second year: 1998 series of lectures: lectures / conversations with lecturers / lecturers

course for curators of contemporary art: course participants / study excursions / program collaborators / exhibition /


Stephen Bann
Display Across the Ages

What I want to do in this brief essay is to focus attention on the broader history of the concepts of exhibition and display which underlie the practice of the contemporary art museum. I make no apology for going far back in time, and involving examples which seem at first sight to have no connection with the present. In my view, we have greatly underestimated until quite recently the multiple origins of the present-day museum. It is beyond dispute that the hegemonic tradition of the last three centuries has been the creation of the type of the Musée des Beaux Arts: that is to say, a historically-based, culturally exclusive collection of masterpieces displayed according to national schools: Italian, French, German etc. This is the type demonstrated in institutions like the National Gallery in London, or the Louvre in Paris.

However it may well be that this model has little to do with the wider traditions of display that anticipate the strategies of showing contemporary art at the present day. We do of course now have 'museums of modern art', like the hallowed example in New York, which establish a historicized, authoritative version of the art of the twentieth century according to the Beaux Arts model. But perhaps these museums already seem to be little old-fashioned, and certainly they cannot serve as a pattern for the many different strategies which we have to devise in presenting the art of the more recent period: that is, our own end of century period, when it has been possible to turn a deconstructive eye on practices that were simply taken for granted in the mid-century. What I shall do, then, is consider one or two apparently aberrant museums, and also look at the broader development of systems of display from the end of the Middle Ages onwards. Why should this be important to us? The answer is quite simply that the Beaux Arts model in fact suppresses types of objects, and types of spectator relationship with objects that have been a strong feature of this earlier period. For example, the present-day curator has to cope with the demands of the 'installation'. What is installation? Certainly no one would call the room in the Louvre where Mona Lisa is displayed an installation. That is for many reasons, and among them the fact that all the paintings in the great gallery are framed: not only in the sense that they are securely ensconced in their protective wooden boxes (in the Mona Lisa's case, within a further casket of protective glass), but also because the paradigm of works surrounding Leonardo's masterpiece dictates to us: great Renaissance paintings from the Italian school. By contrast, the installation requires a freer, more open investment of the gallery space. In fact, Julia Kristeva has spoken eloquently of the fact that the installation puts into play the spectator's whole body, not only the sense of sight, but also touch and maybe hearing as well. What does this tell us?

It tells us, in the first place, that we should look further than the well-policed gallery to understand the process that takes place when we look at a modern installation of this kind. Curators might start by looking at the history of the very word that they use to describe themselves. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word comes from a Latin root, and originally means 'overseer, guardian, agent'. The primary sense, in terms of Latin law, is that of a person appointed as guardian for a person legally unfit to conduct him or herself such as minor or lunatic. In the secondary sense, the curator in the Middle Ages is someone who has, what we call in English a 'cure of souls', in other words someone in a clerical role, a priest. There is pleasant quotation - the first recorded in the English language and dating from 1362: 'Curators should keep them clean of their bodies'.

Curators then were keepers of souls and bodies. But in the 17th century, they acquired the meaning that is broadly held today: an officer in charge of a museum, art gallery, library, or similar institution. There is an enigmatic quotation from John Evelyn's diary (1661) when he refers to experiments being conducted by the royal society, the first body of scientists to form a group in England. He writes of an experiment with an underwater chamber: 'In which diving bell a curator continued half an hour under water'.

So at this stage, the curator was a kind of guinea-pig taking part in dangerous experiments. Maybe things have not changed all that much today! By 1667 there were curators at the Royal Society in England and by the end of the next century there were curators at the British Museum. Incidentally, the word 'curatrix', a female curator, is much less widely used than its masculine counterpart, but when it is used the primary sense is a female healer or curer, which might not be inappropriate.

If one looks at the word 'exhibition' in the sense of a public display of works of art, and also the place in which that display is held, there is a clear modern origin for the usage. It is the regular 'Salons', to choose the original French name for them, which were held at the behest of the French Academy, and later the Royal Academy of London, that establish the modern meaning of the term 'exhibitions'. Actually, the French Salons, which became annual events in Paris from the 1830s onwards, were never known to people at the time as 'salons' (as historians now tend to call them). Contemporaries always referred to 'L'exposition' - the exhibition - because this annual event was the only such showing permitted. You will all know, of course, that this exclusive nature of the annual salon started to break down in the 1850s, when Courbet began to show his work on a personal initiative, painters like Delaroche and Schefer were given what we now call 'retrospectives', and finally Manet persuaded the authorities to find room for a 'Salon des refusés'.

