Session 4: The Museum and the Academy

Convened by Martha Langford, professor, Department of Art History; research chair and director, Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art, Concordia University, Montreal.
Report completed by Jessica Law, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver

In 1992, the artist Fred Wilson temporarily re-configured the exhibitionary order1 of the Maryland Historical Society by juxtaposing prized emblems of their permanent collection with more hidden material remnants of the State’s repressive histories. In shifting from artist to curator, displaying slave shackles alongside 18th-century metalwork, Wilson, with his Mining the Museum, underscored how the logic of display is both a mode of representation and a mode cultural praxis. Wilson’s project, of course, is but one example of a late 20th-century curatorial methodology that rebukes the specious neutrality of museum protocols. Yet, we might situate Mining the Museum––as suggested by Martha Langford in her introductory remarks to the session The Museum and The Academy––as an indicator of a viable momentum within the discursive space of the museum that has since gained coherence with the field of art history.

What exactly is this momentum? More specifically, how has the critical methodology brought to bear by practices like Wilson’s morphed into the current trend of object-focused learning? Or, the opposite current of, “the more ephemeral and in some cultures, more traditional forms of art––performance and storytelling, for example––requiring art to be studied in action and within context of community.” Do these paradoxical, yet synchronic, trends ultimately reveal the dissolution of the traditional boundaries between academic research, curating, and artistic practice? And, in keeping with the propositions made in the abstract for The Museum and the Academy, how might we situate or “further complicate” the archive as a vital historical source for both academic research and cultural production? What other methods can we enact or re-enact in order to critically activate both a museum collection and the very walls of the institution itself? And, lastly, as Langford stated at the outset of this session, “how might we bring the public along with us” on this reimagined trajectory?

Building from and expanding on these queries––particularly the notion of dissolving boundaries—the closing session, The Museum and The Academy, befittingly held at the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, reiterated Knowledge & Networks’ primary exploration into connecting circles. The session did so by first calling our attention to the emerging role of research chairs in Canadian museums and, within the academy, the ways in which art historians incorporate curatorial practice or the broader field of museum studies into their curriculum. The lead presenters for the session, Carolyn Butler-Palmer and Marie Fraser, exemplified the intersection between such circles not only in their professional titles but, more importantly, through their respective approaches to pedagogy.

Following Carolyn Butler-Palmer and Marie Fraser’s presentations, the session further interrogated the conjunction of the museum and the academy through the examination of several case studies presented by Curtis Collins, Beverly Lemire, Maureen Matthews, and Melanie O’Brian. In responding to aforementioned problem-sets proposed by this session the lead presenters and stakeholders demonstrated how the museum or gallery has the capacity to operate as a dialogical space––an alternative, in-between, or third space––where new ways to reengage and overcome the existing impasses in our corresponding circles can be imagined anew.

The watchwords throughout the session were “reciprocity,” “alternative,” “reinterpret,” “restage,” “responsibility,” “dialogical,” “agency,” “self-critical,” and “reenactment.”

Academic Art History and the Curatorial Turn: Writing New Professional Standards

Carolyn Butler-Palmer’s current appointment at the University of Victoria (UVic) is an example of an endowed research chair directly connected to a Canadian museum/gallery. Acknowledging her somewhat malleable academic positions as instructor/mentor, research chair, and curator, Butler-Palmer primarily focused on the exhibition Emerging Through the Fog: Tsa-qwa-supp and Tlehpik – Together held in 2016, at The University of Victoria Legacy Art Gallery.2 The exhibition capitalized on UVic’s ongoing initiative to engage students in curatorial research as a form of mentorship and pedagogy. This particular exhibition, however, was unique in that Butler-Palmer mentored and worked with only one student, Hjalmer Wenstob (Tlehpik), who also wore several hats during the consecration and execution of this exhibition. As indicated by the title, Wenstob was both artist and curator. His interactive carvings were exhibited in dialogue with works from the gallery’s permanent collection. A selection of paintings and prints by the artist Art Thompson (Tsa-qwa-sup), a well-known Nuu-chah-nulth artist and leading voice against Canada’s Residential School system, were exhibited alongside the work of Wenstob. Thompson’s private lawsuit against his abusers at the Port Alberni school played a pivotal role in pushing forward the Truth and Reconciliation Committee.3 And although the gallery has a longstanding commitment to exhibit their collection of Thompson’s work, it was Wenstob’s research––specifically an undergraduate term paper submitted to Butler-Palmer—that set this project in motion.

