Confessions of a Museum Studies Student

who helped run exhibitions in houses

Illustration from Nina Simon's The Participatory Museum

Words by Miranda Hine

The contradiction was never obvious to me until a classmate pointed it out last year. ‘It’s cool’, she said, ‘It’s like you’re getting to know the enemy’.

We’d just left an endless lecture on instigating and maintaining corporate partnerships in museums, and were both questioning why we were doing this to ourselves. The enemy she was referring to was ‘the museum’. If I’m getting to know my enemy, I thought, I’m doing a very thorough job of it.

I was two-thirds of the way through a Masters degree in Museum Studies at UQ, but I was also developing exhibitions and editing the online publication as part of In Residence. The premise of In Residence in 2016 was to curate works by diverse emerging Brisbane artists, and exhibit them in residential locations around the city. The location changed each exhibition and we encouraged the influence of each new domestic context to creep into the works and subtly affect their meanings, associations and display. It was fairly different from the old white cube museum or gallery.

I hadn’t realised how much of a contradiction it was to be facilitating these exhibitions and studying museums – blank spaces designed specifically for the decontextualised display of art or objects or stories - simultaneously. I’ve tried, since then, to reconcile the two interests by going back to where my fascination with museums began.

During my undergrad in Fine Art at the Queensland College of Art, I began to focus my research and practice on ways to portray fictitious narratives as truthful by using authoritarian display methods. These methods ranged from mocumentary style videos of me nursing my pregnant (actually just chubby) tummy, to unrelated photographs grouped together in a museum-like display to imply a narrative connection.

I became fascinated by the works of Luke Roberts, Fred Wilson and The Brown Council, who all use the tools of the museum to undermine or challenge it. They are among a heap of other artists actively encouraging audiences to reconsider their consumption of institutional ‘truths’, many of them in a specifically Australian context.

I became captivated by the way museums have been perceived and revered in society. Traditionally speaking, when museums present information, viewers believe it because of the engrained authoritative context. That information is also generally received as a neutral, objective truth. But histories have many voices and the museum can never tell them all.

So, by showing artists’ work in houses, were we trying to extinguish this notion of a neutral truth, by shrouding the work in the domestic and every day stories of the home?

To be honest, I’m not really sure. Some of it was out of necessity, of course. Like most Brisbane ARIs, we don’t have the money to rent a white cube to show the works. Even if we did, I don’t think we would. It definitely goes beyond necessity though; to see people turn up to our openings was extremely satisfying. It was like saying to the museums, we can do what you do, we can show quality art, but without the funding, without the site, and without the institutional reputations and partnerships.

And we are by no means alone in this satisfaction, with the ARI culture in Brisbane currently thriving. But there are also definite overlaps between ARI participants and local museums and galleries. Plenty of ARI participants also work in institutions like QAGOMA, University galleries and art collections, as well as commercial galleries. So is an ARI just a stepping stone, work experience, for future curatorial jobs?

I don’t think it’s that simple for most of us. I know it isn’t for me. Rather than curating exhibitions, I’m far more interested in seeing how people perceive those exhibitions, what stories they interpret, and how the institution influences those stories.

Maybe my classmate was right. Maybe I am getting to know my ‘enemy’ by doing a Masters degree in museum studies. But is it normal to be this fascinated with your enemy? Is it normal to want to infiltrate your enemy? I think it’s likely that, in getting to know my enemy, I’ve fallen in love with it.

Perhaps it is because I still believe (naïvely, probably) in the potential for positive power of the museum, that I am so obsessed with its flaws. Perhaps by understanding the flaws I think I can help with the change over from the old museology to the new: to help dissolve these notions of objective truth and one sided histories. Museum objects aren’t neutral - they have histories and contexts that are often lost or rewritten when transplanted into a museum. But by putting artworks in houses, aren’t we adding contexts? Adding associations that were never meant to be? Is that better or worse than removing a context? I don’t have an answer for that yet, but I guess I’m testing both the waters.

Actually, I don’t think so. I think I might just be pushing it further. The home is full of associations. It’s full of normality. It’s also full of collections that tell stories. I could re-arrange your bookshelf to tell a story about you, and anyone who saw it might read that story about you and not question it, because it’s in your home.