative spaces. But they’re not adapting to the world we’re in, and it makes me so sad.
I’ve had conversations with museum curators where I’ve asked them how hard it would be to change a label. They often brush it off with excuses, saying that it’s a lot more complicated than it seems. Yes, but have you tried though? Have you asked? Honestly at this point, it feels like a lot of the passivity comes from the fact that nobody wants to be the first one saying, “What if we changed that panel?” That is frustrating to me because it reveals the extent of these curators’ privilege. It also sounds like, on some level, many of these professionals have internalised this notion of the museum as an untouchable space. Yet as someone who works in a museum, it is their job to change the museum and to take risks. If you’re not willing to take that risk, why should anyone come to see your works?
Even if texts were not going to be changed, resources could be made available online for free. Large institutions have research assistants on hand to conduct the research necessary — many of whom they don’t pay — but they do have everything on hand to make these changes.
Sometimes, museums have turned around to say that they don’t have the budget to do these things. Well, but most of your staff isn’t paid. The majority of people that work front of house, or are stationed at the ticketing counters, or work as gallery sitters, curatorial assistants and research assistants — all of these people aren’t getting paid. If you don’t have the budget to do this, then who does? Clearly, you’re saving a lot of money up. Where does all of that money go?
At the end of the day, we just end up having the same conversation over and over again. I’m lucky enough to have incredible friends and colleagues who are working on this as well. We just have to keep yelling until something happens. It will be a time consuming process and a generational change, but it will happen. The dam has to break. But in the meantime, it is tiring and it is hard. We have to support and care for each other. If museums don’t step up and make these changes, someone will do it for them. Someone will come in and change their labels, or to do tours of their collections, to tell the stories they aren’t telling. Either they decide now, whether they’d like to be a part of that process, or others can begin that process for them — and when others come in, they don’t always play nice.