The first Research in Translation workshops were a rich learning experience which have left me with a lot of questions about the possibilities and problems of devising meaningful exhibitions which communicate research but also become catalysts for new ideas and directions.
My background is as a Fine Artist who has wandered haphazardly into first writing about art and then writing about visual culture, everyday life and rural places. I’ve spent some time working in different sorts of art gallery; public and private, contemporary and historical, and one of the most startling things I realised over these two day workshops was how different galleries are to museums and how out of my comfort zone I am.
Firstly let’s talk about display cases. In contemporary art practice you put something in a display case and you are introducing a stack of references and connotations. Jeff Koons put a basketball in a vitrine and bam! It’s all about fetishization of the object in postmodern consumer society. Susan Hiller places random objects in archive boxes all housed in big glass case and we’re into the territory of institutional critique with a side order of memory and psychoanalysis. These structures are loaded with the power to change the objects displayed inside and it feels really strange for me when they are treated as if they are as semiologically transparent as they are physically. I’m sure critical museology also has a lot to say about display cases, after two days I’m certainly no expert. However, I can see that from a practical exhibition design perspective the damn things keep objects, safe, dry, away from sticky fingers and out of visitors pockets, so what’s the alternative? This is something I am keen to explore.
We had the opportunity to view a technological alternative in the form of table sized tablet computers, which allow the viewer to access multiple images and pieces of information, enlarging and juxtaposing content at will. While I could see some of the possibilities this technology, especially in terms of allowing visitors to interact more meaningfully with book and archive materials, it paradoxically somehow feels like an impoverished encounter which etiolates the material connection with objects.
The second big difference is how we feel about clarity. Over the two days we talked a lot about making things clear. Guidelines for good practice in writing interpretative text for museum exhibitions emphasise this virtue: one point per sentence, one theme per paragraph, write as if the reader were a 12 year old child, use an active voice, create a narrative, start with the object, it is frustrating when the label does not answer the questions you want to ask…
How to anticipate all possible questions, why shouldn’t the object remain mute, refuse to give away its secrets, provoke the viewer – by its silence – into flights of imaginative fancy or perhaps rigorous research of their own. There is also a value in ambiguity, of letting objects speak for themselves and to each other. Allowing space for audiences to join up the dots, or create new patterns and connections altogether. Is there room for this approach in Research in Translation? Every act of translation is an act of re-making and in this process I am excited to see what new connections, ideas, theories become apparent.
Dr Rosemary Shirley is a Senior Lecturer in Art History at Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University.