I propose this term with full disclosure that I am troubled by it. Perhaps this is just a word to be conjured up in this moment by its own inevitability: yet another in a long line of posts that should then be put back in its box. But we need to look this in the eyes.
I think it is a necessary act, at least to raise the question, seed the thought, that at the tail-end of an era of Western dominance, and when we are now looking to new futures and new economies that rebalance the world, we have a duty to ask ourselves things that disrupt our habits and our comforts, even the deepest ones.
Building a constituent-led museum is part of this troubling. Opening up power and control to voices and actors beyond the purview of the established cultural classes has begun the transformation of our institutions, from closed autonomous zones to active civic agencies. The working classes, the Global → South, disenfranchised populations. But the inherited museological architecture, both physical and conceptual, is a hard one to move on or redesign, especially when it has worked so well for so long, and still does.
For over two centuries the exhibition has been the principal delivery vehicle for art, or at least our current understanding of what art is. For the other 40,000 years or so of human history, art has been manifested through other social forms, networks and frameworks. In ritual, religion, technology, craft, agriculture, architecture, food, architecture and so on.
The exhibition is central to our experience of museums, galleries, Kunsthalles and art centres. For the most part these spaces have been designed around the particular economies of spectatorship and the cycles of exhibition programming and touring shows – making stuff for people to go and see, all part of our inherited culture.
The advent of the era of the exhibition, was marked by the Great Exhibitions of the 19th century, in Paris and London. These large-scale spectacles were constructed within the emerging systems of colonial and imperial power, industrialisation, and mercantile capitalism. With the shift from an agrarian rural economy to urban manufacturing and the construction of modern city populations, they were instrumental in creating a shared narrative, perpetuated through the educational movements, institutions and museums that followed. They contributed to an inventive and productive society, with an eye on ever more innovation, ingenuity and growth.
Since then, the exhibition has evolved and diversified, been critiqued and collapsed, reformed and reimagined over and over again. Ultimately it has endured, deep rooted as the principle site of shared artistic experience, slowly and surely building the layers of a centralised consensus. However, and no matter the best intentions manifest in this self-reflection, the exhibitionary DNA is coloured with the → extraction economy that nurtured it. Art located in the museums of our age has itself been extracted and abstracted from daily use value: altar paintings removed from churches; ritual artefacts taken out of Africa; pots and plates placed in cases, no longer serving their purpose. And art objects now conceived specifically for white rooms and the associated behavioural systems of leisure, market and mediation. Even the best efforts of modernity to re-entangle art as a process “out there” in life and politics have ultimately been pulled back into the orbit of spectatorship, through historicising and contextualising shows of the archive of work long since done.
I see the philosophy of the Constituent Museum as one which really seeks to take our institutions from a state of autonomy, controlled by a few, into the broader → ecology and economics of society; an idea that strives to work with the widest number of people for the greatest benefit. They are the places where we can collectively make the culture we want to live in. Yet the multiplicity of the broadband world we now occupy is fostering new forms of art and culture elsewhere, beyond the museum, in technology and the digitised ecosystem we now inhabit.
After many years working in museums and galleries, I have seen that more and more people are finding their art in other places, on screens and in games, architecture and design, or physical experiences and activities that are more integrated into day-to-day living, such as concerts or festivals. Of course, there are many who still go to exhibitions, who have been nurtured to understand what can be gained or gleaned from that particularity, but there are many more who do not. I have been to many → schools where the pupils I speak to have never been to a museum or exhibition. Whist they undertake creative activity, the museum just isn’t in the patterns of their lives. That may be fine if we consider art to be an industry, pastime or leisurely pursuit that still “works” for its existing usership, but if we believe, as I do, in the transformational power of art as a → process, of the importance of aesthetics in ethics, a way of shaping things that is fundamental to the better operating of our social systems, then we have adapt and evolve with the world around us and re-imagine the museum as a site of operation, not just representation. Something that is working with the technologies and systems around us.
Through my work at Grizedale Arts, MIMA and now in Manchester I have tested the ideas developed in conversation with L’Internationale confederation, at ever increasing scales. Central to this pursuit is the work to make art and its institutions more relevant and useful to the communities and networks around them. In this it has been the work with people in real time, in processes that are part of their own localised economies and cultures, that has succeeded most: projects to change environments, thus enabling political agency, provision of food, technology, housing, healthcare, education. The exhibitions of these institutions have been a mechanism, a tool, in this process, to convene and model ideas – but not the endgame. This concept of the “Useful Museum” reverses the usual polarities, so the exhibition works in service of the public programme, where once the public programme worked in service of the exhibition.
As a person of artistic habit, I like and enjoy exhibitions very much, and value them. However, I have seen that the endless cycle of exhibition production, the need to “fill the gaps” in the schedule, to produce continuous new forms of spectacle, new forms of representation, is exhausting and maybe not the only way to “do art”.
When I started work at the Whitworth in 2018 we were doing 24 exhibitions a year. It was a kind of insanity. So much energy was expended on changing to the next static display of objects isolated from the world outside. We have tried to slow down, to recalibrate, change the flow to adapt more to the rhythms of life, the seasons, the issues and concerns of the neighbours around us, and adapt the exhibitions to work to this agenda. Coming out of the global pandemic many museums are trying do less, slow down, work more with collections, and contribute to civic agendas, as they readjust to the economic and social impacts on both programme and workforce. Furthermore, the environmental crisis was already challenging the consumption of materials and transport of artworks and people that the exhibitionary machinery demands. Now the war in Ukraine has increased the cost and decreased the availability of resources even further, and the pressure on the system to change is now surely irreversible.
So what if we stopped doing exhibitions altogether? We could still show art, or art-like things and work with artists. Could this question allow us to think deeply about what could be a different operating system for the museum, one that responded symbiotically to the evolving landscape around us, that was responsive to its constituencies and constituent context? What if the museum itself became the technology that enabled us to make the changes we desire?
In the last few years I have been looking to see what we can give in this respect, to experiment with different ways to use the gallery spaces in Manchester’s art museums. In part this has been practical, to alleviate stress on teams by taking museum spaces out of the relentless exhibition programming cycle. Instead we have begun to assign permanent functions to our cultural real estate, that at the same time connects us more dynamically with the world beyond our front door.
The sculpture gallery at the Whitworth has now become an alternative experimental classroom for schools and young people who don’t fit into regular school, or creates a parallel school that complements the mainstream curriculum. The Director’s Office has become a prayer room and quiet space for therapy sessions. One gallery is curated with collection works in order to better host weddings and community events. One is a common room and community meeting space, another the Collections Care Centre – devoted to using the holdings of the museum to deliver therapeutic healthcare programmes with clinical partners.
At the Manchester Art Gallery the largest ground floor gallery has now been transformed permanently into the Lion’s Den, a form of SureStart Centre to shape and monitor the development of children from birth to age 5, with clinicians and researchers. This is a regular activity, which includes the weighing of babies and motor skills assessments, that is now done alongside and with the use of the art collections as tool for this essential work. The aestheticisation and transposition of such healthcare and educational practices into the environment of the museum is proving to be transformational and hugely beneficial – not only for the cultural capital of the institution, but for the children, families and clinicians involved in direct ways, producing improved development. This is so much better than the way things are normally done, and that is the story unfolding. Following on from this, the City Council’s Children’s Services department is now starting to use our sculpture galleries as the point of delivery for case conferences for children in care and other galleries showing the collection now double up for trauma therapy, or classes for refugee families. What was once our peripheral activity is now taking centre stage, and with ever more artistry.
Most recently What Kind of City? was an exhibition of the work of Suzanne Lacy that evolved out of her major retrospective at SFMOMA in 2019. The main challenge we worked on with the artist was to think of how we could turn a backward-looking catalogue of events from the past into a forward-looking manual for social change in the future. We wanted to re-present her work, not as a document of individual expression, but as communal and collective action. As such, each historic work presented had an equal and forward reaction, to instigate a new project to shape the kind of city we and our fellow residents wanted to live in – to aim sincerely to change policy. Oakland Projects has become a programme of youth work and education, Across and In-between has borne a movement for → queer community representation and agency, The Circle and the Square has evolved into a programme of cultural cohesion for the → South Asian communities in the region. Cleaning Conditions has become Uncertain Futures, a city-wide research project and campaign to change policy in work and health for diverse older women.
I am not detailing these projects here just to gain more promotion in the attention economy of the cultural sector. Instead I want to show that it can be done, that we can give ourselves permission to do things differently. That there are other ways of doing art and integrating it back into lived lives and directly influencing the operations of a world that desperately needs new ideas, that needs the → care (→ care) and consideration that art offers.
This is also manifesting itself elsewhere, from the Living Room at the Van Abbemuseum to the wholesale recalibration of the Museum of Modern Art Warsaw right now as a centre for the welcoming and assistance of people fleeing Ukraine.
Such acts are no less compelling than an exhibition, but in fact more so because they are rooted in the bigger story of human techne – or more simply, in the wider endeavour of making and doing.
I think here it is also important, in the spirit of making and doing culture, that we bring in the issue of how we do things, the aesthetics of process, and how the process works with people. As we discussed in this convening for the Glossary of Common Knowledge in Eindhoven, we cannot ignore the conflict underway around us, in Ukraine and so many other places right now. Going beyond the stasis of exhibitions, and getting into the doing, the testing, the making, the “don’t know yet”, is for me an urgent necessity of our moment. It would be a waste of the creative spirit if we limited ourselves to the preservation of traditions born of an era now passed.
More than the call to abandon traditions such as the exhibition, is the imperative to use art in the here and now, within the warp and weft in the present to make what comes next. We discussed in this most recent Glossary of Common Knowledge event the need to allow ourselves a space, a rest, a gap, that will allow other things to happen, other voices, intentions, other than our predisposed wills as curators or authors or managers to make more content that fills a perceived void in the schedule. We don’t need to be scared of the empty space.
Back in Manchester, at the former museum of costume in Platt Hall, we are also testing this out. This 18th century colonial building in a park, among the diverse neighbourhoods of the south of the city, is being redesigned, repurposed with the people who live around it. The work is slow and steady, organic and responsive, and it is finding its way through a natural process of conversation and working together. There are no exhibitions, just a project to make a different kind of museum that works for those around it.
Entwined with the call to question the logic of the exhibition, is the call to question the logic that demands the exhibition, and thus the incentive to take control of a narrative, to drive an agenda that is born of personal intent, politic, self-preservation, career or status. The era of the exhibitionary, the curatorial, has also created a particular character who prevails and presides over what is seen, said, done and undone.
We might call this Exhibitionism. In a broader definition, this word means to show off, or even have a tendency to indecent exposure, or immodesty. In its most extreme form this would get you arrested. Certainly fitting for an age of the spectacle.
As a counter to this position, we might suggest something like post-exhibitionism and a preference for (according to my online thesaurus antonyms) humbleness, modesty, self-effacement, decency, unpretentiousness, unostentatious and shyness. Care. Those are values I would subscribe the institution to.
For me this is now a primary and critical mode of operation – to listen and explore the cracks, commune with the nature of things, not dominate them.