Organized to coincide with the Arnolfini’s 50th anniversary, ‘Museum Show’ was an agreeably unexpected way to celebrate a birthday. Instead of serving up a digestible blockbuster or a greatest-hits compilation of previous exhibitions, curator Nav Haq opted to organize a two-part survey of museums created by artists. The decision was a brave one, because both shows were intrinsically caught up with one hard-to-answer question: how do you exhibit an exhibition? If no adequate answer was found then it wasn’t for lack of trying, but ‘Museum Show’ was shot through with an under-acknowledged tension: artists’ museums are often site-specific or ephemeral in a way that is calculated to sidestep institutional absorption, and yet here were 30-plus projects, cooped up in what was touted as a ‘museum of museums’. How could this be reconciled? The issue was for the most part evaded – a pity, because this is a fertile area, as is demonstrated by ‘Time Machines Reloaded’ (2011–12) at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, a rather more focused exhibition which covers similar ground.
An international selection of projects were presented at the Arnolfini, and while there was space for the canonical – Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Suitcase, 1935–41), Marcel Broodthaers’ Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, 1968–71) – ‘Museum Show’ was too often distracted. For example, as much as I was happy to come across Bill Burns’s Museum of Safety Gear for Small Animals(1994–ongoing), it did little to help my understanding of what an artist’s museum might mean today. It’s also important to note that ‘Museum Show’ was nowhere near comprehensive, as was claimed. (How could it have been?) Oversights included Lynn Hershman’s The Floating Museum (1975–8), a nomadic space that secured studios for artists in San Francisco, and Carl Cheng’s Natural Museum of Modern Art (1979–80), a coin-operated machine that made abstract drawings on the beach under the Santa Monica Pier, to name just two projects from the late ’70s. While both of these are esoteric examples, artists’ museums – as the curator’s statement noted – are often highly idiosyncratic affairs. It’s also a model that continues to hold certain attractions for artists, with many of the projects included in ‘Museum Show’ initiated in the last decade or so.
As T.J. Demos has argued, the paradigmatic artist-organized museum – that is, Duchamp’s own retrospective-in-a-briefcase – was conditioned by mobility. Displacement was indeed inscribed into many of the works at the Arnolfini, such as Khalil Rabah’s Palestinian Museum of Natural History (2000–ongoing) and the Berlin-based, anonymously authored project the Museum of American Art (2004–ongoing), which consists of black and white reproductions of postwar MoMA exhibitions. Both of these have been shown in several biennials in recent years, and indeed they depend on a critical degree of itinerancy and parasitism for their existence. But the designation ‘Museum of…’ is used by artists for wildly different ends. Many of these projects were originally conceived as sites of conviviality or as interventions into the urban environment, and so prove deliberately resistant to being re-presented in a gallery. To take just one example, Tom Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art (1970–84) was a vibrant alternative space in San Francisco, but was presented here as shelves of empty beer bottles, with little contextual information. This frequent removal of the specificities of time and place contributed to an overall flattening effect, whereby one artist’s museum came to feel much the same as that of another.
While these projects weren’t exactly stripped of their autonomy, they did feel somewhat compromised by their host institution, the acquisitive logic of this ‘museum of museums’ becoming most palpable in the details of presentation. For example, the only information accompanying each project was a standard-format exhibition leaflet, which gave basic information about the project, but which was uniformly stamped with an ‘Arnolfini 50’ logo – a small but significant intervention into the didactic fabric of these artists’ museums, many of which depend on at least a semblance of independence. Whether or not this was down to an overzealous marketing department rather than a curatorial decision, it wasn’t acknowledged as in any way antagonistic or counter to the spirit in which the projects were initially conceived.
But a survey of this kind was nevertheless invaluable for the way it emphasized commonalities between these semi-fictional museums. Many of the artists here treated the museum as a readymade, relying on similar display strategies (vitrines, misleading labels, etc) while emphasizing portability and reproduction. Other common ground included purposefully confusing issues of authorship (as with the Museum of Non-Participation, 2007–ongoing), worries about cultural amnesia (the Museum of Forgotten History, 2011) and foregrounding personal affinities over institutional categories (the Victoria and Alferd Museum, 2010–ongoing). ‘Museum Show’ was also studiedly and laudably international in scope, with projects included Meshac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art (1997–ongoing), Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s Nasubi Gallery (1993–ongoing) and Walid Raad’s Atlas Group (1989–2004). Susan Hiller was presented by her 1994 Freud Museum project, but this raised the question of why other seminal collection-based exhibitions – Fred Wilson’s ‘Mining the Museum’ (1992), say, or Mark Dion’s ‘The Marvelous Museum’ (2010–11) – weren’t in some way acknowledged. Although ‘Museum Show’ stretched to two exhibitions over the course of five months, its elaboration of what happens when artists inhabit institutions felt ultimately limiting rather than expansive.