Uncertain Images: Museums and the Work of Photographs
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Uncertain Images: Museums and the Work of Photographs

Elizabeth Edwards, Sigrid Lien

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  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Uncertain Images: Museums and the Work of Photographs

Elizabeth Edwards, Sigrid Lien

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Almost all museums hold photographs in their collections, and museum professionals and their audiences engage with photographs in a myriad of ways. Yet despite some three decades of critical museology and photographic theory, and an extensive debate on the politics of representation, outside art museums, almost no critical attention has been given specifically to the roles, purposes and lives of these photographs within museums. This book brings into focus the ubiquitous yet entirely unconsidered work that photographs are put to in museums. The authors' argument is that there is an economy of photographs in museums which is integral to the processes of the museum, and integral to the understanding of museums. The international contributors, drawn from curators and academics, reflect a range of visual and museological expertise. After an introduction setting out the range of questions and problems, the first part addresses broad curatorial strategies and ways of thinking about photographs in museums. Shifting the emphasis from curatorial practices and anxieties to the space of the gallery, this is followed by a series of case studies of exhibitionary practices and the museum strategies that support them. The third section focuses on the role of photographs in the museum articulation of 'difficult histories'. A final section addresses photograph collections in a digital environment. New technologies and new media have transformed the management, address and purposing in photographs in museums, from cataloguing practices to streaming on social media. These growing practices challenge both traditional hierarchies of knowledge in museums and the location of authority about photographs. The volume emerges from PhotoCLEC, a HERA funded project on museums and the photographic legacy of the colonial past in a postcolonial and multicultural Europe.

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Museum Studies

Curatorial Strategies 1:
Working Images

Chapter 4

Photography and the Crisis of Ethnographic Display

Hilde Nielssen
Together with the National Gallery, the old university buildings and other significant institutions, the building called the Historical Museum forms an architectonical axis of power in the Norwegian capital of Oslo, stretching from the National Assembly and to the royal castle. The Historical Museum originally housed the two separate institutions of the Archaeological and Ethnographic Museums, but now forms part of the Museum of Cultural History, owned by the University of Oslo. The museum was founded as a university museum in 1854, and was located in one of the university buildings at the heart of the city until it received its own building in the same area some 50 years later, in 1904 (Mikkelsen 2004). In order to find the ethnographical displays, the visitors have to pass the monumental wooden door, the museum shop and the archaeological and historical displays on the ground floor. On the first floor are the Arctic and America displays, on the second floor a space for temporary exhibitions, while the Asia display is tucked away on the third floor.1 To enter this building is to enter another world. Hundreds of artefacts originating from different worlds all have their distinct history, and have made their own journey to this place as part of different missions and causes. They are all entangled in multiple relationships, both in the past and in the present. In amongst the artefacts, on the walls, or integrated in the displays, are a multitude of photographs, black and white or in colour, in all sizes, from various times and places.
Here, as more generally, photographs play an important role in staging, situating and defining objects. They are vital in constructing, not only the objects but the display as a whole. Framed by small narratives and integrated in situational displays they evoke cultural richness, multiplicity and variation. Yet, the ways in which photographs and objects are staged in this building reminds us that this is a constructed world – a museum world. While pointing beyond itself, this is also a world in itself. As a constructed, virtual or imaginal space seeking to address or represent reality, it contributes to shape our realities. Here visitors can imagine and reimagine other peoples’ worlds.
Photographs often have an unclear position within museums. While often part of the museum’s collections, they tend to have an inferior status to that of the collections of artefacts. Nevertheless, photographs play a significant, although often unacknowledged, part in the museum display. As Nuno Porto states, ‘… museum photographs, regardless of their theme as image, cannot but be about the museum itself, its historical contingencies, its internal organisation and its relationships with external parties. Perhaps more than any other object, museum photographs show how the museum sees itself’ (Porto 2001: 38). The way photographs are used, how they have been understood and presented, has undergone significant changes throughout the Historical Museum’s history. These changes are linked to shifting discourses and epistemologies both within anthropology and museum practice. Photographs in the museum are more than mere ‘windows on the world’. As Elizabeth Edwards points out, photographs are ‘integral to the construction of the political economy of meaning’ (2001: 186). Whether photographs are used didactically to contextualize, illustrate and explain, or to establish a sense of a particular place, they are paramount in the way the displays establish, naturalize and objectify particular perspectives and understandings.
The Historical Museum in Oslo literally smells of history, a sensation further underlined by its mixture, not only of more recent as well as historical photographs, but of old and new artefacts, and a mixture of older and more recent exhibitionary techniques. Photographs and artefacts, and the way they are arranged, bear witness of different times in the history of this museum and its scholarly disciplines of ethnography and anthropology. This chapter traces the work of photographs in the ethnographic display in Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History, and their entanglement with the shifting delineations of both academic and museum anthropology. It thus uses the photographs as a vantage point for a discussion of the following simple question: why is it so difficult to make ethnographic displays?

The Permanent Displays: A Bricolage of Themes, Times and Places

Let us start with a closer look at the most recent of the permanent ethnographic displays at the Museum of Cultural History, the exhibition America. Present. Past. Identity, which opened in 2008.2 The exhibition focuses on the First Nation peoples and minority populations of both North and South America, with thematic emphasis on identity, cultural heritage and human rights. As such it differs from the other permanent displays, which address the more general aim of demonstrating cultural diversity. The museum’s collections are here used to focus on material culture’s continuity and change, with an emphasis on the multiple ways in which people both perceive and engage with their material heritage, and how this heritage is made relevant in new ways in the contemporary society.
Although the thematic focus is strong, the main structuring principle of the display is geographic. The visitors wander along the four walls, beginning with North America, and continue the journey through Central America and the Caribbean, before ending in South America. The middle of the room is dominated by a couple of large, airy cases displaying clothing associated with the different peoples of the continent, carefully placed so that they mirror the geographical area of the corresponding cases along the wall.
Figure 4.1 The America display, opened in 2008. © Museum of Cultural History, Oslo. Photographer: Ann Christine Eek, 2008
When entering the room, the first object that arrests the eye is a big wooden mask. It was purchased by the museum in 2000, but was carved in 1992 by an artist from the nisga’a people of the north-west Canada. Texts and photographs tell the story of the artist, the mask, its original use and how it ended up at the museum in Oslo. The presentation of the mask also serves as an introduction to the famous potlatch ritual, as it has been performed both in the past and in the present. Texts and images also tell the story of how the income the artist earned by selling the mask was spent on a potlatch in connection with the erection of a totem pole as part of the opening of the nisga’a people’s own parliament. In this way the mask serves as an introduction to the struggle of First Nations peoples around the world to protect and strengthen their identity, cultural heritage and living conditions. These contemporary struggles of First Nation peoples are then addressed and concretized in case after case throughout the display.
While the exhibition seeks to present current issues though current anthropological perspectives, even a contemporary exhibition inevitably becomes shaped by the collections available, how they are composed, and what collectors and photographers have found worthwhile to record and acquire. There is very extensive use of photographs in this display, in black and white as well as in colour, of various sizes and of various dates. Importantly they are given multiple functions: they decorate, illustrate, frame, situate and ‘bring to life’, but they also document, supplement, testify, validate and define. Behind every mounted object and the surrounding photographs, and behind the way they are staged, lie a multitude of relationships and interactions. Although partially muted, the history of these artefacts and photographs is embedded in the display scenarios encountered by the visitor, as well as the history of the museum and the scholarly disciplines attached.
Thus, the nature of the America collections, once established to provide an encyclopaedic overview, affects the display in significant ways.3 Both the selection of exhibited groups of people and, as I have suggested, the way they are represented are influenced by the objects and photographs available in the museum archives and collections.4 Even though the collections have been recently complemented by more modern acquisitions, many of the objects and photographs originate from late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a consequence there is a tendency for the different sections to centre on objects often perceived of as ‘typical’ of the particular groups, the contemporary focus of identity notwithstanding. As a result, Native Americans are represented though objects and photographs which have iconic status in the Western imagination, such as the totem pole for the north-west coast, or the feather headdress and ceremonial pipe or ‘peace pipe’ for the North American prairie peoples.
Nevertheless, choices of themes and perspectives expressed in the texts also show that the exhibition makers were aware of the dilemmas presented by the nature of the collections. For instance, the texts are explicitly concerned with the passage of time. In each case there is a presentation of a ‘before’ and ‘now’, which contrasts with the characteristic use of a timeless ‘ethnographic present’ common in conventional ethnographic displays. Thus the more abstract issues addressed contrast more markedly with the older of the permanent ethnographic displays in this museum. For instance, whereas the Americas display addresses the struggle for identity and rights, the Arctic display on the same floor, which opened in 1993, focuses in a classic ethnographic mode of functional and descriptive categories such as hunting, fishing methods or types of housing.
