The Archive as Self-Image

The Museum of Modern Art in New York’s exhibition history, now available online, is an invaluable resource for the reading of curatorial practice, but we are being presented with a polished story.

Fra utstillingen Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (Works – Concepts – Processes – Situations – Information) på Kunsthalle Bern, 1969. Kuratert av Harald Szeemann. Gjengitt med tillatelse fra J. Paul Getty Trust, Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, and StAAG/RBA.
From the exhibition Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (Works – Concepts – Processes – Situations – Information), Kunsthalle Bern, 1969. Curated by Harald Szeemann. Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Trust, Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, and StAAG/RBA.

It is with slight bitterness that I recall my own PhD research, only a couple of years ago, for which I had to apply to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Archives in New York for permission to visit two weeks in advance. I had to select the files I wished to view from a dense list available online, but devoid of images. Having been granted permission, I had to travel from Oslo to New York, and meet up at the Museum Archives between the hours of 1.00 pm and 5.00 pm. I could only bring my laptop, notebook and pencil into the Archives, as I had not applied in advance for permission to photograph, in which case I would have been allowed to bring a digital camera. So, instead, I had to mark the pages I wanted photocopied, deliver the list to one of the archivists for approval, and collect the copies later that afternoon against a fee of 45 cent per copy, payable by cash or cheque.  Each copy was stamped “The Museum of Modern Art Archives” with the collection name and file number filled in, for example, “Curatorial Exhibition Files #85”. If one wanted to take photographs for one’s own research records, that was possible, but a sheet showing that same information had to be placed behind the image. Should one wish to publish these that required another application, sent by post.

It has become considerably easier now that MoMA have granted online access to their digital archive over exhibitions since the opening of the museum in 1929. Their webpages offer up documentation of over 3,500 exhibitions with more than 33,000 installation photographs, in addition to press releases, catalogues, overviews of artworks and artists. The exhibitions are searchable by artist, exhibition or curator, and presented by decade. In addition, you can search within performance programmes, film series or other installations, or create your own filters with GitHub. If you need a low-resolution image, you can easily copy it from the website. If you are going to publish it, you still need to go through the image database Scala Archives (outside the US), but without “Scala copyright” plastered over the whole picture. The exhibition catalogue is often unavailable, but in these cases the digital archives show the cover and will take you to the MoMA Store if it is still available for purchase. In the case of Spaces (1969–1970), however, curated by Jennifer Licht, which was the exhibition I travelled all the way to New York to study, the catalogue had been scanned and was available in full online. Grrrrr.

Robert Morris, Untitled. Fra utstillingen Spaces på Museum of Modern Art, New York 1969. Foto: James Matthew. Gjengitt med tillatelse fra The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.
Robert Morris, Untitled. Installation view from the exhibition Spaces, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1969. Photo: James Matthew. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.

More than individual works

It is not only MoMA that has made its exhibition history available online: Centre Pompidou in Paris has published a catalogue raisonné with over 1,300 of their own exhibitions (albeit only in French), in addition to launching the term expologie as an alternative to museology, specifically in relation to exhibitions outside museums and their allied theory. In the Wikipedia-esque archive on Centre Pompidou’s website, you can click on the name of the exhibition curator (“les commissaires d’exposition”), which spins round in a sort of online tombola. If you’re lucky and hit the right one (I landed on David Elliot several times when I was trying to click on Christine Macel) you are taken to a list of exhibitions that the person has curated, and are presented with various information such as lists of works, visitor figures and bibliography, but no installation photographs. This is somewhat strange given that the Centre Pompidou, since its opening in 1977, apparently distinguished itself by retaining a number of photographers with the specific task of documenting their exhibitions, as the French exhibition historian Rémi Parcollet contended in his PhD thesis (Université Paris IV – Sorbonne, 2009). It is an entirely different matter to see an installation shot of works of art placed in relationship to each other, than to peruse a list of works and see individual portraits of these. Much of the essence of curatorial practice resides in the juxtaposition of works of art in a space, and the exhibition amounts to something more than the sum of the individual works, as I argue in my PhD thesis Space as Curatorial Practice: the exhibition as a spatial construct (Oslo School of Architecture and Design, 2016). Installation shots are, in fact, the basis for the relatively new research area of Exhibition Studies/Exhibition History.

In Norway, museum collections have been digitalised since the 1990s, and different databases are employed to access them, for example Primus, which is tied to Digitalt museum and commonly used in Scandinavia, or The Museum System (TMS), which is tied to e-museum and used by several museums internationally, including MoMA in New York. Digitalt museum and e-museum make some of the images of works in the collection publicly available. Last year, there was a large piece in Norwegian national newspaper Aftenposten which celebrated the National Museum as the first in Scandinavia to make available images of 33,000 works in the collection on its website. This gesture came with a free, non-commercial licence, which meant that the images could be freely downloaded and used for non-commercial purposes. This latest gesture related to a selection of individual works in the collection, totalling over 350,000 objects. In the future, the National Museum will store its digital material, which consists, among other things, of 360 degree photographs of the galleries, like the ones one can currently see in the website of the exhibition Japanomania in the North 1875–1918 at the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design.

Skjermbilde fra Centre Pompidous nettside: «kurator-tombola».
Screenshot from Centre Pompidou’s website: «curator-tombola».