Butler-Palmer described her collaboration with Wenstob as a two-way street, in which the two “mentored each other.” This collaboration, in particular, reinvigorated the question of how to approach Indigenous curating and the problem-set of being “mindful to where we are” both in geographic location and in our roles as educators/mentors. Speaking to this, Butler-Palmer cited Nancy Mithlo’s exemplary scholarship on Indigenous curatorial practice, notably Mithlo’s emphasis on mentorship as a mutually meaningful exchange—a reciprocal and long term commitment.4 The way in which Butler-Palmer spoke of this project made it clear that inhabiting a secondary or even tertiary position is an advantageous approach to such questions. Giving space to students and other Indigenous voices while providing the institutional platforms and financial support needed for their practice/research affords participants the possibility to be both seen and heard within the museum, the academy, and the broader community.

Concepts of mentorship, mutually meaningful exchange, reciprocity, and long term commitment opened onto another urgent set of circumstances noted in Butler-Palmer’s abstract that are also worthy of accentuation here. Despite the College Art Association’s recognition of “curation as an academic accomplishment” and the recent emergence of object-based learning in “university collections,” Butler-Palmer astutely states that “standards for tenure and promotion and workload still often reflect more conventional paradigms of lecture format teaching and [monographic] publication.” Shifting the problem back onto the academy, the question we are now left with is: how can we foster, support, or sustain, new approaches to research and pedagogy if our own efforts and achievements are not awarded the meaningful reciprocity and commitment they so deserve?

Curating Art History?

It has not gone unnoticed that over the last decade the term curate has been become common parlance. But when Marie Fraser, Professor at Université du Québec à Montréal and Independent curator, asks, “can Art History be curated in the academy the way museums curate objects?” she is not simply speaking to the structural arrangement of visual material or even the professionalization of curators within a wide range of institutions. Fraser, rather, is speaking to the historicity of curation as either a cultural object of study, critical methodology, or mode of social praxis. In order elaborate on her intriguing premise, Fraser began her presentation by delineating several fundamental queries including “what is curating?” “what does curating mean?” and “is curating a methodology for the creation of knowledge?”

Speaking to her first question, Fraser makes reference to several publications dedicated to the history of curatorial practice. On the one hand, texts such as, Exhibitions That Made Art History Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 (2008, 2013), The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the 20th Century (1998), L’Art de l’exposition: une documentation sur trente exposition exemplaires du XXe siècle (1998), prove to be a valuable resource for primary documentation. On the other hand, these texts reinforce the dominant Western narrative of modern art. As Fraser claims, while there are more objects discussed within the pages, the overall methodology remains the same. And, accordingly, the authorial artist-as-genius is reinstated as the singular curator-as-genius. Following this line of thought, the exhibition, and by extension curating, are situated as “secondary modes of presentation.” Going against this prevailing narrative, Fraser argued, curation is a set of historical procedures, actions, and practices, enacted in the production of knowledge. Such a concept necessitates several subsequent lines of inquiry: “what would it mean for art historians to curate knowledge as curators do with works of art?” and “what would be the effect of this shift on historical knowledge and museum practices?”

In regard to the possible discursive effects of curatorial practice, Fraser turns to art historian Claire Bishop’s recent book, Radical Museology: Or, What’s Contemporary in Museums of Contemporary Art (2014), in which Bishop surveys three museums that have abandoned the idea of the “blockbuster” exhibition for a more historical approach rooted in their own permanent collection. For Bishop, institutions such as the Reina Sofía, in Madrid, circumnavigate the issue of passively repeating the dominant Western art historical narratives by critically engaging with their own pasts. This, in turn, situates the museum as an alternative model of knowledge creation. For Fraser, Bishop’s analysis effectively suggests that a museum’s collection has no fixed meaning, or static chronological order, and can therefore be continuously reconfigured.

