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‘Science Lesson,’ Artists work in the museum: histories, interventions and subjectivity, Victoria and Albert Museum (October 2012)

“Artists, curators, historians and museum professionals explore the history of artists as museum professionals, museum and archive as the content of artistic production, the hidden subjectivity of the many artists working in museums and galleries alongside their practice and the dynamic roles they play in 21st century museums and galleries.”      (Artists work in the museum conference programme outline)

 

When even the Directors of institutions such as Yale University Art Gallery and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia are both art-school trained, it is worth looking more closely at what this means and how it happens. The Artists work in the museum conference, organised by Dr Linda Sandino (cross-appointed to a key research position straddling the V+A and the University of the Arts London) and Matilda Pye (who has worked extensively at both V+A and Tate, and was trained at both the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art and the Jan Van Eyck Academy) began to seriously chart this significant territory.

There is a marked difference between coming into a museum as an exhibiting artist, being an artist effecting work for a museum on a freelance contract, and being an artist employed in a salaried position in a museum over time.  I myself have done all three. Further, there are huge differences between art museums, science museums, and museums of material culture and civilisation. Again, I have worked across all these kinds of institutions in one capacity or another, deepening and strengthening my interdisciplinary practice. But the experience most artists have of working with museums – as employees or as exhibitors – is mainly in institutions of fine and decorative arts, and archaeological or historical material culture collections.  Science, natural history, and medical museums are a road less travelled.

I have moved not only between studio and museum, but also between art and science. Not just a ‘stranger,’ as Georg Simmel would have it, in several realms at once, but also a double double-agent of sorts – and it is all that I bring that is of value to each discrete community to which I contribute. My conference paper explored what I bring to museums and how is it valued (or not!) as well as exploring some of the issues when one ‘crosses over.’  When does the artist’s engagement with museums start to become simply ‘working in museums’ and when does the outsider become an insider?  I outlined some of the typologies, patterns and recent historical contexts, before turning to the specifics of my experience with museums of the history of science and those with scientific collections – medical, natural historical and otherwise.

Many would persuasively argue that science itself is a cultural production, and certainly history of science has produced some robust tools for exploring this thesis. But science has its own ‘culture wars,’ and science museums their own conflicts – between collections research and keystage teaching interactives, for example. Parsing the difference between teaching science, teaching the history of science, and teaching people how to think about science is essential here. Sadly, the value to science of arts and humanities methodologies is a case yet to be made in the wider world, let alone in museums. I firmly believe that museums are a good place to work on such a project.

 

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One of the institutions that has chosen to harness the value of the arts and humanities to science is the Wellcome Trust.  Though their approach has a specific focus, it has in turn contextually benefited other more exploratory research and practice.  Among the Wellcome projects I have contributed to in a consultancy capacity is the set of workshops held to develop what has become the Wellcome Collections exhibition space.

At those workshops, just short of a decade ago, I distributed a crib-sheet about commissioning and working creatively with artists in science museums.  Some of the methodological innovations I proposed were quite new then, and sprang directly from my professional experience at the Science Museum (London) and in history of science contexts.

I proposed the identification of research and exhibition subjects that have been historically difficult for museums to embrace, and then inviting artists to work on development teams to address them.  I suggesting that when planning infrastructural upgrades, management workflows, and critical paths for exhibition making, that museums fold in advice on needs and practice from artists and lessons from working with them.  I underlined the importance to project management of designing dovetailed critical paths for museum practice and artistic practice, and entreated museums to create induction manuals for these practitioners.  Ultimately, museums need to work with artists as respectfully as with any other professional colleagues, keeping up to date with artists and their work, meeting people and developing long-term relationships and networks over time.  Time and money are essential here, as with all museum work: artists are not just cheap intellectual sub-contracting for research or education departments.   (pdf of my crib-sheet Working with Artists in Science Museums, 2004)

Of course, many will recognise these techniques and process models from more recent innovations in museum practice – inclusive and participatory museum activities that have sprung in some cases out of audience development initiatives and in other cases out of restitution and knowledge exchange leadership.  I am just as interested in the way in which these techniques enable truly interdisciplinary work to take place in museums.  I will be speaking about the relationship between inclusion and interdiscipinarity in Copenhagen in May 2013 at a conference organised by the Danish Cultural Agency on Social Learning and Knowledge Producing Processes.

In the meanwhile, back at the V+A, the conference that Linda and Matty organised made clear that a serious research programme examining the deep and lasting influence of the artist in all forms of museum practice is an imperative in regards to museum history – and indeed the Museums and Galleries History Group was a partner in bringing this event to the public.  In fact, as we learned from Susannah Avery-Quash’s presentation about Sir Charles Eastlake as the founding director of the National Gallery, London, artists have been effective museum directors since at least the 19th Century. Wunderkammer Press will be publishing a proceedings volume from the conference: I hope that’s just the beginning!

 

Further Links:  Artists Work in the Museum: Victoria and Albert Museum; Artists Work in the Museum Programme; Wunderkammer Press; Martha Fleming on Working With Artists in Science Museums; Collaboration and Co-creation Tools for Museums; Jock Reynolds Director Yale University Art Galleries; Social Learning and Knowledge Producing Processes: Copenhagen

[Image References:  Detail of the reconstruction of the workbench of Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in the Deutsches Museum, Munich; detail from a photo of the Children’s Gallery at the Science Museum in 1949; Gene Sequencer with toy mascots at the Natural History Museum]