'Behind The Scenes At The Museum'

Curator: Christine Morrow
Yarra Sculpture Gallery, Melbourne
31 August – 16 September 2006

Setting out to posit museum display systems as an engaging concern for contemporary visual artists, ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ was a complex, animated and at times overwhelming exhibition. Bringing on board a cast of fifteen young but established artists, each of whom employed narrative, miniaturisation and aspects of the diorama in their practice, curator Christine Morrow sought to demonstrate a relationship between scientific, artefact laden museum displays, and the sparse, sterile displays of art galleries.

In this exhibition Morrow tapped into a rich new vein of contemporary visual concern, and deserves recognition for doing so. Upon the evidence of this showing, it seems entirely feasible that many artists today are, at least superficially, moved by questions of authenticity, spatial illusions, spectacle and extraneous materials, such as wall labels, plinths and showcases. However, in spite of this hugely fascinating and potentially rewarding central thesis, the exhibition represented something of a missed opportunity for not having capitalised on its central idea.

While it is true that each of the artists, without exception, has proven the immense possibilities of combining art with artefact—stepping beyond the parameters of their own art pieces to consider the context of the museum/gallery as a whole—the exhibition fell flat through curatorial timidity. An idea as conceptually physical as this demanded a presentation with physicality to match. What was offered instead was a seemingly arbitrary arrangement of art objects, basic home-made labels and a dearth of consideration for what was in fact the core concern of the exercise: exhibition display and interpretive systems.

Breaking free from their curatorial straightjacket artists Daniel Dorall and Anna-Maria O’Keefe animated fabricated sections of earth by introducing narrative. Both artists were featured in ‘Small World’—an exhibition with similar concerns that ran at artist-run-space Blindside earlier in the year (at which Morrow served as a committee member). In this expanded and recontextualised field the originality of the pair was confirmed, each bringing an hallucinatory quality to their miniature evocations of otherworldly landscapes.

The Museum of Natural History in Dublin is an exemplar of the nineteenth century ethnographic museum; its calls for renovation and modernisation going unheard for so long that it became a museum relic itself. It stands now, frozen in immortality, as an example of the kind of museum from which we have moved away in our rush to foster a self-thinking museum visitor who learns through participation instead of mere observation—but also an example of what we have lost through progress.

The works comprising ‘Behind the Scenes’ shared in this sense of loss, and a nostalgia for a time when the artefacts were considered more important than technical gimmickry. Alexis Beckett harnessed the cool authenticity of scientific classification systems within her charming and ephemeral display, while Eleanna Elliott reminisced on the timeless wonder and horror simultaneously associated with taxidermy.

But the wonder of museums goes beyond artefacts and attestations of significance. It is located in the surreal backdrops and props (usually composed of painted foam and cardboard) and the theatrical lighting and sound effects. Wandering through the Museum of Victoria’s old sets and displays some years ago, denuded of artefacts that had been shipped to the new campus in the Carlton Gardens, I was delighted by their gentle naïvety, their appeal to the museum public’s need for spectacle, and the sheer flimsiness of their construction.

Glen Walls shares in this appreciation for flimsy spectacle in his humorous installations, incorporating toy figurines, props and often cryptic captions. Similarly Kit Wise ruptured the integrity of an austere digitally-enhanced cityscape, by perching two toy Godzillas over the frame—the kind likely to be found in most natural history museum gift shops. Emma van Leest engaged craft traditions through simple paper cut-outs and constructions: exquisite elegies for the loss of narrative and hand-made illusionism inherent in both museum and gallery environments today.

Such has been the emphasis in recent curatorial dialogues on interactive displays and audience involvement, that the art of looking for looking’s sake has been completely lost. And with it, the building of narrative through diorama—where the artefact is positioned in a staged environment and the curator fills the role of ‘storyteller’, leading the viewer on an elaborate journey. Artists today who employ these traditions in their practice are still old enough to have experienced the museum of old first hand, and to comprehend its loss.

In defining the relationship between museums (whose role is to represent objects that are typical rather than singular) and art galleries (singular rather than typical) Morrow has produced an exhibition that fell somewhere between the two. While it is clearly true that the participating artists shared some of these concerns and interests, ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ suffered for lack of context and interpretation. It remains to be seen whether any museum or art gallery curators pick up on Morrow’s ideas and run with them—for the results would surely be worthwhile.