Applying this methodology to the field of art history, Fraser discussed a recent project she curated with her students: a reactivation of the historic exhibition, Montréal, plus ou moins ? = Montreal, plus or minus?, originally curated by Melvin Charney in 1972. This particular exhibition was selected by Fraser and her students for its non-conventional participatory premise, geographic specificity––both elucidated by the exhibition’s title––and original location in a conventional museum (the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts).5 The 1972 exhibition held in post-crisis Quebec, was presented as an “exhibition-forum” that encouraged the audience to express their frustrations with the city alongside the works of art displayed. Given the nature of this exhibition, the 2018 reenactment of Montréal, plus ou moins ? = Montreal, plus or minus? proved to be exceptionally challenging for Fraser and her students. In the absence of cohesive narrative or archive, the contemporary project “reawakened” latent conditions embedded within the exhibition’s history and thus, created an “anachronical tension between a specific moment in the past and the present context.” What does curating produce? In this instance, the exhibition, through its re-activation, produced an “alternative way to approach meaning and history.”

The New Museum

The presentation given by the newly appointed director of the Audain Art Museum (AAM), Curtis Collins, offered insight into the internal dynamics of a privately funded collecting institution and the ways in which the AAM seeks to address its general public. In tandem with the proposal for this session, Curtis emphasized how the collection itself initiates the institution’s public responsibility, as the AAM houses works from historical to contemporary Indigenous artists and carvers up and down the coast of British Columbia.6 This reverberates with Butler-Palmer’s comments at the beginning of the session, shifting the question from “how should we approach Indigenous curating” to what are the inherent responsibilities a private individual or institution must consider when collecting Indigenous works of art? As the AAM has been open to the public for only two years, the museum’s staff and trustees are still in the process of solidifying the institutions policies and procedures. With his presentation, Curtis made sure to extend an open invitation for future collaboration to those in the room.

Dialogue Spaces. Object Study. Recovering New Histories

Introducing herself as an “historian who works with things,” Beverly Lemire spoke to two recent projects. The first was Lemire’s newly published book, Global Trade and the Transformation of Consumer Cultures: The Material World Remade, c. 1500–1820 (2017). By focusing on the history of objects, Lemire suggests we can cut through the illusive narratives regarding Canada’s colonizing histories by offering a more carefully traced trajectory. This is not an effort to offer a more “true” and unified metanarrative, but rather a broader, more complex, framework for thinking through the past. Giving primary consideration to the materials or techniques used to manufacture a historical object, for example, allows researchers to fully map the object’s history. Not just who made it, but also: how was it made? What are the historical circumstances that led to its making? Where did the materials come from? What forms of resource extraction were utilized in the making of this object? As Lemire noted, “things demand our attention in different ways.”

This approach to objects, for Lemire, is also reflective of the very nature of material culture studies, as the discourse itself necessitates multiple routes of examination. To illustrate how this collaboration unfolds, Lemire discussed her second project, which was instigated by the first, the SSRCH funded “Object Lives and Global Histories in Northern North America: Networks, Localities, and Material Culture c. 1700s–2000s.”7 The main hubs for this later project were in Edmonton and Montreal with the aim of exploring the “histories of material culture within these regions, linked to wider global flows of influence that arise from trade, colonialism, and migration.” Lemire made a point to emphasize that, when collaborating with experts in other discursive fields, the historian, art historian, curator, or artist, must maintain the position of learner while also remaining grounded in their own area of expertise. Lemire’s insistence that the museum and the archive function as dialogical spaces brought together the underlying threads of the session’s lead presenters. Which is to say, Lemire’s comprehensive approach to material culture synthesizes Butler-Palmer’s “mindfulness of where we are,” with Fraser’s notion of “reawakening” the latent conditions embedded within an institution’s the past.

We Are NOT All Treaty People Yet: Renewing Treaty Relationships at the Manitoba Museum

The title of Maureen Matthews’s presentation refers to the 2014 exhibition, We Are All Treaty People, at the Manitoba Museum.8 The exhibition, as noted in Matthews’s abstract, was the outcome of a collaborative effort forged between Matthews, as the curator of Cultural Anthropology at the museum, Dr. Harry Bone, Chair of the Elders Council of the Treaty Relations Commission and the Association of Manitoba Chiefs, commissioners from the Manitoba Treaty Relations Commission, and the members of the Elders Council. The title of the exhibition makes reference to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the initiative to renew Treaty relationships and teach Treaty histories to all Canadians. Thus, to claim that we are all treaty people is an effort to underscore how treaties have played a foundational role in shaping Canadian society as it stands today. The provocative not and yet in Matthews presentation title draw our attention to this initiative as an on-going process that must be fomented by direct engagement with historical treaties, as opposed to becoming a symbolic gesture. The problem for Matthews was how to re-envision the exhibitionary order of the Manitoba Museum so that it could embody this logic over a mere didactic panel on a gallery wall.

In conjunction with Fraser’s presentation, Matthews raised a question of curatorial methodology. Prior to We Are All Treaty People, when visitors would walk into the Manitoba Museum they were confronted with fabricated dioramas of aboriginal peoples or what Matthews described as dioramas of the “cultural Darwinian paradigm.” This cultural paradigm posits aboriginal peoples in the past; the step along the evolutionary telos following the Stone Age. What the diorama exhibits, then, is the very colonizing logic the Treaty Relations Commission is trying to debunk. In an effort to ignite a paradigm shift within the space of the museum as well as within broader public consciousness, Matthews discussed how the exhibition reanimates the dioramas as well as other cultural objects from the museum’s collection. This was done through various strategies, such as replacing images of racial stereotypes with actual photographs of historical individuals involved in treaty negotiations; and, more importantly, the museum consulted with First Nations communities in Manitoba to seek permissions for displaying certain objects. According to Matthews, the Elders made a point to emphasize or rather, remind the Museum that “signing the Treatise was not the end of negotiations, but the start of an ongoing relationship based on principles of sharing.” The exhibition We Are All Treaty People gives us another example of historical conditions becoming disclosed and reactivated through a critical and collaborative approach to an institution’s archive.

University Art Galleries: Alternative Ways of Knowing

How does the university art gallery accommodate key methodologies and current tendencies in contemporary curating? At the outset of her presentation, Melanie O’Brian addressed this question by speaking to her own directorial and curatorial methodologies, which O’Brian described as the incentive “to follow and think alongside contemporary art practices that take up conceptual, social, political, and theoretical ideas that make sense of place, site, and context.” For O’Brian, this approach has remained consistent throughout her professional trajectory, whether in a position at a public art museum, artist run centre, or university gallery. The university art gallery, as a space that is “between a research facility and an interface of diverse audiences,” affords a multifaceted conception of “place, site, and context.” Given that the university art gallery has several audiences––the academy, the public, the artistic community––the task at hand is “how to inhabit this space?” How might does the university gallery address these audiences while, at the same time, fostering a reciprocal connection between them? Such questions have become slightly more complex given that, since the social movements of the 1960s, the Academy itself has developed a self-critical practice. It is imperative to stress that these are the conditions O’Brian is speaking to when she asks, “what forms of inquiry will be most effective in mobilizing this context?”

The concept of the university in the gallery has, according to O’Brian, been a productive approach to navigating the intricate terrain of Simon Fraser University’s three distinct galleries: SFU Gallery (main Burnaby campus), Teck Gallery (Harbour Centre in Vancouver), and Audain Gallery (Goldcorp Centre for the Arts in Vancouver).9 By inverting the relationship between the gallery and the university, these galleries are reconfigured as pedagogical spaces that can foster a variety of conceptual or artistic practices, particularly those that are less visible within the university system. These include, but are not limited to, holding seminars, performances, screenings, and public lectures within the gallery space as well as publications, events, and symposia with their interlocutors in other academic departments outside of the gallery.

Working alongside contemporary artists, through the Audain Visual Artist in Residency Program, has allowed the SFU galleries to obtain a level of artistic autonomy, and an experimental theoretical and performative freedom that is not necessarily granted to disciplinary units within a university setting. This flexible space as O’Brian envisions it, is one that actively resists being aligned with the terms of a shared neoliberal economy.10 In order to do so, the university gallery must sustain alternative ways of knowing via approaches that seek to make “learning uncomfortable.” Additionally, O’Brian and colleagues at the SFU Gallery in Burnaby have dedicated the next three years to really focus on how that particular on-campus space can operate as a research centre that serves the university while simultaneously addressing the broader socio-economic and political horizons that shape public life.

Q & A

In her closing remarks for the session, Martha Langford proposed “reenactment” as a keyword and underlying thread connecting each presentation within the session. Of course, as Langford points out, reenactment is a term sometimes historically burdened with “difficult knowledge.” Within the context of the panel, difficult knowledge can be conceptualized as the absence of documentation, the unveiling of difficult histories, or as suggested by the final session, difficult knowledge can be a strategic tactic to maintain a level of discursive tension. Drawing on this connection, Langford asked the session presenters if the term reenactment could operate as a vehicle for considering the “afterlife” of an exhibition?