Brief history

There are, nonetheless, few overviews of the exhibition histories of Norwegian art institutions. The National Museum only show complete online documentation of exhibitions from the last five years, KODE in Bergen go back ten years in their overview of past exhibitions on their website, Lillehammer Kunstmuseum goes back to 2007, Stavanger Kunstmuseum to 2008, whereas Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum and Trondheim Kunstmuseum only show exhibitions from three years ago, and the Munch Museum shows exhibitions from 2015. Whereas KODE makes available installation photographs, the other museums only have one illustration per exhibition online. Henie Onstad Kunstsenter (HOK) has the HOK Archive online, but this is only an overview of the exhibitions from 1968 to the current day, without installation shots or other documentation, such as that which MoMA has digitalised and made available. Kunstnernes Hus, which together with Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, possibly has Norway’s most exciting exhibition history, has no documentation of this available online further back than 2015.

The Norwegian Association of Curators has, since its founding in 2011, worked on establishing an archive over Norwegian curatorial practice. In this process, the question naturally arose of what should be included in such an archive. “Is there a difference between photographing an exhibition and trying to photograph curatorship?” Anthony Gardner asked at the seminar Of(f) Our Times: The Aftermath of the Ephemeral and other Curatorial Anachronics at Fritt Ord in Oslo on 30 September 2016, the first of a two-part seminar organized by Rike Frank and Beatrice von Bismarck for the Academy of Fine Art at KHiO. Gardner raised an important distinction, because what MoMA have made available is documentation of the finished exhibition, not of the curator’s work as such. There is, for example, no trace of Rene d’Harnoncourt’s intricate models of the exhibitions he curated at MoMA, which we know exist because his daughter recounted how he used to sit in the evening and move works around in the dollhouse version of the MoMA galleries. When I searched in the archives after Harald Szeemann, one of the most famous curators or exhibition makers (Ausstellungsmacher) in the history of curatorial practice, which are now housed by the Getty Research Institute, one of the most important bits of material I found was a felt-tip drawing of a number of concentric circles with artists’ names. This showed which artists’ practices were most central to Szeemann’s exhibition concept for Our World of Things – Objects at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in 1970, curated in collaboration with the Kunstsenter’s director Ole Henrik Moe. This insight into the curatorial thinking would have been difficult to glean from the installation shots of the exhibition, nor did Szeemann refer to it in his catalogue essay.

 Harald Szeemann, skisse til Das Ding als Objekt, 1970. The Getty Research Institute, 2011.M.30.

Harald Szeemann, draft for Das Ding als Objekt, 1970. The Getty Research Institute, 2011.

A polished history

Should the correspondence with the artists, which gives an insight into how the exhibition concept is adapted through a series of compromises (works that are unavailable, artists who can’t participate and the like), be included in the archive of curatorial practice? Should the sponsors’ objections or terms, which indicates the battles between financial and artistic concerns that characterize many exhibitions, be included? With regards to Szeemann’s famous exhibition from 1969: Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (Works – Concepts – Processes – Situations – Information), the name of the sponsor, the tobacco company Philip Morris Europe, was displayed prominently in the catalogue, but we know little about the demands they made – if any – for the money they poured into the project, the total sum of which is also unknown. All these factors affect the curatorial concept and the resulting exhibition, and are part of the curator’s expanded field of practice.     

Making the exhibition history available online, in the way that MoMA has done, is also tied up with the museum’s self-mythologization. MoMA presents itself as a leading institution when it comes to seminal exhibitions and presentations of important artists, for example, in Chief Archivist Michelle Elligott’s highlighting of the fact that Pablo Picasso has been shown 320 times over the course of MoMA’s exhibition history. In this regard, it is important to draw attention to the fact that the institutions that have come the furthest in the archiving, digitalization and publication of their own exhibition history, also have the “cleanest” archives. This means that the story that is being publicly presented is devoid of any potential controversy. In the archives that MoMA has made available one would be unlikely to find the word “fascism” scrawled in the margin of an auditor’s report from 1971, as was the case with Moderna Museet’s Archives. In fact, none of the backstory, the correspondence with the artists, letters from the sponsors, the budget etc. is available through MoMA’s online archive of exhibition history. In order to view these, you still have to travel to the physical archives, and even then, you’ll still be presented with a polished version of historical events.  

MoMA’s publication of their exhibition history enriches the reading of curatorial practice by showing its spatial dimension through installation photographs of the exhibitions – works of art in juxtaposition in a gallery space – in addition to the lists of works and the overview of participating artists. Nevertheless, this presented material gives the impression of a seamless process from the concept, as described in the press release, to the exhibition, as presented in the installation images. Given that we have not come as far in Norway in making the exhibition history of museums and other institutions available, we have the opportunity to go deeper than MoMA. I would, therefore, encourage these institutions to show as much material as possible, also the murkier side, of how an exhibition is created: the compromises that had to be made, the paths that had to be chosen, the spatial problems that had to be overcome. Before we get there, it would be great if the exhibition history of Norwegian institutions could be digitalised and published at all. Something is better than nothing.

Installasjonsbilde fra utstillingen Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, på Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gjengitt med tillatelse fra The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.
Installation view from Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.