THEMATIC EXHIBITIONS: AN APPROACH TO CURATING *
Klio K. Panourgias
The thematic arrangement of works of art is an approach which has
been considered for some time as a method of curation that could deal with the issues of
education and access, which museums and galleries are being urged to promote. Through an
examination of some examples of past thematic exhibitions, culminating in the creation of the
Tate Modern, this paper proposes to discuss the impact of these developments in the fields of
curation, education and art history and ask whether the thematic approach can provide a valid
context through which the significance and meaning of museum and gallery collections can be re-established
or whether they are purely instruments for the popularization and simplification of visual culture.
It is widely agreed that the main purpose of the museum or gallery is to collect, archive, research, display,
protect and interpret objects from the past or present in order to exhibit them to contemporary audiences and
safeguard them for future generations. Established during a time of change in social hierarchies and the formation
of powerful social concerns during the early part of the nineteenth century, the definition of the role and function
of the modern museum was relatively straightforward:
"The formation of the exhibitionary complex involved a break with both [private ownership and restricted access]
in effecting the transfer of significant quantities of cultural and scientific property from private into public
ownership where they were housed within institutions administered by the state for the benefit of an extended general
The display of collections during this time was highly classified and scientific in its approach, reflecting notions of
Darwinian evolution and order in the field of art as well as in science and design. Influenced by the ideals of social
improvement and mass education, the first museums proved extremely popular with most social groups and fulfilled their
Although many different themes have been the basis for most exhibition practices in the Western world for centuries,
the themes of such exhibitions have been almost entirely chronological and historical in their conception and
interpretation. The retrospective exhibition of the works of an individual artist, the chronological display
of a particular period or school, and the national collections housed in themed buildings could all be considered
as having themes and being displayed accordingly. The retrospective has as its theme the work of an individual artist,
exhibitions on the art of a particular era or school is themed through common techniques, subject matter, chronological
proximity or ideological similarities, while a national collection or gallery is themed in as far as it presents
the most significant and important examples of a nation's visual heritage and culture. The case studies examined
here will consider both temporary exhibitions and permanent museum displays which concentrate on common themes
rather than historical or chronological order and discuss their relevance to contemporary curatorial debates and
In recent times, the changing attitudes of curators, art historians and of the public have seen a marked increase
in the exploration of and experimentation with new notions of history and ways of display.
"Overlaid with the more recent sense of an obligation that museums should not merely display their treasures to
the curious and make their collections accessible to those desirous of knowledge, but also actively engage in mass
education, the dilemma is complicated still further today by the entrepreneurial notion of museums as places of
Although a mainly late-twentieth century invention, the thematic exhibition was not unheard of during the
earlier periods of the era. An example worth mentioning is Sidney Burney's exhibition Sculpture Considered
Apart from Time and Place, held in November 1932 at his gallery in St. James's Place, London. Vanessa Nicolson
"...the idea was to demonstrate similar themes that link artists across different periods and cultures by
displaying the work of contemporary British sculptors side by side with ancient and ethnic sculpture;
an apparently timeless, cross-cultural panorama".3
Works by artists such as Gaudier-Brzeska and Underwood were presented with, amongst other things, a twelfth
century Indian dancer and a sixteenth century Italian Bacchus. The concept of thematic exhibitions,
which will be considered here, stems from the idea that traditional art historical classification
and display not only alienate visitors and create barriers for wider participation but also ignore the changes
and different approaches initiated and advocated by current art historical, critical and curatorial thought.
Thematic exhibitions, conceived and curated with appropriate scholarship and seriousness can provide an alternative
way of display which reflects the willingness of early twenty-first century society to look at art with different
criteria and the need to accept and promote new ways of seeing.
'Ahistoric' is a term which has occasionally been used to describe this type of exhibition as the thematic
arrangement of museum collections has been seen as a move away from historical classification towards a purely
aesthetic presentation of works of art. But the term is unhelpful and very contentious.
The placement of a work of art or an object as a museum artefact reflects and underlines its historical value
and position within a historical context. Its very inclusion in a museum collection gives it a historical role
and validity. To remove or subdue these can be seen as doubting or undervaluing this historical position and
therefore the very function and role of museums and galleries.
Some commentators believe that the removal of historical references from works of art promotes
audience alienation and maintains the elitist nature of supposedly public institutions. Others
maintain that works of art should be displayed solely for their aesthetic value rather than for
the exploration of historical relevance or social content, something that detracts a quality of art,
which, as it is widely believed, cannot be described or explained.
Critics have dismissed the validity of such exhibitions on the grounds that they fail to fulfill
the potential of this ‘ahistoric’ brief. Particularly within the museum environment discussed here,
history is something which can not be rejected, ignored or disguised.
