Contexts: The Museum vs The Gallery

Howard Morphy is a leading authority on Aboriginal art and the director of the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at The Australian National University. In his article, Seeing Aboriginal Art in the Gallery, he explores a number of issues that I have been writing and thinking about. Here is one idea excerpt:

The theory of a universal aesthetic is intertwined with a theory of viewing that opposes the art gallery to the museum. In this theory works of art should be allowed to speak for themselves. Thus they need their own space for contemplation, and though their meaning and impact will be affected by their relationship to adjacent works, and to the hang as a whole, it is desirable that the act of viewing should take place in space as uncluttered as possible by supplementary information. While the density of hangs varies, as does the amount of information provided, these broad principles apply in art galleries around the world. Museums, on the other hand, are often defined in opposition to art galleries as places where objects are contextualised by information, by accompanying interpretative materials, by dioramas, and by being seen in association with other objects. I think that it is desirable to distinguish the Western concept of ‘seeing things’ as art from the presumption of a universalistic aesthetic and indeed to separate ‘seeing things’ as isolated or decontextualised objects from ‘seeing things’ as art.

Aboriginal art installation at Victoria Museum in Melbourne

2 Comment

  1. I read the article to which you provided the link, thanks. This brings to mind a fact that Museums as we know them are a relatively new Western concept, and the fact ethnographic collections are the result of economic, hence cultural imperialism going back many centuries. Ritual objects and images containing narratives of of cultural knowledge, histories and belief, do conform to some universal aesthetic appeal, but the simple appreciation of these things from just an aesthetic stance, does not acknowledge their power as both aesthetic objects and meaningful ones “outside our own cultural context” which tends to minimize their importance.
    Imagine if you will the head-scratching that might accompany the reaction of an Aboriginal Australian person who has not been Christianized, when he/she is looking at reproductions of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, or looking at pictures of the various representations of Saints. These may be thought to be visually appealing and interesting, but in the end meaningless, without context, and needing comprehensive didactic texts to descipher the meaning and importance of. Maybe, to stretch my point, these objects and images might find their home in an Aboriginal version of our ethnographic collections or museums?
    To invert a set of assumptions is to discover the bias in them, I believe.

  2. G, Apropos to your comment, we all contextualize “other” to be meaningful on our terms. One American friend of mine, in conversation with her Aboriginal friends, was told that “we know about your country–you have that Jesus songline up there in your land.” It was more than a poetic turn of phrase.

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