What turns out if we trace the word 'exhibition' back to its earlier usages is that the term is inextricably associated with the vocabulary of religious display. A quote from 1663 talks of 'the ancient exhibition of gracious promise'. One from 1692 has 'the exhibition of the Messiah'. Interesting, in the 18th century, the English theorist of the picturesque, William Gilpin, writes of 'the windings of a noble river, or some other exhibition'. So you see that a river could be a kind of exhibition in the 18th century, and perhaps, with the growth of 'Land Art' it can be again today.

What I conclude from this rapid survey of the history of words, set in the context of the divided history of museums, is the following. There are perhaps two alternative modes of organization and classification which have become inextricably interfused in what we call contemporary art. On the one hand, there is the systematic, rationalistic model, which derives from the setting of academic norms by the various national academies in the post -17th century period, and above all, from the rise of the History of Art as a profession in the 19th century. On the other hand, there is the personal, subjective motivation - dependent perhaps on what Marcelin Playnet has called 'the age-old contract passed by the unconscious with religion'. If you open up the 'isms' of modern art - Impressionism, Futurism, Constructivism etc. - you will find individual artists underneath. Similarly, if you scratch the surface meanings of the words we use in connection with the promotion and display of art - curator, exhibition etc. - you will find traces of earlier practices which are, almost invariably connected with the cultic and ritualistic display of objects in the medieval church.

What then does this tell us about the opportunities for the contemporary museum? I am certainly not arguing that there is an unbroken continuity of development from the Middle Ages to the present day. But I am suggesting that the very discontinuity of historical stages is what is important. Essentially I am convinced by Michel Foucault's argument - in which he repeats the essential insights of Nietzsche - that history is best understood in terms of distinct epistemological systems (the epistemes) within which the cross-disciplinary structural connections are more significant than the apparent continuities over time. Nevertheless I believe that we are at present living trough a period in which there is considerable evidence of a paradigm shift - whether we call it a shift from Modernism to Post-Modernism hardly matters. In this context, the alternative models of exhibition and display which can be perceived in their historical context acquire an unexpected relevance to our own situation.

In line with this argument, I offer for study first of all a medieval drawing of the High Altar of St. Augustine's Abbey at Canterbury. Canterbury was, during the middle Ages, a place of pilgrimage which commemorated the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket in the 12th century, and it also contained, in the great abbey a short distance from the cathedral where Becket's remains were exhibited, the tokens of the first arrival of Christian missionaries in the southern part of Britain in the 6th century. You can see at the centre of the altar the writing which identifies the 'books sent by Gregory to (the new Archbishop of Canterbury) Augustine'. You can also see the two reliquaries involving pointing hands, which would have included body parts of the saints, jealously guarded by the monks, and thought to perform miracles by the faithful pilgrims.

What you do not see here of course is extraordinary ambience of the great Gothic pilgrimage church, which is precisely a space for concentrating light upon the gorgeous surfaces of the crosses and reliquaries, and causing the many precious stones encrusting them to sparkle and gleam. Louis Marin has written effectively about the way in which, according to the theories of the Abbot Suger of Saint Denis, the stained glass of the Gothic church transforms lux, the light of the outside world, into lumen, a symbolic light which irradiates the inner space and makes it a prefigurement of Paradise.

One can note many things about the context of 'exhibition' in the medieval church. One of them, certainly, is the prevalence of body parts among the objects put on display: these would not always be visible, except in the form of a mimetic envelope like the pointing hand, but their presence would always be sensed, and they would underline the fundamental Christian message of the resurrection of the body. The other is the premium placed on the transformation of an inner space through light. Both of these themes, I would suggest, are directly relevant to the way in which we should think about the display of contemporary art. On the one hand, the body is an omnipresent reference - whether in the disseminated form postulated by Julia Kristeva of the contemporary installation, or the direct form preferred by a host of present-day sculptors like Antony Gormley and Damien Hirst. Is this the glorified body of the medieval martyr? Obviously not. But the kind of transcendence implied in the use of direct moulds, or actual bodily tissue, in an artistic display, exists in my view in a dynamic and contradictory relationship to the religious tradition.

