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Article: Museum Dialogues: Problems and Definitions

Posted on: 19 April 2024

A reflective report on Workshop 1 of the Museum Dialogues programme written by Dr Briony Carlin.

The workshop on 22 March was an expansive day of thinking about photography’s past, present and future as mediated by institutional collections and display.

As the first in the Museum Dialogues programme, it opened with a talk from Alexandra Moschovi situating us in relation to photography’s position in the museum, and particularly its shifting role in art institutional discourses. Photographs have transitioned from informational objects and archives to materialising in the white cube, only to de-materialise in the abstracted black box of projection and digital media. The mutable, born-digital images that account for the larger part of how we encounter photographs today led into the next presentation from Katrina Sluis, who spoke about her experiments in curating the networked image, and oppositions in how we approach digital curating in institutions. Through collaborations with artist-researchers, such as Nicholas Malevé, and programmes including Data/Set/Match at the Photographers’ Gallery (2019), Sluis offered some provocations about how digital photography can animate the gallery, engage visiting publics, and improve visual and media literacy in an image culture in the grip of rapid change, through allowing public to inhabit new technologies.

Yet, a shift is required to understand the curatorial skills and resources needed for the programming, production, and reception of such works, as well as the ethical landscape of this new digital terrain. In the (art) museum, there is an imagined potential for AI to provide a more spectacular ‘claim’ on the contemporary, which brings with it both more democratic forms of engagement and new sources of patronage. Sluis’ talk provided a valuable jumping off point for thinking about the changing status and economic consequences of the photograph. The representational ‘image’ content can become a foil that distracts us from understanding the deeper implications of photography as a capitalist mode of production. This is not new, as surfaced in later conversations about photography’s colonial history. However, with the popularisation of AI and computer-generated images in all strata of society, from IKEA catalogues to political propaganda to art fairs, we must learn a new criticality and new ways of seeing with which to illuminate these extractive technologies.

In group discussion, we responded to the morning’s talks about how we got to where we are now, through the following questions:

What do you think are currently the main challenges associated with collecting and exhibiting photography?

What is the cultural value of photography in museums when photography is everywhere and exists in so many different formats?

There are both long-standing challenges associated with collecting and exhibiting photography, and issues particular to this contemporary moment, which are also entangled with photography’s shifting polyvalence. Historically, photographs enable experiences to be collected and made meaningful through visual representation. Archives of material have enabled us to understand histories retrospectively, and museums are perceived as sites of ‘truth telling’ (although we understand them to be contested). The museum can act as a ‘critical friend’ by interpreting what some may see as a proliferation of images and information, and weaving them into coherent, potent narratives, or guiding publics towards more reliable information. Collections can provide relative protection by controlling the context in which images are consumed; although the physical museum space can also cause a loss of context, sanitisation or even censorship. Whist the idea of the ‘museum’ is contested and can mean something different depending on where you’re from, more formalised environments can engender a different kind of attention and validate image-makers by presenting work with institutional ‘legitimation’.

These opportunities are not without their intersecting practical and ideological challenges. For example, geography and cultural context can logistically affect how photography is archived and collected: in climates that have made the preservation of photographic objects more challenging, more wealthy social groups have tended to be represented, whilst others have remained invisible, or, alternatively, pictured and conserved through the gaze of foreigners in Western collections. Other concerns included the sheer number of photographs and scale of collections; classifying the fluid status of photographs within collections, which can function as documents, objects, artworks and more; and how to future proof collecting digital media against the technological obsolescence that might prohibit their future access. Criteria for collecting should be more transparent; and there is a level of censorship and gatekeeping around museums in some countries or cultures that means only authorised narratives are presented. The consecrating power of museums assigns them agency to support artists earlier in their careers and to widen representation of global perspectives. However, how contemporary, or how inclusive can acquisitions be, when institutions follow Western market conventions by acquiring primarily original prints (a practice less important in some parts of the world and some practices), from mid-career artists and those with gallery representation?

The afternoon’s presentations expanded on the mornings’ findings:

  • Iro Katsaridou spoke about pluralistic collecting and timely exhibitions about contemporary issues in the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, and the museum’s responsibility towards social intervention that can activate public engagement with live political issues.
  • Budi N.D. Dharmawan shared insights from curatorial strategies to create space for localised perspectives and de-centring Western photographic histories in Indonesia. Festivals in Southeast Asia provide alternatives for the lack of photography in museums and emphasise the ‘photographic’ as a practice.
  • Liz Wewiora questioned what it means to work in a socially engaged way, pointing both to a gap in critical theory in socially-engaged photography, and how this practice complicates museum objects and outputs by producing multiple outputs with co-produced authorship.
  • Anna Fox reflected on the value of institutional representation for women and others who have historically been marginalised from the museum’s collections and display, speaking personally from her own career experiences, and in terms of the partnerships that celebrate and promote women’s practices and stories through Fast Forward: Women in Photography.

Important themes emerged throughout the day that indicated that photography’s cultural potential in museums is greater than traditional use and value.

Our expectations of what ‘museums’ are, and are for, needs to change in order to accommodate the rapidly evolving image economy in which photography plays a key role. Photography is generally valued by its indexical or representational qualities, but we also need to make visible the cultural, political, economic consequences of photographs more generally, in the present and across history.

The insistence on traditional notions of authorship, editioning, reified objects, and white cube display are no longer valid nor useful, particularly in relation to born-digital or AI-generated work, nor where photography is mobilised for socially engaged, co-creative or collective practice. This raises the question of whether bigger institutions are properly set up to collect the diverse ways that photographic work is made now? From cataloguing data and to exhibition, texts tend to present photography in terms of ‘artist biography’ or ‘representation, storytelling, context’; both these approaches indicate a modernist structuring that is no longer appropriate for how photography operates culturally.

We ended the day reflecting on what we, as practitioners, scholars, researchers, artists, could learn or implement in our own practice. Some closing comments projected a vision for how photography could shift to change with the times:

  • More responsive, more inclusive engagement with photography: festivals and other ways of leaning into the performative, speculative and processual provide opportunities to move beyond historically Western and capitalist modes of cultural production, and educate in a more accessible and playful way.
  • Better access and literacy around the digital—how can new ways of seeing be illuminated? Here, more practitioner-scholar research in the museum can enable learning in public, with the public.

Curatorially speaking, photography has always felt most exciting to me because of its material versatility. Through my research and exhibition-making, I have explored how images can rematerialize and transpose into many tactile and affecting forms, which can be easily reproduced and distributed. However, I have also witnessed how the interests of public institutions and the art market are often aligned, and concentrated in collections and activities in London, which are physically and financially inaccessible to the majority of people. In an era of “intensified marketisation” of the arts (Hopkin 2021), the day’s discussions affirmed my own reorientation away from institutional work towards building a more de-centred, localised and DIY practice. Instead of rarefied photographic ‘objects’, how can more playful engagements with the phenomenon of photography help us think meaningfully about what images do and how they are (or might be) operationalised in the changing visual, social and technological world?

Dr Briony Carlin, April 2024.

Briony Carlin is Lecturer in Contemporary Art Curation at Newcastle University, UK.
She teaches museum and curatorial studies with a research specialism in photography and its ‘boundary’ or marginal creative practices. Her forthcoming monograph The Contemporary Photobook: How Art and Experience Matter will be published by Leuven University Press. Briony has previously worked in public and private arts sector roles including Assistant Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum.