BY Emily King in Opinion | 02 SEP 06
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Issue 101

Lessons in Perspective

Do we visit museums to be taught, amused, challenged or affirmed? Should curators legislate how they want their exhibitions to be understood?

BY Emily King in Opinion | 02 SEP 06

Last spring London’s Victoria and Albert Museum staged a survey show of early 20th-century Modernist art and design called ‘Modernism: Designing a New World’. At roughly the same time Tate Modern held a two-man exhibition of Modernism’s celebrated pioneers László Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers, subtitled ‘From the Bauhaus to the New World’. The coincidence was interesting for a number of reasons, not least because it raised fundamental questions about the purpose of exhibitions. Do we visit museums and galleries to be taught or amused, challenged or affirmed, unsettled or comforted? The blindingly and blandly obvious answer is ‘all of the above’, but the battles over the slightest shade of emphasis can be startlingly vehement.

Unsurprisingly, a number of reviewers chose to couple the shows, and the outcome was revealing. That Modernism and Moholy-Nagy/Albers appeared in a design museum and an art museum respectively brought up issues around how objects should be displayed in these two closely related but quite distinct contexts. At the V&A the curator, Christopher Wilk, in consultation with an extensive body of curatorial advisers, generated a theory about Modernism and modernity and then illustrated it with a series of objects, art works and films. At Tate Modern Achim Borchardt-Hume took a straightforward chronological look at the careers of the two Bauhauslers in a manner that acknowledged the educational and political intent of their work but foregrounded its potential to offer unmitigated pleasure. These differences in approach reflect assumptions that are fundamental to the two institutions. Curators at the V&A are required to explain; those at the Tate must supply us with redemptive experience. (And if they try to do otherwise, God help them. Remember the aftermath of Tate Modern’s infamously didactic show, ‘Century City’ in 2001.)

I wouldn’t want to argue that these distinctions are arbitrary or absurd. Exhibiting design free from explanation or any context other than that of the gallery itself makes little sense. Philip Johnson did it at MoMA with the 1934 exhibition ‘Machine Art’, where industrial objects such as ball bearings were shown on pedestals as if they were abstract sculptures. The consensus of design historians is that this show was marvellous, but nothing would be gained from repeating the exercise. While not set in stone, the divergent premises of museum shows of art and design are broadly accepted; it is just that in the case of exhibitions such as Modernism and Moholy-Nagy/Albers they become particularly troublesome. How can a curator justify following the conventions of either an art or a design exhibition when the objects of his or her attention were made by people whose very aim it was to eradicate such a division? Moholy-Nagy believed that contemplation should be a part of everyday life. How best, then, to show his work in an era when such reflection has come to be seen as a thing apart, something that takes place in white rooms, at well-judged intervals?

In dealing with this dilemma, whatever curators do, they open themselves to criticism. This Scylla-and-Charybdis situation was reflected in the collective joint reviews. In The Guardian Adrian Searle complained that the V&A show neglected ‘formal innovation and development’ in favour of ‘bigger and more nebulous themes’, such as ‘the healthy body culture’, ‘the machine’ and ‘national and political Modernism’. On the design side, in Grafik magazine critic Angharad Wilson argued that Tate Modern offered little explanation of how its objects occupied their place in the world. And coming in from left field, Anindya Bhattacharyya from the Socialist Review walked the museum with a fuming ‘Bauhaus fanatic friend’, angrily muttering, ‘This stuff isn’t meant to be in a gallery!’

Personally I wasn’t troubled by any such qualms at either venue. At the V&A I particularly enjoyed the first few densely packed, intensely informative rooms, and at Tate Modern the formal drama of the ‘Homage to a Square’ series was beautifully choreographed. Overall the two objects that struck me most were a sculpture by the Polish artist Katarzyna Kobro, a compellingly modest steel sculpture painted in primary colours, and Moholy’s unwieldy light prop, a construction of metal and plastic used for the refraction of light that the artist took with him from Berlin to London and then to the USA. The former presented an opportunity for satisfying reflection in a room dedicated to the explanation of Utopia; the latter prompted me to think about the trials of migration in a space primarily reserved for the contemplation of shadow and reflection.

I wouldn’t for a minute pretend I was doing something rebellious, breaking from the strait-jacket of curatorial vision or the like. Determining the exact purpose and weight of each exhibit is a terrible curatorial burden; recognizing that you cannot legislate how your audience will read it is a huge curatorial relief. The equation between how an object is displayed and how it will be read remains unfixed. To be a success in its own terms an educational show requires willing students, but equally a temple to art needs to be filled with worshippers.

Emily King is a London-based writer and curator with a specialism in design.