When a museum exhibition ends, all we’re left with are memories.
Well, that and a catalogue.
Museum exhibitions are collaborative projects, culminations of the work of many people with a variety of skills: curators, designers, preservationists, editors, installers, security personnel, public relations departments, education departments. These people work to bring together art or artefacts to tell a story, to answer questions, to ask new ones, and to invite its viewers to participate in that process by viewing the results and providing their own feedback.
There is one very important contradiction embedded within the notion of the museum exhibition: these are temporary presentations by institutions interested in permanence. Even displays of the ‘permanent collection’ will be refreshed from time to time as new items are acquired or others are de-accessioned.
Museum exhibitions are also compromises, primarily due to budgetary and temporal constraints. Exhibitions are human endeavours, and as such inevitably fall victim to human error. I think this is what gives them their charm, though. A misspelled object label, a wobbly vitrine, a touchscreen that constantly needs to be rebooted – all evidence of the tension between the temporary and the permanent.
When possible, museums publish catalogues of their exhibitions. These books range in budget, quality of scholarship, and release date depending upon numerous factors. Some exhibition catalogues are lavish, full-colour affairs with professional photography; others are brief, low-budget pamphlets handed out for free by museum security during the exhibition. Still others are so lavish and so thoroughly researched that they aren’t even able to be published during the opening dates of the exhibition itself, unavailable for months or, in rare cases, even years after a major exhibition has closed its doors.
Other than a visitor’s own personal photos (if allowed), or some themed merchandise acquired in the exhibition’s gift shop, the only physical manifestation of an exhibition after it has closed tends to be its catalogue. Although the catalogue has its own form of haptic interaction, its two-dimensional, linear representation of an exhibition’s content lacks the other sensory elements that are crucial to the experience of an exhibition: the juxtaposition of physical objects in space, the temperature and smell of the room, the sound of footsteps and voices reacting to the objects on display, the videos or audio recordings that supplement the silent objects in vitrines.
Exhibition catalogues are not the exhibitions themselves, neither could they replace them as André Malraux – proponent of the ‘museum without walls’ of illustrated art history books – wanted. Museum catalogues are echoes of the exhibition they represent: tastefully printed echoes, ruins on paper, the skeletal remains of the work that went into the creation of a particular gathering of objects in a particular time and place.
A catalogue is a method of recording, but it is no substitute for the original.
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