The conceptual museologic object

March 2018

Collège d'Etudes Mondiales, FMSH (Fondation Maison de Sciences de l'Homme) Paris

Lecture 'The conceptual museologic object' at Collège d'Etudes Mondiales Paris, Global South Chair, with Françoise Vergès.

nota bene: all images reproduced on this website for research reasons.


Contemporary art is being more and more involved in the elaboration of new museologic display solutions. More than in any other branch of contemporary art, conceptualism (a current in art that established itself during the 20th centry) works with the 'object' as information – beyond its formal presence. I would like to propose a methodological discussion on the contribution that specifically conceptual art can bring into the field of de-colonising strategies. I will refer scientific museums – not art museums – specifically museums of material culture (ethnology museums, natural history museums), which were mostly connected to colonial history writing. What I am pursuing is not a historc analysis of the European museologic contexts, but to discuss the specific ways in which conceptual art conceives 'the object' and deduce from there its possible role for a critically and politically aware transmission of heritage, which inscribes itself in the framework of de-colonising practices and that should be accessible to a broad audience.

The Museum is seen in critical texts as tool of imperialism, patriarchalism and xenophobia and is the object of stringent critique since the late 19th century, accused both of elitism and commercialism. Museums of material culture cannot be separated from their historic role of repository and transmission structure of objects which have been captured, distributed and valued as part of colonial empires and their market of goods. As the museum is a system of inclusion, it is at the same time based on exclusion, dissimulation and asymmetries in value attribution. These construct in time meta-discourses and visual policies around objects. In that sense, the museum cannot be questioned only from the point of view of what and how it displays, but also from the point of view of its politics of knowledge-production, the politics of representation of national values, the politics of value production and acquisition in an economy of luxury goods. Ethnographic museums are by definition sites of mediation: on one hand between the source communities where the objects are originating and the heterogenous citizens of today, and on the other hand between the past and the present. In this translation process ownership of the objects changes, their functions, their meanings. Museums operate also a selection by which making visible some objects, renders others invisible. The complexity of factors which determine these processes is the object of new museologic critique.

Sharon Macdonald1 identifies as the main role of critical museology an applied questioning of the interdependence beween scientific truth, power, knowledge transmission and politics – which the museum represents. These aspects should be related to the micro-politics of the institution – its strategies of representation and its education programs in a evolutionist pattern – but also in wider national and political agendas. The museums associated to the colonial expansion were not merely a site of display connected to a programmed 'modernism', but also sites where its ideals, exclusions and inclusions were formed. Timothy Mitchell (1991, Colonising Egypt) even affirms that by rendering things to view in a certain way (and maintaining the distance between the viewer and the exhibited object), the museum is in itself colonising the world.

Contemporary art has been seen recently as a solution for overpasing a crisis, an impossibility: dealing with museified objects without reloading at the same time the colonial rhetoric which constituted their status as objects of patrimony. Art was seens as a means to finally 'make visible' aspects of patrimony which have been completely effaced by history, neglected, misread or voluntarily distorted by historic museology.

I will proceed by analysing some case studies of artistic interventions in museums, in order to differentiate between what I call on one hand a scenographic/aesthetic museologic approach and on the other hand a conceptual, critical approach – that I will comment upon theoretically in the second part of my talk. I will point to the different ways in which these approaches conceive the role of the museum and influence the reception of its patrimony.




Often museums themselves regularly contract and involve contemporary artists in order to reformulate or reshape publicly their own symbolic capital in a specific cultural context, as a solution for re-integration in urban circuits and for revitalisation. But frequently these initiatives are just formal solutions which hardly touch on meaning production and critical self-analysis determined mostly by interest of funding bodies and governmental apparatuses which implement programs without continuity and which do not envision radical institutional reformulation. It is always useful to ask what political or cultural agendas are guiding these initiatives. Hal Foster talks as early as 1995 about the dangers of these approaches in his article 'The Artist as Ethnographer'(1995) regarding what he calls 'the ethnographic turn': the recent contamination between the domain of art and anthropology. He describes how the model of the artist as militant for the rights of the proletariat and the underrepresented of the time of Walter Benjamin for ex. is replaced in postmodern times with the artist as fighter for the postcolonial subject. He critiques the fact that 'the subject' continues to be regarded as a cultural 'other' (as he was regarded also in modernism for example) – while the artist is the figure that renders access to him. He shows that the coding of the postcolonial subject as 'the other which holds a truth' is defining identity by difference and otherness as outside-ness – which is propagating the cultural politics of marginality. He points to the fact that most of these initiatives are in fact launched by institutions and funding bodies for self-legitimisation and for accumulation of cultural and economic capital, building up a pseudo-ethnographic critique.

In that sense, we can differentiate between: on one hand situations in which the institutions involve artists or contemporary art technologies in a rather formal way to 'modernise' display. An artist is invited to get inspired by the collection and to create a contemporary work in relation to a work in the collection. The result is usually a formal/thematic approximation between the two pieces while the museum benefits of an enhanced viewing experience in a more spectacular and attractive exhibition situation. One example can be stated the new Musée de l'Homme: where technology is invested as a means to create an artificially, sensory experience with a technologically enhanced immersive environment which is supposed to re-create the original contexts of the objects.

On the other hand, we have more analytic approaches, meant to enhance the discipline with new scientific tools. These, as I will show, are based on conceptual art methodology and regard historic object research and wider contexts of meaning, which go beyond formal or scenographic approximations. In these cases art is involved as a tool for analysing and displaying/making visible to the audience specific questions connected to the cultural identity of the objects, questions related to collecting and valuing politics, which museums as bodies of national representation usually left out from their writing of history. Therefor artists are given access to the museum's archive in order to get in touch with information such as provenance, biography of objects, documentation material on the objects, history of conservation – layers of information that constitute the identity of any heritage object and imply institutional policy. This artistic conceptual artwork can become a tool to question the systems of power that have marginalized or excluded certain individuals, communities and events from history. But also to reinscribe them into memory by uncovering collective memories, personal narratives, their objects.

In any case, it can be said that ethnology museums or natural history museums that understand themselves as agents of a self-reflexive and self-critical museologic practice, are very rare and their tools of operation are presently being experimentally developed. I can cite here the Weltkulturenmuseum in Frankfurt (while being led by the former director Clementine Deliss), the Voelkerkunde Museum Leipzig (Nanette Snoep), or exhibitions such as 'Fetish Modernity' at the Tervuren Museum – where contemporary art is involved to extract a critical interpretation of the superposed layers of information contained in the objects and the policy of these shifting meanings.


I will identify some examples of both these approaches – first some examples of formal approaches and than study some cases in which conceptual art shifts attention from the formal aspects of the object, to its historic and political contexts.

Conceptual art is based on an understanding of the 'object' as information. Applied into the field of museology like a working tool, conceptual art produces the insight that museologic objects should not be necessarily exemplary, representative and aesthetically accomplished – as it is practiced by 'classic museology'. What has been called 'secondary objects' (damaged objects, failed crafts etc., their changing significance and meaning) can be revealing of alternative narratives to the 'official discourse', and – via art – could gain therefore progressively more importance in museology.

I will proceed in showing some examples of museologic experiments carried out between 2013-2015 at the Humboldt Lab in Berlin – one of the first muzeologic platforms that systematically introduced contemporary artists to work on ethnologic heritage. This famous platform was part of the Ethnologic Museum Dahlem, Berlin, and was to function as a rehearsal cabinet and to develop solutions that should be implemented into the future and controversial Humboldt Forum, planned to open in 2019 and housed in the by than reconstructed Berliner Schloss (palace) – the baroque residence of the German Emperors damaged during WWII and completely destroyed by the communist regime in the 1950's. The project2 of reconstruction led by Italian architect Franco Stella was itself highly controversial as it anachronically recreates with extremely high cost an imperial architecture of representation and will host anthropology and natural history collections of mostly colonial origin. The future museum and the lab are financially supported by the same state body (Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz).

The experiments in museology (of which I will present a small selection) where mainly of a methodological nature but they also rose – even\a if in a very hesitating tone - decolonising questions, searching for their consequences on display.

