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More than twenty years have passed since scholars Carol Duncan, Brian O’Doherty, and Alan Wallach published their groundbreaking critical analyses of art museums and their display strategies. These incisive essays launched a wave of vehement institutional critiques that effectively pitted critically informed academic concerns against contemporary museum practices. Two of the more recent additions to the fray—Mary Anne Staniszewski’s The Power of Display and the Open University’s Contemporary Cultures of Display, edited by Emma Barker—indicate that with the passage of time, the field has not only remained vigilant, but also matured considerably.
The Museum of Modern Art has been the primary target of critical scholarship on modern art museum display strategies and its history has become familiar through repeated narrations. But in The Power of Display, Mary Anne Staniszewski excavates the MoMA’s combed-over archives and produces a vivid chronicle of the amazing diversity of the museum’s installation schemes between 1929 and 1970. The variety of display strategies the Modern employed in its early history is exactly the aspect that has been overlooked in the hitherto exclusive focus on the institution’s paradigmatic “white-cube” installations. Much of this material on the MoMA is presented in depth for the first time, and Staniszewski’s compelling and carefully argued analysis of the ideology of the modern art exhibition apparatus is only strengthened by the inclusion of more than 200 documentary photographs drawn from the museum’s archives, the bulk of which have never been reproduced.
The Power of Display is arranged along thematic categories that also conveniently fall in rough chronological order; the book’s first chapter provides a particularly crucial and fascinating introduction to the precedents for modern art display formulated by the European and Russian modernist avant-gardes. In the chapters that follow, Staniszewski situates the meticulous details of the MoMA’s installation designs against the larger American cultural milieu in an effort to explicate the social, political, and aesthetic underpinnings of modern exhibition design and the integral role it played in the Modern’s program to disperse modern culture to the masses. She argues that the “cultural amnesia” that effaced this heterogeneous “spectrum of possibilities” in modern exhibition design upheld both traditional art historical myths and mid-century American ideals (xxiii, xxii). An assistant professor of electronic arts history at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Staniszewski also addresses the impact of these early exhibition design experiments upon contemporary artistic production. The result is a refreshing narrative that feels neither deterministic nor ahistorical.
Interestingly, in her efforts to delineate the variety of exhibition designs instigated at the MoMA, Staniszewski ends up downplaying the ultimate significance of the MoMA’s founding director Alfred Barr and his “aestheticized” installations. She also does not extend her analyses to the three edifices that housed the MoMA during these decades: an office space in a midtown skyscraper, a townhouse formerly owned by the Rockefeller family, and the Goodwin-Stone building. These buildings really merit more attention as part of the MoMA’s larger display program. Nevertheless, The Power of Display provides significant historical and analytical groundwork for future inquiries on modern art display. It also demonstrates that critical scholarship on this hegemonic institution no longer requires such a vitriolic tone, making her work appealing to both the specialist and lay person. Now that the complexity of MoMA’s development has been clarified, the remaining task is to situate the museum amidst contemporaneous modern art display sites to better understand the MoMA’s position as the institutional arbiter of modernist display strategies.
A complement to Staniszewski’s study is the Open University’s Contemporary Cultures of Display, edited by Emma Barker. The sixth volume in the series Art and its Histories, the anthology delineates a broad summary of contemporary display practices, picking up chronologically approximately where Staniszewski ends. Designed as an undergraduate-level text, it presents a series of case studies drawn from the last two decades to introduce the essential issues of the ideology, or ’’cultures," of art display in Western Europe and America. It aims to provide both students and general readers with the requisite terms and theoretical concepts to begin to understand the development and consequences of the late twentieth century “culture of exhibitions.” Emphasizing representation over presentation, the volume seeks to demystify the supposed neutrality of art institutions and demonstrate their vital role in the production (and dissolution) of art historical canons.
The introduction to Contemporary Cultures of Display sets up the problem of display with a series of extremely brief synopses of the critical texts and concepts that guide the subsequent analyses. These range from Benjamin’s “work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,” Malraux’s “museum without walls,” and Marx’s commodity fetishism to Baudrillard’s “simulacrum,” Debord’s “society of the spectacle,” and Duncan’s “museum as ritual site.” (One notable absence is a satisfying discussion of gender; tellingly, the reader looking for gender issues in the index is referred to “women.” This lack might be explained by the focus of another book in the series, Gender and Art, edited by Gil Perry, and also covered by CAA.Reviews on April 7, 2000). The subsequent ten case studies are classified under three categories, each with its own explanatory introduction: museums, temporary exhibitions, and “Art in the Wider Culture,” a catch-all term for other display sites and types. The volume looks to widely publicized displays—the MoMA, the Musée d’Orsay, the Pompidou’s “Les Magiciens de la Terre,” the Royal Academy and Brooklyn Museum’s “Sensation,” and the display of African Art in the 1980s—to introduce issues surrounding museum and installation design, spectacles and blockbusters, cultural and identity politics. Also included are essays on less familiar sites, including English country homes, the Tate Gallery in St. Ives, and displays of contemporary art in Ireland.
The case study format works well to survey the range of issues at stake in contemporary art display. The anthology’s migration through country houses and amongst displays of Old Masters, nineteenth- and twentieth-century works, and contemporary and African art in museums and galleries in New York, London, Paris, and Ireland demonstrates the international proliferation and impact of visual cultural institutions. However, these brief forays, as well as the abridged, name-heavy theoretical introductions, are frustrating without a more thorough (art) historical context to really ground them. In addition, the text is overly didactic at times. Inserted into the essays are brief, directed discussions, whose placement and tone are distracting rather than enlightening. More useful are the bibliographical references that accompany the essays to provide the reader with specific courses for future study. Finally, one is left curious as to why the majority of essays are written by editor Emma Barker. Christoph Grunenberg’s essay on the MoMA and the modern art museum, part of the author’s recent research, suggests that a larger number of contributors would have strengthened and enlivened the anthology. The volume would be most effective in a teaching situation when paired with a more specific historical study such as Staniszewski’s work, which would allow readers to see these concepts in practice.
In her conclusion, Barker suggests “it is important not simply to criticize art institutions—whether for their failure to change or for the changes that they have made—but also to seek to understand the reasons for this state of affairs” (253). Both Contemporary Cultures of Display and The Power of Display accomplish this task and attest to a welcome shift in the discourse’s critical stance. By making the discussion accessible and appealing to a broader audience, we, as scholars, invite museum visitors to participate as not only active viewing subjects, but also welcome contributors to the debates that seek to shape these public institutions.
A final note: the demand for blockbuster exhibitions marking the new millennium prompted several American and European modern art museums to take on the challenge of reinstallation, or at least reflect more openly upon their display strategies. Two of the more newsworthy New York examples were the first component of the MoMA’s tripartite rearrangement of its permanent collection and the Whitney’s two The American Century exhibitions. In its vast undertaking, the MoMA employed thematic classifications, displayed decorative arts alongside paintings and sculptures, and even tinted the walls. The Whitney’s efforts were visible in its inclusion of artworks outside the traditional canon (particularly in the first show) and examples of material culture. Yet despite such curatorial efforts to grapple with issues raised in past critiques, both exhibitions were met with strong reproaches that indicate that museum practice and the theory and criticism of the museum produced in the academy still remain at odds.
Evelyn C. Hankins
Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris