Hi there. My name is Eliza Gregory, and I came to visit George in London last December, to observe what she was doing with The Small Museum and Museum in a Box, in particular, but also to bask in her fabulousness more generally.
I’m a social practice artist, and so I think a lot about how interactions, conversations and relationships relate to art (and can even become art themselves). I tend to make art out of conversations, experiences, and relationships, and I sometimes layer social elements with other media like text, installation, photographs, or audio. My favorite projects that I’ve done have taken months or years to build, and unfold over time, with the goal of cultivating relationships across class and across culture in a given community. Sometimes I also do much simpler one-off events, like The Box Project, which I wrote about for George a while back.
Increasingly I’ve been working with museums in mutually beneficial collaborations. The museums commission me to create events and artworks that connect with specific audiences. Sometimes that results in some kind of physical object being made (a book, a photograph) and sometimes it’s a very process-focused activity that results in a new group of people feeling connected to the museum, or a new set of connections between people (those relationships across class, or across culture that I mentioned). And I’m experimenting with how museums can become engines of social change, by looking carefully at (and potentially changing) whose stories are represented, how they are told, and who gets to listen.
I’ve been thinking through the potential for Museum in a Box and the Small Museum to increase interactivity in museums as a way to drive social change. A few different projects that are touchstones for me have challenged museums to acknowledge their interactivity in fundamental ways–challenged them to evaluate: who really is welcomed by the institution as a visitor or a staff person? What narrative is really being put forward about power, justice, race, gender, and equality? What does a visitor get out of each visit to the museum, and is that enough? When only a small subset of the population in a place visits the museum, can the society justify the amount of resources it takes to maintain the institution and the collection? How many resources devoted toward preserving stuff is too many? And who is getting to choose what is preserved?
These are all questions about values. Unsurprisingly, social values all over the world have gone through major changes in the last 60 years. But museums, which are inherently conservative–they actively conserve the past–have been slow to adapt to the new social contexts in which they find themselves. So the most interesting projects I’ve seen artists and creative administrators take on have challenged museums to evolve; to become agents of social justice, to become more truly public, to become relevant to the present and the future as well as the past.
I’m thinking of Thomas Hirschhorn’s 2004 Musee Precaire, where he convinced the Pompidou Center to loan a great many works out to a space in Aubervilliers. Quoting Alfred Pacquement, director of the Pompidou at the time, as published on the Tate’s website,
After doing several short internships – such as working on the installation of the Biennale de Lyon – a group of twelve young people had a two-month full immersion in the different departments of the Centre Pompidou, including security, art handling, framing, installing and public information and education. Since they were well prepared before the opening, there was a strong sense that this Musée Précaire belonged to them. The hands-on involvement of the residents of Aubervilliers was always at the heart of the plan, so we approached the training programme as we would any other professional internship. We made no special exceptions because of the size or the ‘precariousness’ of their future museum.
The result was a quite extraordinary atmosphere. On the one hand there was this incredibly relaxed environment. Under usual circumstances, people tend to act differently in a museum – such as lowering their voices as they walk around the space. Yet in Aubervilliers, the residents did not change their everyday behaviour. There was music playing. There were kids hanging out in the Musée Précaire’s café, playing and running around in front of the exhibition space. In stark contrast though, there was an air of utter dedication when it came to the young people employed by the museum. It was obvious that they took their jobs extremely seriously. One could sense that they felt the responsibility and trust confided in them by the Pompidou in lending them these artworks.
Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky Et Al. (described here by the Whitney) from 1971 exposed connections between slumlords in Manhattan and the Board of Trustees of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where the work was to be part of a solo show (which was canceled). Now owned by the Whitney and formally acknowledged as “institutional critique,” it has become part of the canon, although the subject of the work should be no less threatening today, and is no less radical. While not exactly interactive, this work exposes the interactions the museum is built on, calling out the conceit that museums are simply places of display that have somehow shed the messiness of social context.
And a third example: In 2013 Erica Thomas worked with the Portland Art Museum to put a small LED light next to each work in each gallery that was made by a woman.
Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be very few works–just one or two paintings in each European gallery, for example, was lit up.
But the Native American galleries glowed.
It was moving and astonishing to make something we know but don’t think about so intensely visible. (Images courtesy Erica Thomas.)
All three of these works make the structure of “museums” overt. Hirschhorn calls attention to the staff, the visitors, the culture of comportment, and the notion of security and permanence. Haacke looks at the power structures (and potentially dirty money) that fund museums. And Thomas shows us the cultural bias and prejudice reflected through curatorial decision making.
By making the institutional structures overt, these artists also expose the limits of each institution in a new way. Haacke’s piece could not be exhibited in the moment that it was made because the Guggenheim could not have continued to exist without the support of its trustees and their funding. It’s not that the institution was wrong to cancel the exhibition–what’s interesting is that the cancelation itself demonstrated the limits (and the architecture) of the institution. He found the way the whole place could be broken. Hirschhorn demonstrates that such an inversion of the power (and racial) dynamics of the Pompidou are possible, but not sustainable–they are inherently temporary and precarious; a gesture, an amusement, but not a permanent shift in power. What’s so effective is now we know they are possible, which means that we as a society make a choice not to sustain them. He shows us that the process by which societies tell stories about themselves depends upon consent and engagement from whoever has the power in that society. He has made the social conventions and the money surrounding the institution visible, just like Haacke, but through an entirely different avenue. Finally, on a smaller scale but no less poignant because of it, Thomas shows us that vague perceptions of contemporary institutions as equitable are not real. The museum may wish to be seen as a place that supports women and female artists generally, but the collection tells a different story.
The idea of a small museum gets around some of these issues by simply not being able to participate in them (lower security, less funding, a wider variety of neighborhood micro-contexts both physically and socially). To me, the more aware (and intentional) a small institution is about how and when they are reenacting the structure of a big museum, the more interesting they will be. They have lots of opportunities for explicitly inverting traditional rules or practices, often out of necessity, and I think that can be a real strength.
Museum in a Box, meanwhile, is playing with how to strip away MOST of the structures of the museum, while still being part of museums. How many elements of the museum can you remove and still have a museum? When it’s in a box, we simply have: objects (or pictures of them), information about them, relationships between them, and an audience. Most simply that’s objects, ideas, relationships and audience. Again, if you’re starting with the most basic incarnation of a museum, when you begin to add the layers back on, you can play with them. You can be MUCH more deliberate. And you can communicate new ideas–and enact new social relationships–through what you include, and what you leave behind. As a platform, rather than an institution or a program or an object, Museum in a Box offers museums the ability to use their collections (and their past) to participate in a democratized, contemporary conversation that allows for debate, for multiple histories, for nontraditional (and potentially disempowered) narratives. You might not be able to create an institution that doesn’t depend upon the powerful for its existence, but you can have a conversation that eschews power. So this platform represents an experiment where powerful institutions could condone and support radical conversations. That seems like a space for real social learning, and maybe even for compassion. That’s very exciting to me.