These where some innovations in relation to 'classic' ethnologic museology:

an exhibition containing only one object and showing where the object has been bought, by whom, how has it been traded, guarded, valued and in which historic situation. This show was self-reflexive as it was revealing not only what is known about the objects but also the important gaps in the museum's knowledge on the object (IM.1 BEDEUTUNG SCHICHTEN, PROBEBUHNE 1: one objects and its exhibited history).

There were also shows that were dealing in a less political way about fundamental problematics like the authority of the institution museum to attribute cultural and economic value to chosen objects (IM.2). This question was indirectly displayed by showing in glassboxes the belongings of the visitors (launching the question: what does a museum show and why?) - but completely avoiding the political implications of these questions. This show also demonstrated that the act of exhibiting something (and especially the way it is exhibited – for ex isolated in glass boxes) changes its identity, for ex. once functional objects – an umbrella – can become objects for aesthetic contemplation and national relevance. Design solutions are used in this exhibition for rising methodological questions (how does museology as a discipline operate?) but it avoids to express explicitly the damaging effects of acts of appropriations during colonial history or other totalitarian systems done to the objects and to entire cultures too. This happened for example when the functions of objects where abusively changed due to their extraction from their original context and placing them in a museologic context – while the damage happened on a formal level but also due to a reconnotation of their cultural and economic value.

In another project (IM.2b PROBEBUHNE 4) the curators collaborated with a designer for creating a scenography of hiding objects – in order to show that in its process of selecting what to include/exclude the museum can be not only a structure of showing/making visible, but also of occulting (deliberately hiding) information. In this cases art/design is involved for creating an ambient, a scenography, an 'experience'. Art is used as a tool to 'illustrate' and suggest a predefined idea.

On the contrary, here follow some examples of projects which operate in a more political way and from a theoretical point of view – following the methodology of conceptual art: in (IM 3. Spiel der Throne, PROBEBUEHNE 2) we see the original museum object - a Chinese imperial throne, whereas 4 artists where invited to work on the object. Konstantin Grcic (IM 3a)– a well known German designer – effaces all decorative details of the throne (so renders abstract the image) and comments on the functions of the object – specifically on the idea of access: the object is explained through the materialisation of the censoring, demeaning and confusing access to it – as in all totalitarian systems the power figure is inaccessible. The project uncovers a social context: the life in the Forbidden City and its infinite halls of access. In this sense, the museologic experience of viewing the 'prestige' object is itself totally subverted: the viewer is not compelled to admire the throne as an exquisitely decorated object of power and of representation (which is promoted by the museum as a cultural 'masterpiece') and therefore the viewer will not reinforce (by the act of viewing) the power of the European museum itself as holder of prestige objects from extra-European cultures or former colonies. Faced with a bare throne devoid of handicraft, the importance shifts to its key role in a context of inequality and exploitation – which becomes the physical experience of the viewer – as he himself is compelled to experience it trying to access the museologic piece. The work proposes therefore a double level of meaning: on one hand the political role of the throne, on the other the political role of the institution museum in appropriating and displaying value items and the dispositive museum's own function as a 'screen' of perception, which claims to give 'open access' to the objects, but in fact also mediates access to images and meanings.

I would like to go now into other two and last examples of conceptual and investigative art approaches which subvert the damaging political implications of stereotypic image/object-readings. (IM. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) Across his work, the French-Algerian artist Kader Attia is preoccupied for notions such as reparation and contamination – in which he creates a connection between the individual body, collective memory and global history. In this work for the Documenta 13, he shows the perpetual wounds and recuperation dynamics that the colonial processes generated. He shows that on both sides of the North-South colonial confrontations, amputated parts of the body and amputated elements of culture can be replaced with foreign elements, but remain painful absences, which damage and alter identity. This in turn denotes how finally cultures are a product of dynamics of cannibalisation and reparation – processes which remain invisible in most muzeologic displays. In other works (IM. 10) he alludes to the constitution of European modernism and the fact that the absorbtion of African masks in the cubism reveals that modernism is not only European but emerged from a distorted awareness of the cultural other. While the sculpture offers a broken image of the viewer's reflection, the European consciousness got also modified.

