The Museum Reconsidered as ‘Common Land’: paper by Declan McGonagle

The artist Joseph Kosuth tells a story, of a major museum which acquired an important work of his for its Collection, a seminal Conceptual piece comprising a real wooden chair, a photograph of the same chair and a text, a dictionary definition of ‘chair’. Later, when the artist requested to borrow the piece for one of his exhibitions he was told that it couldn’t be found. After further searches it turned out that, after having been exhibited in the museum, the components of the piece had been stored separately. The chair had been stored as Sculpture, the photograph as Photography and the text as Conceptual Art. In other words the functioning of the museum, as a classifying repository of things, had destroyed the work and its meaning.

In this case, of course, the situation was recoverable and the components could be, and were, reunited and the work could be reassembled, to be ‘remade’ when next installed and experienced. In my view, what is true for a Conceptual piece, which takes these issues of assumption, definition and experience as its subjects, is every bit as true for the most traditional easel painting – that, no matter what form the idea takes, the ‘art’ is made in its experience. My point here is that even in a museum which claims the status of treasure house, its storerooms are not actually full of art but of potential art. The ‘art’ is actually located and negotiated in the experience, not within the artifact. If the artifact’s potential as art is only realised when it is exhibited [distributed] and experienced then a re-orientation of relations of value is implied. Art is ‘made’ by the negotiations in the museum/gallery [the distribution or post-production] space, as much as by the actions in the ‘studio’ [the production] space. The concept of art cannot be separated from its experience, therefore, but our institutional models of practice and governance are still predicated on the idea that the art ‘object’ is the art and exists autonomously of its experience.

I refer to Kosuth’s anecdote to illustrate the point that that the inherited model of museum – that is, inherited from within the timeframe and conventions of thinking and behaving over the last two centuries – insists on the intrinsic value of the artwork and privileges its objecthood. The ‘Kosuth Incident’ is, therefore, a perfectly logical function of this way of thinking. So, for me, the question of the future of the museum is not – what does it mean but –  what do we mean by it? Not what form the museum will/should take in the future but, since museums, as we have known them, will not go away, how should we regard them, and behave in relation to them.

I believe the model will not go away because it is now so locked into socio-political power and funding structures and mentalities that there is no prospect of changing its fundamental actuality and, I say, let’s not try. Instead let’s change our attitude to the model as we have to acknowledge that there is no consensus in the arts/cultural sector about the limitations of the current model of purpose and practice, a consensus which would have to be in place for any programmatic change.

If, as I believe, art and institutional meaning are still driven by a model of consumption rather than participation, where value is proposed as intrinsic – a function of the signature object – rather than extrinsic  – to be negotiated between the ‘non-artist’ and the artifact [object or event, ie. in the experience], then the Museum, as institution, will be locked forever in the logistical Catch 22 of the treasure house – a model which contradicts of the idea of ‘public’ participation in the construction of meaning and celebrates the idea of ‘public’ consumption, albeit now with concessions to education. Yet, with very few exceptions, education in museums is an afterthought, structurally, and is understood as a sort of compensation for the disconnection of the institution from a variety of publics. This issue is not answered by reference to increasing attendance figures for museums because what is being attended to is a disempowering model of consumption. And this is no surprise, in a world which is being globalised on a narrow consumist premise in every other human domain. In this context the, still powerful, inherited model of museum cannot, because it is not in its DNA, have any real purchase on most people’s lived experience. Attempts are made to address the issue but usually only in the most superficial and disposable way, which maintains, and will maintain, the irrelevance of the museum to those who are unfamiliar with its codes or not already part of its discourse. A niche role for museums may be argued for but this will not be sustainable either, not while claims for other kinds of relevance are still being made, at the same time, to justify considerable and continuing public resourcing of this model.

In this sense the model of museum we are familiar with, functions as a site of knowledge consumption. I am proposing that we reconsider it as a site of knowledge production, by asking that it provide opportunities for art to be ‘made’ [and ‘remade’, in the case of art of the past], in an experiential present tense. This would accept the idea of collecting, but not just in order to ‘hold’ material but in order to use it to transact many kinds of ‘experiential present tenses’. This would also legitimise, differently, the curatorial process and move away from the model of gatekeeper or a priesthood [exclusive holders of knowledge and therefore power] to the model of facilitator, fellow participant in the art process and co-producer of meaning, along with the public and the artist, in the sense in which Beuys meant, when he said that ‘everyone was an artist’. The curator, anyway, is already attempting to produce meaning through curatorial choices. It is just that, historically, the process and the values informing it, were hidden or disguised as somehow natural and inevitable. The influential German museum director, Johannes Cladders, talked about the fact that ‘works of art do not walk into a Musem and position themselves on the wall or on the floor, by themselves’. Someone makes decisions and those decisions are based on certain assumptions and informed by value judgements, admitted or not.