These may be totalitarian views but they reflect the problems of display facing museum and
gallery staff who are being urged to improve access whilst not ‘dumbing down’ the aesthetic
and often complex issues presented in displays of visual art.
If these exhibitions are seen as explorations of themes rather than displays outside the realms
of history, they can be redefined as such and reflect the true nature of their validity.
Another difficult concept used by the curators/designers of the exhibitions cited is that of
'universality'. Peter Greenaway refers to the theme of his Physical Self exhibition, the human body,
as 'universal'. In Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art, E. H. Gombrich touches
upon the term 'universal' through his reference to Western painting techniques.
The notion of 'universality', as described by the two curators, refers to the basic themes and concerns
of their presentations and provides a further claim to validity for their choice of content and curatorial
direction. Whilst both uses of the term are contentious, they nonetheless provide the context for thematic
exhibitions which can only be relevant if the ideas and themes examined by them are far-reaching and widely
accessible, and the works displayed are used in their entirety, not only as examples or tenuous links between
aesthetically and contextually insignificant themes. Themes such as the human body or the techniques employed
by a wide range of artists to depict a natural phenomenon, are 'universal' and of relevance to a wide range
of audiences and their experiences. They also provide many layers of information and endless possibilities
for interaction and interpretation.
In comparison to other so-called thematic choices for exhibitions which may or have occurred such as dogs/cats
in art, and other light or narrow-interest subjects, the 'universal' themes cited in this paper and supported
as valid curatorial tools need to form the basis of successful and relevant thematic exhibitions.
The Physical Self: A Selection by Peter Greenaway at the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam
"In the course of its almost 150 year existence, the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam has grown
into one of Europe's most important museums, famed for the great diversity of its collections.
The collections of paintings and sculpture, prints and drawings, decorative art and design cover a
period from the Middle Ages to the present."4
Between 27 October 1991 and 12 January 1992 the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum5 in Rotterdam staged
an exhibition entitled The Physical Self curated by the film director Peter Greenaway. His selection
and display of objects and images from the Museum's diverse collections was the second in a series of
exhibitions by guest curators initiated by the Museum in 1988 when Harold Szeeman, a Swiss exhibition
designer, selected works and curated A-historical Sounds.
Both guest curators were given free access to the Museum's collections and to the
resident curators' expertise and whilst the resulting exhibitions varied immensely from
each other conceptually and aesthetically, many of the issues raised through the parallel
display of seemingly unconnected objects were apparent in both exhibitions. We will concentrate
on the Physical Self exhibition here, examining its content, the ideas behind its curation and
some of the issues and critiques connected to this particular manifestation of the 'ahistorical' or
maybe more correctly the 'thematic' exhibition.
The term 'ahistoric' has been used to describe a new type of exhibition where images and
objects are displayed independently of
"...traditional chronological arrangement. The aim is to reveal correspondences between works from
what might be very distant periods and cultures. These affinities cut across chronological boundaries
as well as the conventional stylistic categories implemented in art history. The classical
classification in terms or material is abandoned too...".6
This description of the 'ahistorical' exhibition by Deborah Meijers is lucid and coherent,
explaining a development which could be interesting and form "an important cultural
phenomenon".7 But, as her
essay continues, she argues that the way some of these exhibitions are conceived and presented cause
them to be contrived and serve only to sustain the power and unquestionable status of the curator.
Within the museum environment particularly it is impossible and undesirable to escape from the
historical significance of the items in specific collections. After all, that is the reason they are
there. Despite attempts by both the curators mentioned above to marginalize or subdue the historic
impact or categorization of objects and images through various methods and devices, something like this
is arguably impossible within a museum environment. The term 'thematic' can thus be more appropriate and
The Physical Self exhibition aims and content are described by Peter Greenaway:
"The exhibition is called the Physical Self and it is made up of items and images exclusively from
the Boymans-van Beuningen collection that comment upon the physical human predicament. It is an exhibition
that addresses the human body, its various conditions according to youth, maturity, health and ageing,
its de-sexualized state (if that is at all possible), the anticipation of its first intimate presence by
those objects especially designed for its comfort and safety, and with a mingled sense of humour,
surprise and some nostalgia, those intimate mortal traces that consciously and unconsciously,
it has left behind".9
The overall theme of the Physical Self was divided into more specific themes dealing with
issues of gender, age and childbirth, the functions of hands, feet, etc., concentrating always on
the physicality both of the human body and of the images and objects chosen for each theme.
In the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, Peter Greenaway explains his motives and expresses
the ideas and issues he wished to explore and communicate through the exhibition. The opening paragraphs
touch upon many of the issues related to thematic exhibitions. The curator discusses the apparent lack of
traditional museum taxonomy and the transgression of accepted classification methods through the parallel
display of objects and images from various parts of the Museum's collections. He combined high and low art,
ceramics, prints and utensils from distinct chronological periods according to their relation to each other
and the specific themes under consideration.
In this respect, the exhibition could be described as 'ahistorical' through the apparent disconnection of an
image or object from its traditional historic place and content. On the other hand, the very fact that it exists
within a museum collection and is displayed within those boundaries means that it cannot entirely lose or
escape from its specific historical and chronological manifestation.
Also interesting was the combination of objects and images spanning the hierarchical structures of
art and design history. Works by Van Dyck, Dali and Picasso were displayed next to anonymous ceramic
pots, utensils and mass-produced typewriters. The exhibition's centrepiece, a contemporary advertising
poster for Benetton was placed in direct antithesis to Old Master oil paintings. Again, Peter Greenaway
appears to be challenging the notion of differentiation between what are considered high and low forms of
expression and communication. Arranged under the extensive, and one could say universal, theme of the
physicality of the human body, its functions, abilities and limitations, the traditional barriers of classification
and status can be broken down. Each person's experience of their own physical self, whether expressed through a
traditional oil painting, the creation of an eating vessel or through the audience's recognition of an object
designed for everyday use, promotes the breaking down of both artistic and social hierarchies.
The first exhibit in The Physical Self is an "unclothed human figure in a glass case. The figure is alive,
breathing, and of palpable flesh. Stripped of anecdotal clothing, it is an image, in essence, male or female,
of the visitor".10 It provides
the context for the exhibition and emphasizes the universality of its theme. The exhibition was not intended to
function solely as a showcase for the Museum's impressive and diverse collections, or as a personal statement by
its curator; it functioned also as an example of how each visitor can bring himself to the works in a museum and
comprehend the relevance of the displayed items to his personal and universal self. It tries also to remove some
of the historical, social, linguistic and cultural barriers that so often affect and prevent peoples' understanding
of themselves, each other and the creative works that surround them.
Throughout the exhibition and in the catalogue that accompanied it, Peter Greenaway's concerns and thoughts
on many issues surrounding art and social history and the functions of museums as mirrors of historically and
socially diverse eras are evident. The curator seems fully aware of the political, ideological, cultural and
educational role and power of the museum and attempts to use this to communicate his revised ideas on how it can
be better exploited.
The diversity and chronological span of the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum's collections testify
to the changing tastes and ideological tendencies of the country in which it exists. Greenaway's way of
exhibiting these items serves to illustrate yet another change in attitudes and a shift in importance:
from traditional taxonomy to ideas of universality and equality. Aware of art historical theories and traditions,
the Physical Self curator attempts to blur notions of nudity versus nakedness, immortality versus anonymity,
high versus low. Although he does not dismiss or ignore the fact of such differentiations, he has tried to
minimize their impact or effect in favour of presenting "…an exhibition that classifies, not with geography,
material, history or artist, but on content and an argument. And a content, it seems to me, of the highest
significance, for the most stimulating and exacting, entertaining and universal of contents is the study of
the human body...".11
At this stage it is interesting to examine what impact the exhibition had on the Museum and what its director
and staff felt they had gained from the experience. In his introduction to the catalogue that accompanied
The Physical Self exhibition, the Museum's director at the time, Wim Crouwel, informs us that the position
of the guest curator was created in an attempt to bring the Museum's collections "face to face
with each other".12 The existence of an
"independent figure" would allow connections to be made and new ideas to be explored. Both the director and his
staff had found the presence of both guest curators, Greenaway and Szeeman, stimulating and emphasized the potential
for cross-departmental co-operation and communication. Apart from revising the way museum items are displayed and
presented to their public, this is the other most important function of thematic exhibitions within the often
regimented and over-zealous museum or gallery environment: the opportunity and stimulation they can provide for
curators to discuss, address and reconsider the significance and relationships between objects and images not only
through their linear, chronological or comparative display but also through themes of relevance and interaction.
Whilst providing a positive basis for the future of museum and gallery exhibitions, possibilities for
cross-departmental collaboration, and encouraging bigger and more diverse audiences for museums and galleries,
these approaches at the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum have also attracted some negative criticism. In her essay
The Museum and the 'Ahistorical' Exhibition,13 Debora Meijers argues that these types of exhibitions tend to
become exercises in good taste rather than valid curatorial tools. Meijers examines both exhibitions mentioned
above within the context of the debates surrounding the role and status of the curator as "a new type or arbiter
of taste" and points out how this form of curatorial practice can alienate and contrive as easily as it can
stimulate and fascinate.
