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Do we want to engage in topical and timely exhibitions?

Posted Dec 02 2009 12:00am
At the last weekly staff lunch meeting we had a short discussion about the notions of ‘topical’ and ‘timely’ exhibitions. A ‘topical/timely’ (Danish: aktuel) exhibition is one that relates to current social or political events, like for example showing a climate exhibition here in 2009.

One argument in the discussion was: Aren’t topical/timely exhibitions exactly what university museums by definition ought to avoid getting involved in? If university museums are by definition elitist — because universities are by definition elitist, as we discussed in a couple of earlier posts (here and here and well summarised by Adam here) — then their job is not primarily to create topical/timely exhibitions (even though this is an absolutely worthwhile thing to do) but rather to create exhibitions that set the agenda for what will become topical/timely. That is, one would expect university museums to be in the lead museologically, because the rest of the university has (at least in its self-understanding) taken on the role to be cognitively leading.

In a sense this is quite trivial. Going beyond what is topical/timely is what drives not just the world of science and scholarshíp but also much of the world of music, visual arts, literature, film making, fashion, etc. Neither scientists nor artists are content with creating knowledge or works of art that are topical/timely; they want to create new and so far untopical/untimely conceptual worlds, new data, new procedures, which are by definition untimely when they appear.

But many museums — especially, and paradoxically, university museums — still behave as if they stand outside the world of scholarship and creative arts. They want to cater for the current taste rather than change the taste.

And here comes the conondrum: the quest for untimeliness seems to be problematic for us who believe in the positive value of the notion of ‘museum 2.0′ (participatory museum). I mean, how can you wish to restructure the museum with its collections and displays into a user-driven institution while at the same time promoting the creation of new and unseen museum visions and practices? Can you do both without becoming a schizophrenic museum? And generally speaking, how do museums handle the tension between being avantgardish and being populist.

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