Equally, it would be fair to say that the use of light, though clearly bound up with purely functional considerations, has acquired a further, much more momentous significance in the display of contemporary art. Perhaps the decisive step in thedevelopment of the Beaux-Arts museum type was the provision of overhead daylight lighting, which was a notable feature of Sir John Soane's pioneering Dulwich Museum, erected in the early 19th century. The Louvre also adopted this system for the first major galleries, along the Seine, which formed the Musée Napoleon in the first decade of the same century - though endless problems with the constructional aspect of the overhead glazing were from the start, and have remained, a feature of this mammoth of all museums.

However the requirements of the contemporary artists clearly go much further than the provision of an even light, distributed from above. In particular, one can mention the part played in the installations of numerous artists by conditions of near-obscurity, whether for the showing of the video and slide projections or for the creation of more complex effects. The work of Christian Boltanski, to use only one example, quite deliberately exploits the connotations of the church interiors, offering us crypt-like spaces, dimly illuminated and with images displayed in a quasi-sacral fashion. His use of shadow projections, often involving candles, may recall the philosophical myth of Plato's Cave, where imperfect visions of the true and the good are manifested, rather than the transcendent illumination of the Gothic church. But in all events, it is the case that light and its absence work symbolically to define the conditions of perception.In the history of modes of display in the European context, the next major phenomenon after the pilgrimage church is probably the 'Cabinet of Curiosities', related to the great treasuries (Shatzkammern) built up by medieval and Renaissance potentates, but often existing on quite a modest scale and directed towards quite different purposes from the ostentatious display of power and wealth. It is a fundamental point that these cabinets were often small-scale and belonged to modest bourgeois, or minor aristocratic collectors. Some benefited from the European-wide connections of a great merchant family, like the Amerbach cabinet, which is now distributed through the various museums of the city of Basel. Others, like the uniquely complete but small-scale cabinet of John Bargrave, a Canon of Canterbury cathedral, were built up during periods of travel throughout the continent and served a plurality of purposes: to include scientific and optical instruments, travel souvenirs, antique statuettes, coins and the 'wonders' of the nature.

The Polish scholar, Krzysztof Pomian, has done a notable job in clarifying the concepts of 'curiosity', which provided the unifying feature of these collections. He has in fact suggested that curiosity was a regime of knowledge lying between religion and science. That is to say, the particular attachment to objects displayed by the collector at this stage took leave of the religious, cultic values which I have briefly dealt with in the connection of the pilgrimage church, and yet stopped short of the modern, scientific outlook. For the scientist, an individual object makes no sense: it is necessary to have classes, and species of objects from which inductive reasoning can draw general principles. It is easy to see why the great founders of the scientific method in the 17th century - men like Descartes and Francis Bacon - openly condemned the attachment of collectors to bizarre and marvellous objects, whether they were the work of nature or of human ingenuity.

Significantly, however, there has been a vast renewal of interest in this once despised area in the past few years. And this is not only because historians have begun to take an interest in what undoubtedly forms part of the essential genealogy of the modern museum, but also because artists have started to produce works which invoke, often very strongly, the aesthetic and epistemology of curiosity. I think of an artist like the Frenchman Hubert Duprat, whose show at the Musée Picasso, Antibes, in Summer 1998 includes numerous small-scale, exquisite objects relating to this historic taste: tiny, jewel-encrusted cases constructed by the larvae of the caddis-fly, and structures a coral bound together by soaked bread, to name but two. In France, this paradigm for the contemporary arts has even been recognised to the extent of providing a special museum for it: not a purpose-built modern museum, obviously, but a Renaissance chateau in Poitou, The Château d'Orion, where the pre-existing decor of School Fontainebleau frescoes and emblem cycles complements a collection of works which suggest a contemporary, revisionist form of 'curiosity'. Artists as diverse as Daniel Spoerri, Wolfgang Laib, Ian Hamilton Finlay all have their place within this configuration.