Much of Meijers's article concentrates on the exhibition curated by Harold Szeeman at the Museum in 1988,
against which she launches a serious attack. She pinpoints and reveals many attitudes and characteristics of
the curatorship that she believes drove it to failure. Meijers believes that through the use of the unresolved
and contrived label of 'ahistory', Szeeman achieved little more than the renewal and re-establishment of the
status of the curator as the detached individual, the "guru", who observes from above and whose choice of
exhibits and design of exhibitions aspire to be as, if not more, important as the works displayed, and who
seeks to create an exclusive sphere into which he/she wishes to be assimilated.
The differences between the Szeeman and Greenaway exhibitions are expressed clearly by Meijers: "though both
designers break with the taxonomy of the museum, Szeeman does it in order to attain a higher truth, while
Greenaway 'recycles' the taxonomy to parody it". The taxonomy they both seek to deviate from is formed by the
historical position of the items they have at their disposal for display. The exhibitions they staged are inseparable
from history, however they have chosen to deviate from it.
"These ahistorical exhibitions force us to face up to the fact that the apparently unassailable notions which
art historians employ are constructs. But at the same time they try to ‘repair’ the erosion of the concept of
style and the collapse of the notion of evolution by resorting to means of creating new unity: the 'correspondences'
and the idea of an original, universal style, as well as a sacral area. The works of art are arranged on the basis of
new truths which are presented as universal, despite their strong personal colouring. Regrettably, this essentialism
closes the door which these exhibitions has seemed to open".14
This rejection by Meijers, of the relevance and significance of such exhibitions, stems from a wrong
interpretation of them. Whilst Szeeman appears to have wanted to promote the notion of 'ahistory',
Meijers, who recognizes this as impossible, makes no attempt to re-contextualize the exhibitions and identify
their relevance beyond the boundaries of this definition. If the exhibitions cited were considered as thematic
rather than 'ahistorical', their contributions to a new art history, to notions of universality and affinity
between objects and images, could be seen in a more positive way.
It could be argued that whilst these exhibitions did not achieve what may have been their initial aim of
creating ahistorical displays of art, they have provided an alternative blueprint for museum and gallery
exhibitions upon which curators and other museum professionals could create new, diverse and educational
displays of art. They are a prototype for the possibilities of displaying apparently unconnected items and
can serve not necessarily to transcend art history but simply to make the methodology and tools of the art
historian or curator more transparent.
Thematic Exhibitions at the National Gallery, London
Whilst the National Gallery in London cannot claim to be at the forefront of developments in
curatorial experimentation, several exhibitions staged there over the last fifteen years have
shown a growing interest in displaying works from its vast collection in a thematic way.
Exhibitions such as Bodylines - The Human Figure in Art (18.3.1987 - 17.5.1987),
Gombrich on Shadows (26.4.1995 - 18.6.1995), and Mirror Image - Jonathan Miller on Reflection
(16.9.1998 - 13.12.1998), were all organized with emphasis placed on the theme under consideration
rather than traditional chronological order. Whilst all the works maintained their historical
definition and were displayed in order to reveal and expose art historical methodology, the thematic
approach was chosen as one that could allow visitors to make different connections between works and
provide stimuli for further investigation and future visits.
The interesting features of these exhibitions are that they were all curated either by the
Educational Department of the Gallery or by guest curators. This could be another example of
the need for outside influence on curatorial departments in established museums and galleries
for connections to be made, and new ways of seeing and displaying to be explored.
The catalogues accompanying or stemming from these exhibitions emphasize their curators' intentions
to provide educational stimulation and equip audiences to seek out and establish their own connections
in the rest of the Gallery's collections.
The Bodylines exhibition, mounted in 1987, and the subsequent publication which arose from it,
offered the opportunity to bring together sculptures, drawings and paintings, mainly from the Gallery's own
collections, which would otherwise be seen separately. It urged the public to consider, under the guidance
of its curators, issues relating to one of the most universal subjects in Western art, the human figure.
In opposition to Greenaway's examination of The Physical Self, the Bodylines exhibition examined the universality
of its subject through connections made over different chronological periods and artistic treatment in the entirety,
almost, of Western art, instead of through the connections the visitor could make between him/her self and
the works on display. Rather than presenting the exhibition as a tool for exposing and understanding issues
relating to each person's experience of their own body, the Bodylines display sought to communicate the ways
in which artists have dealt with and used the human body to express artistic diversity and "different types
of ideal beauty".15
The main concerns of the exhibition are clearly art historical but the thematic display can again
provide a more approachable and understandable context. It aims to expose peripheral issues of concern
in art historical study by subduing the chronological traditions of display, both in its conception and
in the subsequent publication.
E. H. Gombrich's curation of the Shadows exhibition also wished to offer an opportunity for uninitiated
visitors to create their own connections and understanding of objects in the Gallery's collections.
