Schildkrout: Whether there are Museums that historically have, and/or continue to, describe themselves as art or ethnology museums is not a moral but a simple factual question. The nature of these distinctions is somewhat different in Europe and varies from country to country and museum to museum, but the history is what it is and there isn’t much point talking about it in terms of right and wrong. Curators and artists have to deal with the institutional settings they are given, and only gradually, with enlightened leadership, can they change the institutional missions.
I think one thing that has not been mentioned in this discussion, but that is relevant, is the expectations of audiences and how that defines the way they see and understand objects. I dealt with this subject in an essay in a book edited by Cordula Crewe (“The Beauty of Science and the Truth of Art” in Crewe, Die Schau des Fremden), and also a long time ago in an essay I wrote about the use of irony in the ROM’s exhibition Into the Heart of Africa. The gist of my discussion there, and I would still endorse this viewpoint, is that curators and artists have to deal with the expectations and pre-conceptions of the audience. They are there and in a sense they are part of the exhibition. And, whether we like it or not, audiences in science museums generally expect to receive factual information – facts and Truth, even when good science curators go to great pains to tell them that they are only presenting theories, interpretations, and best guesses. In art museums, visitors have very different expectations and are much more tolerant of accepting irony, subjective points of view, puzzlement and even acknowledging that they do not get the artist’s or curator’s message (but they still might “like” the art). I have always liked the example of Fred Wilson’s upside-down map of the world – in one context it is an ironic statement and makes perfect sense as part of Wilson’s art; in another context it is simply a mistake in an installation.
This is the situation we are given, and we can’t change it unless we acknowledge it and very consciously work with it. A lot of the self-reflexive exhibitions of the 1990s tried to do that, and while that mode of exhibitionism may be out-dated, I don’t think audiences have changed that much and these paradigms still present challenges that don’t easily vanish.