At a conference in the U.S. I was very struck by a powerful presentation by a curator from the Dia Foundation in New York, who discussed their approach – long term installations, large scale shows, serious resource commitments etc. – as reflecting their aim of ‘achieving the artist’s ambitions’. Dia is an impressive enterprise but, for me, that statement raises an important issue which, I feel, has to  add other questions to the quote above…’achieving an artist’s ambitions…in order to achieve what, and for whom? [There is an important distinction here, of course, and it may make all the difference to this reference and that is to do with sources of funding – in the U.S. as opposed to the U.K. – and whether an institution’s ambitions include a concept of ‘public’ and/or participation]. I think the Dia model is clear and coherent and  represents a brilliantly realised institutional model which occupies a polar position on a line of practice, at the other end of which, apparently, in the other polar position, is the brilliantly realised Disney organisational model. Where Dia represents challenge, Disney represents the removal of challenge from human experience – in other words, consumption. But neither Dia or Disney offer negotiation. Meaning and value have already been inserted and the process is autonomous of the encounter with the ‘public’. Dia’s premise, as with the Disney model, is that the transaction is already set – a function of the fixed positions of both models. Many other galleries and museums occupy similarly fixed positions along this notional line of practice, albeit with degrees of difference. But my argument is that  we need to imagine the ‘line’ as bent around so that, in fact, Dia and Disney are understood as  occupying the same position in relation to those who are not  part of the discourse. This disconnection, of course, is only a problem if you are interested in those, whoever they are, who are not currently part of the discourse and institutional ambitions in this respect, may or may not reflect that interest. That is the first question for museum as public institution and has to be factored into an understanding of organisational and institutional intentions, as with Dia, Disney and others, before considering or proposing other models of thought and practice.

My view is that the ‘reconsidered museum’ should adopt and sustain, over time, a range of attitudes and positions in relation to the commissioning and/or collecting and/or showing of work which would represent a conceptual and programming capacity to occupy and work out of different positions along that line, simultaneously. This is not a call for a simple dispersal of museum buildings and holdings – which would be no more than a perpetuation of the object/consumer [hardware] model – but a dispersal of function, of software processes, to ensure that engagement with ‘museum’ widens rather than narrows the experience for both artist and non-artist, actually a shift in relations. I am arguing against the idea that culture is something we can possess rather than something which we inhabit and this issue of ownership, underpinning the model I want to challenge, takes us to other issues of territory, literal and metaphorical, and ownership. I think it is worth locating these issues in a much wider field of cultural memory, understanding and constructed meanings which have informed the basic tenets of the museum model we are still operating.

I am reminded of the historical concept, in Ireland, of ‘baile’ [which  the English added to place names as Bally……]. Broadly, the word/idea meant ‘townland’ which was a rural area, not necessarily large in scale which would have been inhabited by several extended families. But what the word/idea actually described in Irish culture was a form of ownership based on use. The baile was whatever size it needed to be to feed and sustain whatever number of families were settled on it. The baile could expand or contract, as necessary. It was unfixed and negotiable within the wider community, depending on use based on need. The socio-political power structures reflected that negotiable reality. This is a pre-Modern[ist], or pre-colonial, form of ownership which depended on a [constantly] negotiated consensus based on commonality and common interests. This concept was present in Ireland but also in Scotland and also in those places/cultures which could be described as pre-‘English’ – in the sense in which the Amish community, in the U.S. uses the term, English, to mean Modern[ist]. However it is not just as simple as that, for the concept also existed in England, in the notion of ‘commonage – common land’ which was destroyed by the Enclosures of the late 18th and early 19th centuries [coincidentally the period in which our concept of Museum emerged]. The Enclosure concept represented the exact opposite of the concepts of commonage or baile and was proposed and implemented ruthlessly, in Ireland through the Plantation, in Scotland through the Clearances and in England through the Enclosures. Common rights or ‘customary rights’ – established by custom – were lost and land was marked and enclosed, in order to be measured and for exclusive ownership to be fixed. Exchange value took precedence over the kind of negotiated use value discussed above.

