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Art and Artefact. The Museum as a Medium book review


Art and Artefact. The Museum as a Medium by James Putnam is just the right book at this point in time, for where I am at with my MFA practice.

Over a few blogs I will talk about bits from this book, bit that have made me think, analyze my practice and also artist who I have been looking at for a while any way, but who’s practice now make a lot more sense.

This book is really a must for any artist who deals with collection, museological approaches and has a fascination with the Cabinet of Curiosities/Wunderkammer/Kunstkammer.

The first chapter discusses the museum effect, the approaches that museums use for their display methods and how that influences how we see/read items. Then it goes on to talk about art or artifact and how we as artist are all collectors of trivia and worthless items, that we transform into something worthy.

A museum is just a large container to exhibit things in, as just like a container it has boundaries and this provides parameters for display.

We have come to believe that the museum is synonymous with originality, authenticity and unique & rare. The display methods of isolation and labeling enhance this perception. Because what museums do very well is, isolating objects from their original context and thereby reframing it for isolated and more concentrated viewing.

By removing all the other distractions there is a tendency to transform even the most mundane objects as unique, vulnerable & precious. The display methods they use reinforces this, as a glass case suggest untouchable and unattainable, even rare, especially if they are single items.

Group display instantly suggests relationships between them, this is further strengthened through the use of labeling, presentation used and arrangement of items. This suggests a strong Taxonomic approach, one that became the norm in the late 17th century as knowledge of the wider world became greater and a need to ‘sort’ this knowledge.

Within art works, the museological display method used are often also supported by archeological approaches. Where excavating, salvaging & gathering, sorting, naming & classifying followed by preservation are very much part of the process of creating the work.

Mark Dion and Susan Heller both use these methods of collecting and subsequent display. Dion who has great interest in the discursive qualities of the historical Wunderkammer contents. For him they resemble the back room of a museum, where storage of items is not always ordered through a formal system, a much more informal type of collection.

Dion’s Tate Thames Dig is a perfect example of this combination of Archeology with Museological display. He and a group of volunteers combed the foreshore of the Thames at low tide along two stretches of beach at Millbank and Bankside, near the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) and Bankside Power Station, which would become Tate Modern the following year. As with Yard of Jungle 1992 (Museo Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro), where he literally removed and examined a yard of jungle floor, Dion focused on a natural, historical constant. In this case, he turned to the banks of the River Thames, looking for fragments of individual and ephemeral histories. London’s location, its growth and its fortunes can be attributed to the Thames. The two sites yielded a wide variety of artefacts and tokens of life as lined Millbank on the north shore of the Thames and Bankside on the south. Working over a number of days, Dion’s team collected large quantities of items, including clay pipes, vividly decorated shards of delftware, oyster shells and plastic toys. The finds were then meticulously cleaned and classified in ‘archaeologists’ tents’ on the Tate Gallery’s lawn at Millbank during the summer of 1999.” (To read more go to: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/dion-tate-thames-dig-t07669/text-summary)

This meticulous approach to collecting and cleaning and then the display methods used by him has many of us believe that the items could have been excavated from an important historical site. This is the power of museum display methods. When I was initially confronted with this art work, a couple of years ago, I really questioned the work and how it could even be conceived as art. Now a few books later, with lots of reading and critically analyzing things I understand it better. And find it a very interesting form of art, one that combines fact with fiction.

Susan Hiller used a similar approach in her ‘Fragments’ exhibition. http://www.susanhiller.org/Info/artworks/artworks-fragments.html. What is interesting in this work, is that most of the ‘display’ are gouache drawings of sherds, not actual potsherds from Pueblo Indian pottery.

This use of some real but also fictitious or fake artifacts within a work is a method employed by many artist who play around with the museological approach. This is often ‘supported’ by:

  • Display boxes that are synonymous wit archeological methods (Hiller’s From the Freud Museum work shows this very well)
  • Specially created wooden cabinets – much of Mark Dion’s work is presented in these.
  • Use of pseudo-scientific data such as field notes, photo’s, maps & drawings and even sound recordings (Fontcuberta & Formiguare used these with the work Fauna. For this work they created a fictitious Professor Ameisenhaufen, who’s collection Fauna belonged to. This turns the artist more into a script writer, one who creates an imagine world and adds all the props of that world to complete the character)
  • Use of real and fake artifact together
  • Much of these works appear to be autobiographical, either based on a real person or a fictitious one.

Employing these approaches enhances the illusion of fact within the works, but at the same time comments about the absurdity of the museum and its way that we believe all that they ‘tell’ us.


An interesting quote within this book was:

‘Knowledge has everything to do with presentation” by Joan Fontcuberta.

This quote has many layers, as it can be described to all aspects of life:

Does a museum (or a business for that matter) have knowledge because it presents items well, clean and tidy?

Do we as people have more knowledge if we present ourselves tidy & clean?

Does art have more knowledge & layers when presented well?

What is or makes a good (art work/) presentation that is layered with knowledge?

Once I started to think about this quote I became a bit side tracked. But it did make me think how we have become very regimented in our lives with experiences.

For example: Displaying something on a plinth makes it special, because we isolate it and remove it from it’s context. But does that make it special? Or maybe it does not fit the whole collection and has to be separated, placed on it’s ‘naughty’ place? It is the odd one out and we want to pick on it, make an example of it? In human life separation from the pack is never a good thing (it makes you an out cast, unwanted), so why does this form of treatment make something special in a museum or as an art work?

How can I challenge this within my work? Not sure, something to ponder over, while I continue reading this great book.


Author: elle

My journey in the arts world, while my fascination with the plant world continues to grow, expand and being challenged.

2 thoughts on “Art and Artefact. The Museum as a Medium book review

  1. Sounds great Elle, great musings on it too. I have only just ‘discovered’ Susan Hiller and have a book of some of her talks and texts that is from the Whitecliffe library. I Will give it a go and see if it may be useful for you too. Joan Foncuberta has an interesting page on Facebook but only rarely posts in English so it can be hard to understand his interesting images. 🙂

  2. Thanks Elle, I’m a big fan of Susan Hiller’s potsherd paintings!

    I read somewhere (maybe in this book!) that Mark Dion said that everything on display in a museum should be put into storage, and everything in storage should be put on display. This would make for interesting viewing, since apparently the Auckland Museum, and most global museums, have only about 2% of their collection on display! Imagine the chaos! But perhaps that was what Dion was alluding to. The “order” we perceive at the museum is a construction – imagine the “knowledge” we could absorb if we were flooded with objects!

    Putting the back room leftovers on display is also the technique Fred Wilson used in his Mining the Museum exhibition – which had different intentions and interests than your work, but still forced the viewer to reflect on techniques of display and the attendant assumption of power in such displays.

    I think the quote “Knowledge has everything to do with presentation” can be read all kinds of ways. There are all kinds of presentation. The isolated artifact you are talking about is the Western, museological style of presentation, but there are others – a wharenui is a good example of a synthesised environment, where objects are not “isolated” – and this is another form of presentation and another mode of disseminating knowledge.

    On another note entirely, but related to displays of collections, I went to Objectspace on the weekend, and they have a very entertaining show which is several people’s collections of shoes. The layout, and interviews with each person, get into the obsessive psychology of collecting. And of course, there is the “Vault” which always displays a collection – this time it’s Clarice Cliff, from an “anonymous” donor! In this case Objectspace lives up to its name, making me think about the objects in my life and my relationship to them…


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