Thursday, December 8, 2016


What is too much information? More importantly what is not enough information? The balance between an object driven museum and one that provides ample cultural context is an issue that is not easily resolved. The issue, I feel, lies within how we give objects the respect they deserve when being displayed in a museum that is not their natural home, and for a purpose that was not the reason for their creation.

In 1984, MoMA put on an exhibition entitled “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern where juxtapositions were made between modern art and non-western art with no context ever given. This show earned widespread critique and illustrated the point I am trying to make. Anthropologist James Clifford wrote one of the most pointed critiques of the exhibition in his essay, "Histories of the Tribal and the Modern." In his review, he pointed out that before Picasso and his predecessors in the early 20th century, no one popularly recognized these that "primitive" objects as in fact powerful "art." At MoMA, Clifford perceived the museum as showing tribal objects as art while excluding the original cultural context. He stated, “We are firmly told at the exhibition's entrance, cultural context is the business of anthropologists. Cultural background is not essential to correct aesthetic appreciation and analysis: good art is universally recognizable. The pioneer modernists themselves knew little or nothing of these objects' ethnographic meaning. What was good enough for Picasso is good enough for MoMA. Indeed an ignorance of cultural context seems almost a precondition for artistic appreciation. In this object system a tribal piece is detached from one environment in order to circulate freely in another, a world of museums, markets, and connoisseurship.” This exhibition was presented thirty years ago and it is true at that time the we did not have the resources for presentation and research that we have today. Today more efforts are being made to provide context and information that help round out a visitor's understanding of the objects on display.

“Primitivism” in 20th Century Art, MoMA gallery Shot 1984
“People are talking about: The man from MoMA”
by Barbara Rose in Vogue, August, 1984. Vol. 174 (8), page 35.

An example of this is the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of art entitled Kongo: Power and Majesty, which opened in fall of 2015. This show provided an aesthetic tribute as well as a history in which, one critic said, “Curator Alisa LaGamma…has fused aesthetics, history, ethnography and spectacle into an exhibition that is at once entertaining and serious, shocking and deeply satisfying.” Despite this success, it is true that in museums most non-western objects are not given the consideration deserved and the balance of aesthetic object driven work and cultural context needs improving.

Kongo: Power and Majesty, The Met, gallery shot 2015

Kongo: Power and Majesty, The Met, gallery shot 2015

My goal in writing this is to simply bring up the point that the most responsible way to display objects needs to be taken seriously. By definition public museums are theoretically accessible to all. We like to see them as great places of education and the sharing of cultures from around the world with the general public. But in contrast, what’s the purpose of objects and art works taken from their natural homes and placed halfway across the world when we can’t even display them in the context they were created for. How do you display a dance, or a chant, or the life altering artifact? I believe it’s important to objectively inform the visitor on the objects background, because every work in some way or another may have a facets of its history we may find controversial. That’s why I think it is paramount to understand that displaying objects come with political implications; I am not saying I don’t think these works shouldn’t be viewed, I do, but they also should be presented as more than just aesthetic objects of curiosity, or that a balance needs to be created between their objecthood and their context. If these treasures aren’t shown with research and respect then I believe they might lose their value when displayed in a museum, and therefore it is all of our responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.  

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