Radical Museum

In 2016 I taught a graduate class titled Radical Museum.

The full syllabus, including student contributions, can be accessed here.

Since the first days of the institutionalization of collections, museums have been targets for radical thought and action from all sides of the political spectrum. In turn, museums have presented themselves both as bastions of conservative thought and also as safe spaces for the imagination and activation of radically different worldviews. Looking at museums, collections, art galleries, and archives, this class begins with the central texts of critical museum studies, and then proceeds to push those texts in new directions, working toward unraveling accepted knowledge about the museum altogether. What does it mean to allow radical thought into the museum versus radically rethinking the museum as a space? Can we update André Breton’s notion of a museum without walls for a twenty-first context? Is there even a place for museums in the current day? Some of the topics covered will include: the collection and archiving of contentious objects and ideas; thoughts on how to collect objects that no longer exist or that have been actively erased and suppressed; rethinking institutional critique in the current environment; rethinking museums from Indigenous and other perspectives; contemporary artistic and curatorial projects that unsettle museum space and meaning; curating difficult material; and future directions for critical museum studies.

The course is organized through what I call “clutter curating,” a style of curatorial intervention that has been around for more than 60 years but that is gaining currency across the art world. Essentially, objects and items held together by the most tenuous of threads are shown together, often in jumbled or irregular displays. Such curations are visually compelling, and perhaps they are a strategy to intervene in calcified museum display strategies. But just as possibly, they circumvent or sidestep the work of political intervention underway since the 1990s, undoing the work of decolonization undertaken by (some) museums in a search for easier curatorial strategies.

The first 5 weeks of class will be organized as a typical graduate class, with thematically-organized readings and seminar-style discussions. In these five classes we will ground the rest of the class in important museum studies texts. In the second half of the class, we will begin to unravel both the format of the traditional classroom and the traditional study of museums. From that point, readings will not be organized thematically, but instead we will try to find resonance and overlap, in texts, examples, films, and objects that might not otherwise be placed in juxtaposition. Students will bring their own examples to class, and will contribute to the building of a peculiar archive. The classes will lead up to an event – possibly a conference, possibly something else – that we will create together. The idea here is to reflect the form of “clutter curating” in the content of the course, as a way of understanding its potentials and shortfalls, and as a way of critically engaging with the radical museum.

About Kirsty Robertson

Kirsty Robertson is Associate Professor of contemporary art and Director of museum and curatorial studies at Western University, Canada.
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