Art and Identity: Interpretation and Ethnographic Collections in Regional Museums, Britain, 1997- 2010.
This doctorate examines the redevelopment of ethnographic collections between 1997 and 2010. The collection and interpretation of ethnographic objects has been the subject of much debate between anthropologists, museum studies scholars and curators. These groups have sought, on the one hand, to reveal and, on the other, to resist colonial representations in contemporary museums. These debates, as well as the longstanding concern about the purpose of the museum itself, informs this research which focuses upon the period of the New Labour administration (1997-2010) and the impact of its cultural diversity agendas upon regional museums. It investigates how regional museums have responded to the shifting demands of cultural policies, in particular how specific ethnographic collections have been redisplayed and reinterpreted, and the use of art commissions and artists to do so.
A key method of this doctoral study is, therefore, the site specific case study. Two are presented here: Living Cultures Gallery, Manchester Museum, and World Art Gallery, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. Both have developed the interpretation of their permanent ethnographic collections through community engagement projects involving artists; these projects are the subject of critical and visual analysis. The potential of art to alter the meanings of museum collections or re-position the visitor in relation to them is also explored through the creation of a series of artworks. Thus this doctoral research is conducted not only though the conventional methodological approaches of museum studies, including site visits, interviews with curators, analysis of documentation, but also through applied, engaged creative practice.
The doctorate therefore comprises both a written thesis and art practice. My submission includes seven artworks exhibited in 2008, 2009 and 2010: Postcards from Abroad? (2008), 1960s World, 1980s World (2008), Creating India and Israel (2008), Around the World in Colour, 1960 (2009), Our World in Colour, 1968 (2009), Postcards from Around the World? (2009) and Shrine (2010). These works manipulate museum methods of display and classification to question the idea of truth in the museum, the concept of a world collection and the relationship between museum visitors and museum collections and displays.
The role of the artist in the museum has expanded greatly to become a regular feature of many museums. My written thesis thus brings together an analysis of the intervention of artists in museums, the reinterpretation of ethnographic collections and the effect of a politics of diversity upon regional museums between 1997 and 2010.