I will discuss a last example: the work of the Afro-American artist Fred Wilson born 1954 IM.10, who is a main reference in the field of de-colonising museology, already active at the beginning of the 2000s. By revealing the colonial foundation present in museologic practice, he was one of the first artists to contest American museology that excluded the history of slavery from its display. His method was very simple: he was changing the positions and the relations between the exhibited objects in the glass cases or in the exhibition hall. He was digging into the museum's archives for objects that had never been considered 'representatives' and researching on all the available information on these objects. In this project 'Mining the Museum' at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, he introduced in a box of crafted silverwork a pair of slave cuffs. In this way, not only that objects previously never exhibited before gain a right to memory, but he is also pointing to how the display of arts and craft of the white class is kept separate from the display of traumatic artefacts such as slave shackles, whereas the production of the one was made possible by the enforced subjugation of the other. His detournement of cultural politics (turning the invisible aspects of Afro-American identity visible) corrects a previously misleading museologic discourse. In IM.11 we have another example of how he works. He re-arranged antique Victorian chairs, included in the collection as examples of decorartive arts obviously destined for the whites, and placed them in observation distance from a whipping post, probably used for slave beating.


METHODOLOGY from the above conceptual art examples

Conceptual art can have an important role to play for what Benoit de l'Estoile3 calls: the uncovering of 'colonial legacies'. He differentiates between the writing of colonial history and the revealing of colonial legacies: the first focuses on the colonial past, while the former is explicitly focused on the various uses of the past into the present. For him, following this legacy means taking the citizen of the post-colonial world from the position of a passive inheritor of colonial history, into an active confrontation with relations that reach from the past into the present and affect us all – even if we did not directly participate at this history. And I believe that it is precisely at this point that conceptual art can operate as a tool of constructing a link between the conservation of a past inside the archive of the museum and its legacy into the present. The museologic artefacts have been brought to Europe in the context of colonial relations of various kinds. In that sense they are testimonies not only of other peoples or other cultures, but also of the relationships between Europe and the other continents – which include exchange, theft, gift, dispossession, trade, alliance, war. All of these are being in a form or another perpetuated and affect us today. As can be seen in the examples of the works of Kader Attia and Fred Wilson, this reading process is a way to 'use' the past into the present - by for example de-conspiring these colonial legacies carried unconsciously into the present.

Conceptual art deals on one hand with information and on the other hand with context. By its nature, conceptual art is therefore working less with the objects as exemplary masterpieces, as with the historic/social contexts in which the objects are entangled4. It is dissolving therefor the material and aesthetic presence of objects. As meaning is never fixed and interpretation is context-dependent in conceptual art, the object itself reveals plural identities – layered meanings. Understood in this way, the object will be talking about aspects that usually museums rather occult – for example the permanent display at the Musée du Quai Branly where the provenance of the objects is totally erased, as well as any trace of acquisition conditions, of questions of repatriation, the biography of singular objects is not taken into consideration and objects from various cultures are brought together into a unifying display by thematic or aesthetic criteria, immersed together into the semi-obscurity of the 'foreign' and the 'distant'. (IM 12, 13).---



Some key positions from the disciplines of anthropology and contemporary art


In the history of anthropology a key position was in 1986 that of Igor Kopytoff that draws for the first time attention on the fact that commodities should be read as results of cultural and cognitive processes, beyond their nature as material objects ('The Cultural Biography of Things' 1986)5. He also questions the consideration of the status of the object or the subject as fixed. Arjun Appadurai, drawing on the work of Igor Kopytoff explains that what determines the link between exchange and value is politics (The Social Life of Things, 1986)6. His major theory is that commodities, like persons, have social lives and that in order to understand the human-ascribed value of a commodity, one must analyze "things-in-motion" (the parcourses which objects take in time and space).

Applied to the muzeologic object, these two theories are fundamental as they demonstrate that an object's identity goes beyond its material form exhibited in a museum, therefore the knowledge on it is partial, contradictory and differentiated and the object's museologic display must make visible the object in transformation and in motion – which in turn reveal a broader social and economic history.

Also from a post-colonial point of view Appadurai's theory is of great relevance because it established the emancipatory potential of objects – their capacity to free themselves from their instrumentalisation by human politics. Appadurai talks about the tendency of commodities to break relations of privilege and social control (Appadurai 1986:57), talking about the active role of commodities in the relation between knowledge and value (Appadurai 1986:56).