In the companion text for the exhibition Gombrich expresses his hope that it "will encourage the visitor
to make his own tour of the Gallery and seek out his own examples".
Once again, the works are brought together as an examination of Western artistic techniques and art historical
issues but with the wider agenda of encouraging audiences to look at and be stimulated by the effect
of shadows in everyday life.
"It [the companion guide] merely wishes to make the reader reflect on the intriguing problem of how
and why cast shadows were included and again excluded from the repertory of Western painters. It will
have served its purpose all the better if it also helps the reader to acquire an eye for the infinite
varieties of light that he can observe both in daytime and in artificial illumination".16
E. H. Gombrich also touches upon the notion of universality in explaining his choice of theme and its
relevance to art history and art experiences: "The example (a portrait by Morandi) is intended to
emphasise again the vital distinction between modelling and cast shadows - the first being universal
in Western art, the second strangely exceptional".
In his exploration of the Mirror Image, Jonathan Miller who is not a curator or art historian by
profession, chose to display works from the Gallery's collection which "examine the ways artists of
different periods have responded to the challenge" of "representing reflective surfaces". His curatorial
input deals with the many issues associated with the representation of reflective surfaces: scientific,
symbolic, social, technical, psychological and metaphorical, offering once again alternatives to traditional art
historical classification. The exhibition is described by the Gallery as "exciting and innovative", "guiding"
the viewer through the complex issues dealt with by the curator. Like Greenaway and Gombrich, Miller is keen
to help viewers recognise and gain an understanding of the works displayed and transfer that understanding
to everyday life and experiences.
The three exhibitions cited are thematic but could never be described as 'ahistorical'. Their aim is to expose
art historical issues and provide visual and educational stimulation for audiences in order to promote a wider
understanding of art, the issues which influence its study and comprehension, and a new way of display that
encourages participation and access by subduing traditional chronological classification and taxonomy.
All exhibitions cited in this chapter have in common the language and conceptions of their curators.
Influenced by changing opinions on the role and status of the curator described in previous chapters,
all the literature that accompanies these exhibitions seeks to diminish the unquestionable and dominating
authority of the curator, using words and phrases such as "investigation", "exploration" and "encouragement",
and omitting previously prevalent concepts such as "masterpiece", "genius" or "history".
Among these examples of temporary, thematic exhibitions within large, established museums and galleries,
there are also cases of large, thematic museums, The Museum of London for example, and examples of the
exploration of themes for the promotion and re-evaluation of a museum's education policy.
The London theme, which governs the Museum of London's collection policy, provides its curators with a
basis upon which to build exhibitions exploring issues concerned with London specifically and urban issues
in general, which as the curator of the Museum's Paintings, Prints and Drawings collection argues
"is after all the main experience we have in common with people all over the world at the end of the
In an attempt to increase visitor numbers and attract new audiences, the Communications Department of
the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam, has experimented with "clustering", based on the idea of
staging a central exhibition aimed at the general public with themes raised through that display examined
in smaller, satellite presentations intended for a more specific audience. The Museum has also initiated
the process of inviting several curators and other, qualified individuals to organize exhibitions or
presentations based on the same theme.
"An exhibition of sculptures by Max Ernst aimed at the general public was accompanied by a small,
art-theoretical presentation of Surrealist photography and a ‘surrealist' arrangement of the museum's own
collection by guest curator Edwin Carels. A major exhibition of 17th century marine painting was
complimented by a selection of Van de Velde's drawings of ships and a photo project by Alan Sekula".18
This is just one of the experimental approaches being initiated by the Museum in an attempt to provide
appropriate and valid ways of display relevant to diverse audiences and levels of understanding which can
be used to legitimise the educational benefits of thematic exhibitions and which recognises and emphasises
the need for museum exhibitions to provide stimulation not only for the uninitiated visitor but also for
the experienced and knowledgeable individuals or groups who seek to compliment and further their existing
interests through challenging and imaginative displays.
Beyond the Realms of History?
The emergence of thematic exhibitions can be seen as the result of much debate regarding the new
methods of display brought about by a perceived shift in ways of seeing. Curators and art historians
as well as social commentators and anthropologists have commented on these issues, and their writings
provide much insight into the current environment of spectatorship which is concerned with issues of
physical and intellectual access, notions of historical and social referencing and cultural democratisation.
Nicholas Serota as Director of the Tate, has an increased interest in questions of audience access to
and interpretation of modern and contemporary art. In his examination of several examples of exhibition
practice from European museum and galleries (some of which were also touched upon by Debora Meijers
in her previously cited essay), Serota recognises the need for change in ways of display and supports the
less traditional methods used abroad, pre-announcing, possibly, the thematic curation of Tate Modern,
which opened in May 2000. Whilst his views on contemporary audience expectations of museums of modern
art do not deal specifically with thematic exhibitions, much of his attention is drawn to the need of
viewers to be presented with alternative methods of display and interpretation.
"We may agree that the encyclopaedic and dictionary functions of the museum are neither achievable
nor desirable. But there is less general agreement on how to balance the interests of the artist,
the curator and the visitor. Some of the larger institutions have began to explore new approaches […] However,
the most stimulating developments have occurred in smaller museums where the sense of institutional
responsibility towards conventional expectations is less pressing".19
The "stimulating developments" referred to are diverse in their form and influence but all gain relevance and
seek to explore principles through dialectic methods of display and the exploration of common themes, issues,
subject matter and technique. The particular curators cited have experimented with various techniques for
creating new frameworks and connections between works by different artists or from different chronological
periods, choosing to exhibit works in ways which encourage personal interpretation. In closing, Serota
acknowledges the need to move away from traditional curating and explores new possibilities for display and
spectatorship, providing us with his interpretation of the new role of the museum curator.
"We have come a long way from Eastlake's chronological hang by school but the educational and aesthetic
purpose is no less significant. ...Our aim must be to generate a condition in which visitors can experience
a sense of discovery in looking at particular paintings, sculptures or installations in a particular room
at a particular moment, rather than find themselves standing on a conveyor belt of history".20
The creation and opening of the Musée d' Orsay in Paris also gave rise to debates on the historical
references of art and whether they should be examined and promoted by the Museum or subdued in order to provide
"first and foremost... aesthetic pleasure to its visitors". On the one hand the Museum was criticised for blurring
the boundaries of its avant-garde display brief by including some works by so-called Pompier artists alongside
Impressionist and later cutting-edge works thus historicizing the collection and providing an experience outside
the essentially aesthetic realm of the Museum's initial commitment. On the other hand, Madeleine Rebérioux
attacks the Museum for containing historical references to the outer peripheries of the collection promoting and
maintaining the exclusive nature of the works presented and including "social and cultural segregation".
"To begin with is it really the case that works of art all sing the same song and that it is
sufficient to display them for everyone to feel pure pleasure? The patterns of museum attendance
indicate that this is not so. The amazing increase in the number of visits has not significantly
modified the social and cultural recruitment of visitors; recent studies [...] have confirmed the
conclusions of Pierre Bourideu: the love of art is unlikely to be felt by those who have not
already experienced it".21
These two differing opinions on the relevance of history to works of art and how the interpretation
of it can help or hinder people's understanding of and interaction with museum and gallery collections,
are central to the future of thematic exhibitions which, as has been supported, can formulate a balance
between the historical significance of works and the personal, interactive responses supported and
initiated by new curatorial interests.
As has been examined earlier, the inclusion, exclusion and interpretation of the historical aspects
and references of works of visual art are problematic issues. In the public museum and gallery environment
being assessed in this paper, historical characteristics are hard or even impossible to by-pass in the
display of collections, and I would support the notion that it is unnecessary to do so. Whilst some curators
and commentators have exhorted that the primary purpose of art museums and galleries is to provide aesthetic
experiences and encourage un-mediated interaction with works of art, others have supported that such approaches
promote and maintain social and elitist divisions and discourage wider participation by audiences who have little
or no exposure to visual stimulation. These are divisions which have characterised many of the debates surrounding
cultural democratisation and which need to be addressed urgently. Thematic exhibitions or at least thematic
approaches to curation can provide partial solutions to this dichotomy by offering alternatives to traditional
or completely unconventional and inaccessible methods of display. Thematic exhibitions informed by traditional
methodology and aesthetic criteria but displayed in a manner that seeks to make and encourage new connections
and interpretations could provide the middle ground or, at least, an additional way of display.
Unresolved these issues will remain, as will the diverse and often contradictory opinions of curators,
directors and other academics and professionals on how to deal with the collective problematics of the display,
interaction and relevance of works of art, most of which are loaded with historic and aesthetic meaning outside
the realms of everyday life and understanding. Whatever the rights and wrongs, differences and similarities,
the most apparent and obvious conclusions to be drawn from these debates are that continuous discussion and
research must be paramount for the assessment of current practices and the formulation of future programmes
which acknowledge the existence of these disparities within the museum and gallery environment as well as in
society as a whole.
Tate Modern: A New Vision for Art
"London is one of the three dominant art producing cities in the world, yet it has had no gallery
devoted solely to international modern and contemporary art. But all that changed on 12 May 2000,
when Tate Modern finally opened its doors to the public. ...Gilbert Scott's 63-year-old power station
transformed into the largest art gallery on the planet; ...Tate Modern also proposes a new way of looking
at the art of the past 100 years, presenting the collection as a series of different stories loosely grouped
around the four traditional genres of history, landscape, still life and the body. This thematic approach
challenges many of the conventions governing the way art is presented and viewed and offers the spectator a
more demanding and enriching experience".22
Undoubtedly, the creation of the Tate Modern was a major and much talked about event both for
the art world and for the public in general. The architectural re-development of the South Bank
power station, the general up-grading of the surrounding areas, and the thematic presentation of
the collection of works of art from the last 100 years, have attracted a great deal of debate.
The themes chosen to represent the history of twentieth century art were: Still Life, Landscape,
The Body and History. Each theme included works of sculpture, paintings, photography, constructions, etc.,
and artists representing the entire chronological span under consideration were exhibited in close
juxtaposition and relation to each other. Regarding this thematic presentation of works of art,
the major issue debated was whether the sidelining of history could or should be pursued in the name
of visitor numbers, especially in the field of modern and contemporary art.
Some experts have argued against the thematic approach, maintaining that a specific theme is undoubtedly
imposed upon a work of art whilst the traditional, historical presentation is, to a large extent,
self-explanatory and thus easier for the "lay-person" to comprehend. Others, such as the Tate director
Nicholas Serota, have argued that "... a historical presentation is [not] any more comprehensible to a
lay-person than a series of thematic presentations".23
Much of the debate has, once again, focused on the difficult question of the role of the
modern art museum: do visitors visit a museum of gallery to learn history or to experience
an art object? The number of visitors to the Tate Modern and the enthusiastic response of
spectators, especially from younger people, to the juxtapositions presented through the
thematic arrangement of works, suggest that visitors prefer and expect the latter.
Another issue of concern in bringing together works of art from different periods of history is
the benefits specific works and artists can gain from such a juxtaposition. For example, what can
a classic work by a recognized and historically accomplished painter gain by being exhibited next
to a contemporary work by an un-established or, at least, un-weathered artist, while the opposite
benefits are obvious? I would argue that the older, recognized and historically superior work can
gain new recognition and relevance when its qualities and value are re-established and re-assessed
in relation to contemporary life and creation. Instead of being seen as remnants of a by-gone era or
examples of a distant and un-fashionable past they can serve to illustrate the continuing and universal
concerns of artists and historical eras.
At the time of its opening, the thematic curation of the permanent collection at Tate Modern caused a
great deal of controversy. Subsequent exhibitions and temporary displays which followed at all Tate
branches illustrate a belief in the validity and success of this approach.
"But the true test of great art is its ability to express the inner realities of life, those
realities that don’t change according to time and place, that have a universal application".24
Whilst this may not be the language or interpretation of serious academic thought or research
it certainly reveals something of the layman's belief in the importance and value of works of art.
Questions about what it is that makes some paintings or images more significant or memorable to
the individual or collective viewer, about the ways interpretations can be made and how personal
interaction with works of art can be initiated are important and should be addressed by museums
and curatorial staff. The universality of art and its effect upon people from various backgrounds
is an issue of renewed interest in the global village in which we are living and has new relevance
to a society which is constantly re-addressing and reiterating social hierarchies and historical
truths. Traditional hierarchical assumptions are constantly being attacked or re-defined in many
fields of academic thought and everyday life, and should form a major part of the re-thinking and
re-structuring taking place in the contemporary museum and gallery environment. Assessments of
quality and value are no longer based on the existence of artistic pedigrees or outdated notions of
connoisseurship but rather on how those features are communicated and interpreted. Thematic exhibitions,
influenced by the various approaches examined in this paper and informed by the diverse and numerous
concerns of modern museology can provide a context for addressing some of the problems and challenges
of our time and society and subsequently of existing and future audiences.
The exhibitions examined and the issues discussed in this paper have all served to illustrate ways
through which museum and gallery staff can begin to address recent concerns over the role of such
public institutions and their interaction with and relevance to contemporary audiences. The rationale
and thinking which influenced the thematic approaches experimented with, seem to have taken into
consideration many issues relating to education, interpretation and the hotly debated subject of the
role of the curator and have attempted to provide alternative methods of display and communication of ideas.
Overall, the thematic curation of exhibitions can be seen as a positive development for museum and
galleries for various reasons. They can provide the opportunity for the display of many works from
different parts of their collections and can often promote the presentation of objects from their
store or reserve collections. They can provide curators, educationalists and other museum staff with
the opportunity to explore alternative and previously unexamined connections between seemingly
disassociated parts of collections, and as these exhibitions often stem from invitations to guest
curators into museums and galleries, they open up and promote the use of 'alternative' curators.
The thematic exhibition also provides alternatives to traditional taxonomy and classification addressing
again concerns regarding social change and historical re-definition. The most important aspect of
the increase in the number and diversity of these exhibitions is that they reveal the recent acknowledgement
by public museums and galleries of the problems caused over the years by the stagnation in curatorial
experimentation and the unwillingness by staff to encourage and initiate interaction with as many and as
diverse members of society as possible.
All the exhibitions cited were staged in large public museums and galleries which house significant
collections of the highest quality and were supported by experienced and expert staff. These conditions
are invaluable in the staging of such exhibitions which can only be influential and relevant if they
are curated under such circumstances. It is important for works displayed in this thematic way to be
considered in their entirety and not simply as examples of a particular theme. Some past thematic
exhibitions or thematic catalogues have repeatedly fallen into this problematic area, providing little or
no opportunity for either curatorial experimentation or the re-interpretation of collections.
It is also important for the future of such exhibition practices to maintain their relevance not
through an abandonment or diminishment of the historical, social and artistic values of museum and
gallery collections but through a combination of the two approaches. Curators must continue to document,
research and interpret the collections under their care whilst cultivating the ability to experiment with
display methods and explore the opportunities of working with other staff and guest curators from various
Thematic exhibitions in their various manifestations can also be seen to address the changes, developments
and new interests of museum education. They appear to fulfill many of these concerns, addressing issues
of diversified interpretation and transgression of traditional classification and attempting to provide
multi-layered information which can assist in the development of visual literacy and the understanding of
aesthetic experiences. It has been asserted that:
"...visual illiteracy may not be a social problem in terms of economic productivity but it does detract
from the quality of life and leads to a cultural impoverishment that is very real. If the value of a
society is measured by its ability to develop fully the potentialities of its members, then the making
of visual beauty and learning how to enjoy it should become important items for society as a whole".25
The above quote is from a study commissioned by the J. Paul Getty Museum and Getty Center for
Education in the Arts, which sought to promote the importance of visual literacy and examine methods
for promoting the understanding and dissemination of art experiences. The study recognizes that each
person's experience of art and the subsequent benefits from it are diverse and influenced by many factors.
Thematic exhibitions can be seen to provide the opportunity for an alternative approach to the way art
and its relationship to society can be examined and communicated.
Many people's understanding of and interaction with works of art are hindered by their perceived lack
of art historical knowledge or exposure to such items, caused most often by the past inability or
unwillingness of museum and gallery staff and general cultural policy-making to provide solutions for
issues of visual literacy and appreciation. Thematic exhibitions, through their re-addressing of the
balance between curatorial expertise and the dissemination of knowledge and a more personalized and
intimate exploration of themes, emotions, perceptions and unifying qualities, can provide the basis
for new ways of displaying works of art. The shift of emphasis towards less strict definitions of
comparative, qualifying assumptions made by expert individuals far removed from visitors’ educational
or social spheres provides a more malleable framework for the exhibiting of items from public museum
and gallery collections. Whether the themes examined relate to universal experiences of the human body,
the treatment of them by artists or their use of specific techniques and sources of inspiration,
they have all provided the context for a new approach to what has to be a multi-faceted re-definition
and re-establishment of the role and function of museums and galleries for the twenty-first century.
* This paper is based on
the research carried out for the thesis submitted to The City University as part of the requirements
for the award of Master of Arts in Museum and Gallery Managment, August 1999
1 Bennet 1995, 73.
2 Vergo 1989, 2.
3 Nicolson 2002, 66.
4 Moffat and Woolard 1999, 23.
5 The spelling
of the Museum's name in English has recently been changed to the one used here. Apart from where
it appears in an older quote with a different spelling (Boymans-van Beuningen Museum), it shall be
spelt in this way.
6 Nairne 1994, 10.
7 Nairne 1994, 7.
8 Szeeman's selection and display,
while disinterested in traditional classification, is essentially guided by the assumptions and
guidelines of art history, aesthetics and philosophy. Greenaway's exhibition acknowledges and
uses the museum environment and its associations to revise but not dismiss historic connections.
9 Greenaway 1991, Introduction.
10 Greenaway 1991.
11 Greenaway 1991.
12 Greenaway 1991.
13 Nairne 1994.
14 Nairne 1994, 19.
15 Woolf and Cassin 1987, Introduction.
16 Gombrich 1995, 11.
17 Interview by the author with
Mireille Galinou, Curator of Paintings, Prints and Drawings at the Museum of London, August 4th, 1999.
18 Moffat and Woolard 1999, 24.
19 Edwards 1999, 279.
20 Edwards 1999, 282.
21 Edwards 1999, 285.
22 Marlow 2000, 3.
23 Daily Telegraph, 7. 10. 2000.
24 Kapur 1998, 131.
25 Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson 1990, 2.
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