Across the world this is the golden age of museums. Other cultural institutions come and go but the popularity of museums never stops growing. Every city in the world wants one, and if it has one already it wants to make it better by enlarging it and bringing the architecture up to date.
The exhibitions that fill museums are another matter. Patrons often find them disappointing. They are judged old-fashioned, or too trendy. Or they are not "world class." They tell us too much, or too little, about their subjects.
These are among the reasons to welcome a groundbreaking book, Curatorial Dreams: Critics Imagine Exhibitions (McGill-Queen's University Press), edited by Shelley Ruth Butler, a cultural anthropologist at Mc-Gill, and Erica Lehrer, in the sociology-anthropology department at Concordia. Their book contains 14 precisely detailed descriptions of exhibitions that do not exist, have never existed, but might someday appear. Fourteen scholars, people in the social sciences and humanities, were asked to imagine exhibitions inspired by their research. The scholars work in Amsterdam, Vienna and Leicester in the British Midlands as well as Canada and the U.S. They are all devoted, one way or another, to the mantra "every exhibition is an argument," a favourite line of professors teaching students who want to be curators. Their intention is to right some wrong, or at least straighten out some widespread misunderstanding, roughly in the manner of documentary films like O.J.: Made in America, the current TV show which labours brilliantly to analyze not just the crime he was charged with but the shaping of his whole life.
Erica Lehrer focuses her imaginary exhibition on an element of still-surviving anti-Semitism in Poland. She begins with a British woman's complaint to the Polish tourist minister about certain souvenirs she saw on sale while visiting Poland. They are "wooden carved figurines depicting religious Jewish men....all ugly with over-sized long noses, and holding sacks full of gold coins. These are familiar anti-Semitic images used for generations to demonize Jews." To the woman who complained, those figurines were an affront and should be outlawed. To Erica Lehrer, they looked like the basis of an exhibition on Jewish-Polish history with its shared pasts and layers of "nostalgia, shame, curiosity, hope and fear." She proposes staging it in the Krakow ethnographic museum whose slogan is "My museum, a museum about me." She imagines it will amount to an inquiry into the various ethnicities in Poland.
Robb Hernandez, an assistant professor at the University of California, dreams of building his exhibition as a retrieval of the career of Edmondo (Mundo) Meza, a Mexican immigrant born in Tijuana.
A talented surrealist, he became a familiar figure in the gay Chicano art scene in Los Angeles as a street painter and a designer of window displays. When he died of AIDS at age 29, the entire body of his work vanished. Hernandez has located some paintings and many other shreds of Mundo Meza's life, enough to recreate an artist and the milieu in which he briefly flourished.
An exhibit that surveys art charged with controversy can create severe trouble for the museum that houses it. In Curatorial Dreams, Shelley Ruth Butler raises the most famous Canadian case in memory, the 1990 exhibition Into the Heart of Africa at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The ROM made an exhibit out of its own holdings in African art, much of it brought back to Canada by Christian missionaries. The people who mounted the show believed it dealt sympathetically with the Africans. But many black people in Toronto disagreed. They believed the ROM's treatment condescended to Africans, and showed Africans being treated violently. They set up pickets at the ROM day after day. They were not pleased that Africa was shown mainly through western eyes. The show had been scheduled to appear at several other museums in Canada and the U.S. but when headlines over the demonstrations appeared, all the other museums cancelled. What was to be a rare international show for the ROM turned into something more like a scandal.
Butler imagines staging another ROM African show, with more community consultation beforehand and a historic section on black participation in Canadian life. She barely mentions the ROM's African art, which was the reason Into the Heart of Africa was created in the first place.
Several of the scholars focus on how museums affect people and how they are treated in popular culture. Janice Baker, of Curtin University in Australia, imagines an exhibition about the role museums play in movies, from horror movies to comedies to Hitchcock's Vertigo. The Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco and the Mission San Juan Batista, outside San Francisco, are settings for two key scenes in Vertigo.
Baker proposes running excerpts from several films, including Jules Dassin's Topkapi, about a heist at the famous Istanbul museum, and Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby, which has a seduction scene near a generic museum's dinosaur skeleton.
To Baker, museums tend to be movie sites where reason is thrown to the wind under the pressure of intense desire. If she ever gets to make her curatorial dream come true, I want to be there.