Carolyn Butler-Palmer agreed that all the projects she has engaged with at the Legacy Art Gallery have, in some form or another, touched on notions of reenactment. In the particular case of the exhibition, Emerging Through the Fog: Tsa-qwa-supp and Tlehpik – Together (2016), the term could apply to Wenstob’s desire for his masks to be kept “in use,” which is a way to keep the spirit of the exhibition alive through its continuous connection to the work of art. Marie Fraser quickly agreed with the importance of continuously activating or reactivating that which is otherwise dormant within a museum collection, reiterating how new knowledge can be brought to the surface in this process.

Maureen Matthews, however, expressed hesitation towards the notion of reenactment because of its association with difficult knowledge, or more specifically, because of the term’s historical association with authenticity. Speaking to Indigenous histories, reenactment has and continues to be mobilized as an apparatus of the colonial narrative in which aboriginal peoples are constructed as the primitive other. In this context, reenactment only enacts the stereotype of an unchanging culture in the present. Kristina Huneault (Professor, Department of Art History, Concordia University), supported Matthews concerns and articulated how Matthews’s presentation illustrated the inherent problem-sets of the terminology. Matthew’s discussion of the “cultural Darwinian paradigm” suggests, for example, that the colonial metanarrative remains embedded within the broader social, historical, and political unconscious. For Huneault, this ultimately suggests we are always already embodying a mode of reenactment and should therefore consider “what does reenactment perform for us in its different, distinct modes?”

Langford responded to Matthews and Huneault by stressing that her use of the term was an attempt to be provocative, echoing Melanie O’Brian’s notion that discomfort can be a useful tool for generating critical thought. The term reenactment, for Langford, has a particular purchase on the multiple anachronism we find emerging within modes of cultural and historical repetition. To this point, Sherry Farrell Racette (Associate Professor, Faculty of Media, Art and Performance, University of Regina), quickly interjected by referencing current curatorial initiatives to reconstruct, as opposed to reenact, select historical Indigenous exhibitions. Reconstruction, for Racette, is essentially a way to deconstruct the prevailing and deeply problematic narratives surrounding Indigenous art histories. Melanie O’Brian also raised the issue of fetishization surrounding the recent proliferation of restaged modernist exhibitions––another example of the kinds of curatorial histories criticized in Fraser’s presentation. Acknowledging that this struggle over language will persist as we continue to explore the concept of reenactment, Langford focused the discussion on the overwhelming sense of alliance endured thus far throughout the session.

The final comments made during the Q&A touched on collaborative curatorial efforts made by several of the forum’s attendees. Peter Dykhuis (Director and Curator, Dalhousie Art Gallery, Halifax) advocated for co-curatorial projects as a way to ensure an on-going dialogue both within and outside the space of the gallery. Dykhuis and his collaborators at the Dalhousie Art Gallery in Halifax, have altered their approach by beginning with a “problem” for example, “how did the work end up in the collection in the first place?” or “how did the donor themselves acquire this work?” This particular line of inquiry, which, on the one hand, corresponds to Beverly Lemire’s material culture methodology and on the other, O’Brian’s emphasis on self-criticality, has generated several critical exhibitions from a historical point of view at the Dalhousie Art Gallery.11

Following Dykhuis, John O’Brian (Professor Emeritus, Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory, The University of British Columbia) asked Butler-Palmer, as a research chair at a university art gallery, how she mobilized the galleries distinct audiences. Considering that the gallery is off the University of Victoria’s campus, Butler-Palmer discussed how she attempts to bridge the distance to the gallery’s downtown location by holding university classes in the gallery space. John O’Brian followed up by inquiring who exactly Butler-Palmer’s primary audience is, the university or the general public, as that will inevitably affect what the Legacy Art Gallery is able to accomplish. Although Butler-Palmer admitted the general public is the main audience in terms of numbers, she considers this question of primary audience to be driven by each curatorial project. Matthews, also responded to John O’Brian’s question by speaking to the Manitoba Museum’s graduate fellowship programs, which set up a seminar in the space of the museum. Such programs are, for Matthews, a way of getting people into the museum “in a serious way.” Echoing and expanding on Matthews’s final remarks, Lemire underscored how the collaborative nature of the museum always doubles as a classroom for which knowledge can be generated.