The Château d'Orion is a wonderful exercise in comparative display. It presents visual images from the Renaissance era, which we can understand through a hermeneutic exercise of projection, and side by side, or often in the same space, it offers the distinctive and fascinating objects which some of the most creative contemporaries have devised. It achieves a temporality which is, in any case, quite different from the normal museum or gallery, whose 'seasons' are no more significant in relation to the time of year than the traditional salons (such as Paris' Salon d'Automne) have always been. Finlay's Battle of Midway, for example, can only be installed at a period of the year when its component rose-bushes are in flower. The plants are there, however, not in their own right as products of nature only, but as cultural referents - emblems of the ocean, as one might find in an emblem displayed on a nearby wall. Duprat's caddis-fly cases can only be put together when life-cycle of the insect starts with the Spring. I believe that there is much to be gained from examining the conjunction of 17th-century modes of visuality and those of this important direction of late 20th-century art, just as there is much to be gained from examining the new lighting conditions required by much contemporary work against the background of symbolic uses of light, whether in the gothic 'illumination' of sacred space, or the 'enlightenment' project of the modern museum. For instance, Sir John Soane was definitely not seeking to mystify his visitors when he devised the new overhead lighting for the Dulwich museum. And in his own personal museum at Lincolns Inn Fields - still the most remarkable surviving museum of its kind in the world - he virtually sets up a progression of stages, from the Egyptian gloom of the cellar with its ancient sarcophagus, to the cluster of classical mouldings around the central lantern, in such a way as to guide his visitors from the realm of ignorance and obscurity, to the true light of modernity and reason. Contemporary museums are less programmatic. But I detect in the spectacular example of the Abteimuseum at Mönchen-Gladbach, by the Austrian architect Hans Hollein, a comparable wish to make use of the verticality of the building in order to diversify the conditions of light in space. It is appropriate, in this case, that kinetic works of the 1960s involving artificial light should be placed in the basement, whilst the top galleries are suffused with brilliant white light suitable for displaying the large canvases of Cy Twombly.

I have one further example to mention in this brief survey of the conditions of display in contemporary museums, and their relevance to the historical dimension. Dominated as we are by the model of the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which has always, or at least since the early 19th century, seemed to be the model to which all other museums aspired, we have perhaps neglected to see that there are more fruitful parallels between museumsin general and the contemporary project, than between these two in many ways antithetical cases. Jan Hoet was right to use the spaces of a natural history museum in Kassel as one of the display areas for his Documenta exhibition. Only certain kinds of work could share their display areas with the specimens appropriate to such a museum of the natural worlds, but the conjunction was nevertheless a fruitful one. In the last few years, indeed, it has been widely recognised that the conventions of display appropriate to these other museums - quite unlike their Beaux-Arts counterparts - can put us in touch with earlier stages in the history of visuality which have become relevant to the present day. The fact that only in such museums is it still possible to observe the important early 19th-century display device of the diorama - invented by Daguerre before he went on to perfect the technique of the photograph - gives them a clear relevance to some of the interesting optical and photographic techniques utilised today.

But no less relevant than the natural history museum as a model is the historical museum: that is to say, the museum explicitly devoted to recreating the quality of life of a previous epoch through assembling and ordering historical objects. This museum type began in a very specific way, when the French collector Alexandre du Sommerard moved his collection of medieval and Renaissance objects into the old medieval townhouse of the Abbots of Cluny around 1830. Before this date, it had not been possible to observe such a comprehensive recreation of a total milieu, in which furniture, clothing, armour and an infinite number of smaller types of objects found their place. Contemporary visitors to the Musée de Cluny, as it later became known after its adoption by the French state in 1842, were astonished at the sense of envelopment which this setting offered, and proclaimed again and again that it was as if the past had come to life. Du Sommerard even went so far as to place a life-size statue of a cowled monk in the chapel of the building, thus anticipating the innumerable 'heritage' museums in which such a restoration of the past has become popular and inevitably banal.

This kind of museum is, of course, still diametrically opposed to the Beaux-Arts type. But is it unrelated to the modes of display of contemporary artists? Surely not. To take one example, the extraordinary installations of the Russian artist, Ilya Kabakov, try to revive in us the almost suffocating pressures of a private space, littered with objects and evocative of the life of what used to be, for the West, the 'other' side of the Iron Curtain. They are certainly historical, though with the message that only the individual and pathetic record can do justice to the history of our times.


  1. Display in the medieval pilgrimage church: from a contemporary drawing of the High Altar of the monastery of St Augustine, Canterbury c. 1400
  2. Contemporary installation: Jason Rhoades, My brother/Brancusi, 1995