Visiting museums and art galleries is one of my favourite activities; as a visual learner, I find it one of the most satisfying ways to experience and learn about culture. Lately however, I’ve also been learning to question the nature of these cultural spaces; who makes the choices about what is displayed, and as a result, what is exhibited to us as the audience? What lens am I viewing the display through? What can I see through my viewfinder?
(DISCLAIMER: The accompanying images I have included in this post are largely unrelated to the discussion in my post and feature a recent trip to Oxford)
A few weeks ago, I visited the Tate Britain to see the first major UK exhibition of Isaac Julien’s work What Freedom is to Me. Julien is known for using multi-screen video installations. The first installation in this exhibition is called Once Again… (Statues never Die) (2022) in which he interrogates the display of African art in Western museums amid the debate on the repatriation of the Benin Bronzes. The Benin Bronzes are a collection of metal plaques and sculptures made by the artists of the Edo people in the Kingdom of Benin (now the Edo state in Nigeria) starting from the thirteenth century. In 1897, the British forces looted the Bronzes, selling them to other collectors and institutions along the way (even selling some back to Nigeria later in the twentieth century). However, since gaining independence in 1960, Nigeria has sought the return and repatriation of the Bronzes. The changing attitudes towards these matters are particularly on display in the colonial-era Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford, which had previously displayed shrunken human heads and Benin Bronzes. However, the heads are now no longer on display, and neither are the Bronzes, for which the legal process of repatriation is under way. The museum also has some displays designed to challenge visitors to think about what is currently exhibited, and why.
One of the subsequent rooms in the Julien exhibition features his installation Lessons of the Hour (2019), which the accompanying notes describe as “a poetic journey into the life and times of Frederick Douglass (1819-1895), a visionary abolitionist, freedom fighter, activist and writer.” Douglass was a major character in my recent research about People of Colour in Victorian England (he toured the UK giving speeches about abolition). And yet somehow I had missed his fascination with photography, which Julien highlighted in his installation.
In 1861, Douglass gave a lecture titled “Pictures and Progress”. Douglass himself is believed to be the most photographed American in the 19th century (if you would like to see some of his portraits please click on this link to the Library of Congress which has collected many of these early photographs). He believed that photography was as influential an invention as telegraphy and was particularly important as a social leveller in terms of race and class. One of his often-quoted remarks about photography puts this succinctly: “the humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase fifty years ago.”
This felt especially relevant to me, as I remembered a tour at Tate Britain that I had been on with our son last year as part of his art studies. It was called Image of the Black and helped us interrogate the art on display at the gallery. To be fair, I had not expected there to be much to see, but as we progressed around the gallery we learnt how People of Colour were displayed and how they had been portrayed over the years, and I couldn’t help but think how Douglass would have felt to know he was now part of an exhibition in the same gallery. I also wondered what he would have made of Tate Britain’s recent decision to close its Rex Whistler restaurant, as it features a mural of a Black child being snatched from his mother, to be enslaved.
Becoming more aware of these issues has given me a new perspective on the way things are displayed in museums and galleries. Museums and galleries are ways to experience and learn about culture, but they are not neutral or objective institutions, just as how photography does not give a neutral or objective view of reality. Like my photography, thinking about this has given me a different way of looking at the world. I have really enjoyed challenging my thinking about these institutions I love to visit. It has given me a new way to frame what I am looking at, including considering what may lie outside the frame, a new focus on the choices that are made about what to display (and not display), and a way to expose myself both to new ideas, and to new ways of thinking about my existing interests.
If you would like to read more about these issues, the books The Whole Picture by Alice Procter and The Brutish Museum by Professor Dan Hicks are definitely worth taking a look at. I also found this podcast on the Benin Bronzes really interesting, this Instagram account on People of Colour from the perspective of history of art, and this website good for general information. I wonder what will be displayed to us in the future, how the nature of displays will change—and how our own time will be represented in the museums of tomorrow.