Milbourne: I have been mulling this question over as I have no experience curating in an “ethnology museum,” although I have worked in university museums, “encyclopedic” art museums, a national museum that is territorially defined, and other exhibition spaces that include a hospital and libraries.
It’s an interesting question because what I found in reading Chris and Marla’s responses is that it just made me like the BM and Fowler more. Interesting exhibitions make for interesting museums, regardless of their purview. And I think such exhibitions make me think more about the museum than the artist. If an artist’s work is good, I will like it wherever I see it.
I would also build on Kinsey’s entry that we need to tackle the notion of the purview beyond an art/ethnology binary. I have just returned from a two-day symposium inspired by the controversy sparked by the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” exhibition. I was invited to speak on a panel focused on curating sensitive topics such as gender and sexuality. There, the great divide was between “public” and “private” museums. National versus community, publicly-funded versus private, topical versus geographically-defined or encyclopedic… all these distinctions will greatly affect how an exhibition is prepared, presented and perceived. I don’t, however, think that one is better than the other for artists. They all pose benefits because visibility is good, particularly when it comes in the context of a thoughtful exhibition.
Each venue brings a different kind of audience into contact with the artist’s intellect and vision. Sammy Baloji being shown at both Tervuren and the National Museum of Natural History is a good thing. They will both bring different dimensions to his work, as will when his work is shown at NMAfA or Museum for African Art in New York. Mary Jo will focus more on the issues of mining and draw connections to other arenas of the NMNH, but this will not diminish the power of Baloji’s work. It will still largely be a solo show. When I likely include his work at NMAfA, it will be in the context of a thematic show in which his photographs will be one of about a hundred works of art. He may well prefer the solo show at the Natural History museum where he gets his name featured in the exhibition title.
On a final note, I wanted to mention the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowships—and I don’t bring this up to be self-serving. This is a program open to artists internationally to conduct research anywhere at the Smithsonian. So, rather than receiving a studio, they receive time and support to work with SI collections, scholars and facilities. I bring it up because what we have discovered is that while most of the artists are nominated by arts curators or other artists, a majority don’t want to work with the art curators. They want to study buoyancy with the physicists at the National Museum of Air and Space, marine bioluminescence with the ichthyologists at Natural History, or bird migration patterns and care with the zoologists. The program is relatively young but has already resulted in inspiring a new exhibition program at the National Museum of Natural History looking at the intersection of art and science and will open with an exhibition featuring the work of former fellow Shih-Chieh Huang. So, it is not just the African artists getting featured in Natural History museums and it’s not always to show a contemporary expression of an ethnological “other.”