Our inherited model of museum, its nature and purpose, and its ‘ownership’ is just as much a product of the Enlightenment world view and the focus on collecting in order to catalogue – in order to know – in order to possess, ultimately to dominate and control the world, as was the Enclosure process. The logistical impossibility of sustaining this cultural/institutional model, even in its political/economic form, is becoming clear and need for the nature and purpose of art and artist [in my particular argument] to be reconsidered along with the model of museum is also clear. The Enlightenment proposed that the world was knowable, in certain ways, of course, and could be measured and catalogued and that it was white Western Europe’s responsibility to do the measuring and the cataloguing. Western European nations set about this task by attempting to obliterate or render any pre-existing ‘other’ systems of ‘knowing’ invisible or at best valueless – in order to establish a manifest narrative.

The current form of economic and technological globalisation we are experiencing now seems like the full manifestation of that world view.
Museums habitually reflect this model of thought and behaviour by the continuing discussion of building a narrative, incremental art historicism and even the discussion of ‘gaps in the collection’.

Instead of thinking of museums, now or in the future, as places, should we not think of museums as sets of functions and relations. The questions then become – where and how could these functions be enacted and where and how could these relations be negotiated. And if not, in any given circumstances, why not? An interesting reference point here is the use of mobile technologies by young people, which now have increasing visual communication capacities. In research, undertaken in Dublin by the Civil Arts Inquiry, which I directed, the use of mobile technologies, by young people, to create ‘community’ was found to be ‘personal but not private’. The technologies, including their visual capacities, were/are being used to establish and articulate commonalities, which I would argue is actually a key function of art, when considered over the longer term human project. There is a challenge here, not simply to the form of art and the form of its ‘housing’ within our culture[s] but to the inherited model of the artist as genius producer and the idea which supports it, that value lies in the uniqueness rather than the commonality of the artist’s experience. The idea of ‘genius producer’ may have had its own validity but it is a constructed contradiction of the function of art in human society which has always been concerned with communication and commonality more than self expression, and with collaboration and participation – concepts which the inherited model of museum still finds so difficult to accept as core rather than marginal.

To embark upon this reconsideration of museums, therefore, means working also to ease the grip of increasingly defensive and anxious definitions of the value of art and artists, as well as institutions, which have started to mimick models of celebrity disseminated by a lazy mass media, in which, it has to be acknowledged, some artists have conspired enthusiastically.

Building commonalities through negotiation depends on the articulation of common interests, the development of notions of ‘civil space’ and the idea of customary rights…ie. rights established by custom. I am arguing therefore that we generate, articulate and consolidate new customs around the idea of museum as ‘public’ institution, to reconsider a named museum as a set of negotiable functions and relations which can be present in more than one way, in more than one place, at the same time, only one of which would be the ‘Temple’ model.

I believe this is important in a broader sense, also, because the art/cultural sector, of actions and experience, is one of the only remaining domains where that reconsideration of principle and practice can now take place, to establish those ‘customary rights’, if the denial of ‘local custom’ and responsiveness to context, by the consumption model of Globalisation, is to be challenged. We need to re articulate this idea of customary rights to ‘common land’, without nostalgia. Arguably, this could be the public museum, where one can engage, access and use resources according to multi-dimensional needs, and let the form and behaviour of the museum – in the future – take on as many different ‘shapes’ – of spaces, functions and relations – as are necessary to service those customary rights.

Maybe the existing networks of museums should, firstly, be regarded and tested as ‘New Common Land’ nourishing  viral rather than  glacial forms of engagement and participation so rather than new ‘hardware’ we consider new ‘software’ for the instruments we already have to hand, but with reconsidered functions and relations.

Prof. Declan McGonagle
University of Ulster
School of Art and Design, Belfast.
21 May 2008


2 Responses to “The Museum Reconsidered as ‘Common Land’: paper by Declan McGonagle”

  1. Excellent post, amazing looking website, added it to my favs.

  2. Spectacular blog, not later than bloke that wrote so often. The pipe factor that writes to-date bumf 🙂

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