Visually there is also a sharp contrast between the Americas and Arctic displays. The Arctic display is marked by its extensive use of ethnographic tableaux. Framed by large photographs, the models, mannequins and ethnographic objects are presented as a series of scenes showing various aspects of the life worlds of Arctic peoples, with an emphasis on different forms of ecological adaptation, livelihood, settlement pattern and nomadism, social organization and ritual practice. The photographs here contribute significantly to the effort of presenting peoples and life forms in their ‘natural’ habitat. In the Americas display, the walls are lined with cases made as copies of the museum’s original display cases. These intentionally contrast with cases of newer design with large glass surfaces and their discrete and unobtrusive metal frames. These are placed in the middle of the room. Whereas the overall design in the Arctic display is aimed to parallel and accord with the anthropological narratives of life-ways elsewhere in the museum, the design in the Americas display, with its conventional museum cases, does not in itself support the message expressed in the presented texts. Thus the central exhibition story is primarily told through texts and photographs surrounding the objects. Consequently, there is a lack of correspondence between the thematic focus that reflect urgent contemporary anthropological issues, and the design marked by the conventions of classic ethnographic exhibitions.
Perhaps in order to compensate for the discrepancy between the design and intended anthropological message, there is a significant amount of text, often presented as charts, either on the walls or within the cases. It is as if the apparent discrepancy between the overall design and the message of these charts makes the charts and the aesthetic composition of the display to tell different stories. For instance, a major challenge has been to present a whole continent in a room of approximately 200 m2. In this case, the curators have aimed at combining the conventional world map display with a thematic orientation that both seeks to emphasize issues of urgent concern to the people represented, as well as perspectives from current anthropological thinking. Within the geographical frame, the thematic focus is expressed and concretized in multiple ways in the presentation of the various groups of people across the continent. Information of cultural practices alternates with stories of the disappearing rain forest or more recent revitalization of rituals.
This multiplicity also characterizes the design. The combination of old and recent objects, contemporary and historical photographs, and old and new design elements such as the display cases, all contribute to make the display appear as a thematic, visual and aesthetic bricolage. But within this blend there is also a tension. The perspectives of contemporary anthropology are disturbed by some significant aspects by the exhibition design, as this design and the intended message move in different directions. Thus the exhibition as a whole gives an impression of compromise.5 The exhibition appears as an attempt to unite exhibitionary practice with a knowledge paradigm to which it does not belong and even resists. Together with the other permanent ethnographic displays, the Americas display indicates how the ethnographic display is not only a genre not only in change, but also, as it has been for the last decades, in a state of crisis.
Consequently the ethnographic displays in the Museum of Cultural History also has their discontents. The museum staffs are highly aware of the challenges involved, especially in connection to the permanent displays which were installed between 1993 and 2008. The research staffs, in particular, expressed a major concern for what they saw as a gap between contemporary anthropology and the permanent displays. According to one staff member ‘All anthropologists agree that the permanent displays do not work.’6 The staff members identified several dimensions of the displays as particularly troublesome. Some argued that time has long passed from regionally or geographically based exhibitions, and emphasized the impossibility of presenting a whole continent in one room: ‘Presenting Africa on 200 m2 is a difficult thing to do. Imagine presenting Europe in 200 m2. But this is what we do.’
Ethnographic realism as a dominant exhibitionary technique was also seen as problematic. As one curator commented: ‘The more realistic we present other peoples, the more ethical problems we stumble into.’ The way in which the collections and exhibition conventions are rooted in colonial culture and European worldviews, with the resultant stereotypes and exoticism were also conceived as problematic: ‘We provide glossy images of something born out of European myths and European dreams.’ ‘There is so much annoying in these exhibitions that you just have to close your eyes and walk by’ were among the comments made to us.
The frustration expressed by the research staffs is not unique: the discomfort is, of course, widely shared among museum curators more generally. It is also connected to the crisis of representation that marks contemporary ethnographic museums in general. As Alice Conklin has remarked, ‘Curators of ethnographic museums today recognise the problem of past efforts of representation of other cultures, but have yet to resolve them’ (2004: 290). The divergence between contemporary anthropology and ethnographic displays leads Dahl and Stade to suggest that the current crisis of representation in the museum is ‘not so much one of representing others as representing anthropology – or representing anthropology’s self-reflective, theoretically complex representation of others’ (2000: 170). Following this overview, I turn now to a more detailed consideration of the permanent ethnographic displays at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo in a historical perspective in an effort to understand what it is with these displays, or perhaps the ethnographic exhibitionary form itself, that produces such experiences of discrepancy,7 and specifically the use of photographs in relation to such shifting understandings of what ethnographic displays should be and should do.

Photographs as Intruders into th...