In more recent post-colonial critique, Candice Lin (Lin 2016: 104)7, for example is acknowledging the agency of objects over humans, as a political insight, that destroys the paradigm of power as we know it (humans instrumentalising objects). She talks about the fact that the object in the museologic context is a hybrid being, resulted from a 'creol' identity, one that is the result of mixing and of plural interactions.

Recently anthropologist and art theorists like Sharon Macdonald and Clementine Deliss declared the crisis of the 'ethnological project' (Macdonald 2015: 213)8. As the ethnologic museum is based on explorations 'of the unknown other' mostly in a colonial context, all forms of presentation of a foreign heritage as 'one's own' are fundamentally meant for self-legitimation – which puts into question the discipline itself. In a talk at MACBA (Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona), Clementine Deliss, calls for the post-ethnologic object as 'there is no possibility not to get contaminated (>by this colonial heritage) when working with an ethnology museum'. (Deliss 2014)9.


I will begin by a small incursion into incipient forms of conceptual art and their new understanding of the museologic space, that started to be developed beginning with the historic avant-gardes. As Elena Filipovic shows in a 2011 article in e-Flux magazine, the last decades of colonial collecting correspond with the emergence of conceptual art and the formation of revolutionary forms of display10.

While exhibition design was seen as a prehistory of installation art, installations that question museological display – first oriented towards the clasical 'art museum display' – appear with the beginning of the 20th century. As is shown by Lewis Kachur (KACHUR 2001)11 with early installation art at the beginning of the 20th century, losing its pedestal, the object looses its representativity and this has been one of the first means to challenge museologic display. The conceptual art of the avant-gardes started to work with the object by recognizing aspects that are not clear/ fixed and challenged what means the finished state of the work. For example the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp started to map and give significance to ordinary objects according to the ways in which information about these objects is constructed and mediated – and not according to formal, thematic, aesthetic or representative/essentialising qualities. Marcel Duchamp's String Installation in the exhibition of the First Papers of Surrealism, in New York, 1942 is paradigmatic in this sense as for the first time the relations between the objects existing in a museum become the work of art, not the objects themselves (IM 14). In 1969 Andy Warhol curated at the Rhode Island Museum (IM.15) a selection from the storage rooms of the Museum. He used and mixed different criteria of display: polaroids that he took of the objects, with the objects themselves. He showed the packages in which the objects are stored, without showing the content; he showed the objects simply placed on the ground or took out of the storage all the items classified by the museum under one category. Like a manifesto was also Harald Szeemann's intimate exhibition of his grandfather hairdressing tools held in his apartment (1972) as a counterpoint to the 'masterpieces' and auctorial art displayed at Documenta 5. In the 1980's Group Material started to show their work under form of Timelines, which challenge official history-writing with subversive content, mixing in an intertextual display works of art, artefacts and found documents – writing history on multiple and often contradictory narratives (IM 16).

Sporadically absorbed into new museology practices and coupled with de-colonising efforts these innovations brought a new understanding on the identity of the object and included the context in the body of the work.


With Sol Le Witt and Joseph Kosuth in the '60s –'70s the IDEA of a work of art, became the work – even if the work never took a visible form. Similarly the thinking processes of the artist became more important than the existence of a final work (so, by consequence, the transformation of the 'object' itself became more important than a given object). If a final object nevertheless emerged, it could manifest in an infinite plurality of media and temporalities (according to Sol Le Witt, 1969) .

Tony Godfrey12 calls the post-conceptual art of the '90s to today 'contextual art' = art as reaction to its social and political context. In this process of contextual meaning constitution, documentation can be employed as a device that situates the object temporally and reinforces its site-specificity13. Documentation is permuting the value of the object from its material presence (in the actuality of the viewer), to an exploration of contexts of reference and appurtenance that form a palimpsest of identities.

In this sense, conceptual art started in the last 10-15 years to integrate other disciplines (as sources of information on plural contexts of the objects), use their methodologies and operate more and more pluri-disciplinary. Art started acting as a tool of analysis and investigation. Museology, especially ethnologic museology became a predilect field to work upon, as it also deals with art objects primarily not from an aesthetic, but from a historical and cultural point of view. (This phenomenon can be related also to what another important critic of conceptualism, Peter Osborne, calls: ' the expansion of the work of art' which consists in an erosion of the division between artist and critic14). 15 Transferred into the domain of museology the conceptual work does not imply necessarily the production of a new piece, but can consist in what can be called: an artistic thinking-path.

Conceptualism brought also another very important idea: that of the performativity which is in other words the agency of the work of art - which influences and alters the context in which it intervenes. The performativity (which should not be confused with the idea of 'performance') of an object is referring to its capacity to intervene upon a certain environment just by being there (contrary to previous art forms that were valued rather for themselves than for their agency in the social space). In that sense conceptual art converges with theories such as the social agency of objects in anthropology that I was mentioning before.


In that sense often the questions that conceptual art can launch in museology are less focused on an analysis of the material objects themselves, but rather on how museologic objects are medially represented – in photographs of the collections, of their various forms of display in time, in stories or images of the collectors and their historical context.

Conceptual art introduced an understanding of images as signs (and not as reproductions of reality) drawing from here on specific politics of representation. It also doubted the objectivity of images as witnesses of reality. Comparing historic photographies of museologic collections beyond what they reproduce and understanding them rather as signs of a larger context, can show how images can hide, reveal, establish and impose a certain 'view' on history and patrimony.

Approaches in this direction had been previously made in a scientific context for example by Aby Warburg, who related the iconography of different images (beyond their narrative content) deducing from there socio-historical connections. Conceptual art, which introduced the notion of seriality into the history of arts (repeating the same shot until it becomes an abstract image), continued this direction, producing images that were initiating the viewer into reading visual content from the point of view of how it is constructed.

From understanding primarily strategies of image-making, we can deduce in museology major questions such as colonial image politics, scientific imaginaries, but also emerging innovatory practices of cultural self-definition.




1Sharon Macdonald (ed.), The Politics of Display. Heritage, Care, Preservation,Management, Routledge, 1998


3 Benoit de l'Estoile, The past as it lives now, in Ed. Benoit de l'Estoile: Colonial Legacies, 2008.

4as can be seen in the example of Fred Wilson's where the crafted excellency of the silverwork was completely ignored in regard to its cultural context and it dependency of another object of significance - the ordinary slave cuffs never exhibited before.

5KOPYTOFF, IGOR, The Cultural Biography of things, Commodity as Process, in APPADURAI, ARJUN (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge University Press, 1986.

6APPADURAI, ARJUN (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge University Press, 1986.

7In ARNDT Lotte, LOZANO Catalina, ABONNENC Mathieu, (eds.), (2016), Crawling Doubles. Colonial Collecting and Affect, B42, Paris

8MacDONALD, Sharon. The Politics of Display – Museums, Science, Culture. New York: Routledge, 1998.

MacDONALD, Sharon. 'The Trouble with the Ethnological' in The Laboratory Concept – Museum Experiments in the Humboldt Dahlem Lab, Nicolai Berlin, 2015.

9DELISS, Clementine (2014), Collecting and Curating Life’s Unknowns: Past Ethnography and Current Art Practice, http://www.macba.cat/en/decolonising-the-museum-clementine-deliss (accessed May 2017)

10FILIPOVIC, Elena. A museum that is not. e-flux 2011. Online at: www.e-flux.com/journal/view/50.

11KACHUR, Lewis. Displaying the marvelous: Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, and Surrealist Exhibition Installations .Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001.

12GODFREY, TONY. (2006), 'What Happened Next in Conceptual Art: Chapter Eleven', Contemporary Journal, 21:85, www.contemporary-magazines.com/profile85_1.htm. Accessed 28 October 2017

13 The neo-avant-garde of the 1960s which provoked the disappearance of the work in its original context, experimented with the complete abolishment of documentation, which was perceived as a factor that was impeding that the work is valued only by its information content (as documentation was seen to perpetuate the material nature of art and therefore to maintain it into a system ultimately foreign to art – the market).

14Peter Osborne, Conceptual art and/as Philosophy, in Micheal Newman and Jon Bird (eds.), Rewriting Conceptual Art, Reaction Books London, 1999.

15He sees it as a consequence of a reaction against Greenberg who valued art in relation to specific genres (namely to abstract expressionism).