Combining Object and Space

Since museums are often seen as educational venues, consideration should be given to how problematic subjects are represented. Objects get meaning through the context in which they are placed, and through the combination of objects with which they are exhibited within the same space. The conservators who are responsible for the exhibitions have a major influence on the message that these objects convey.  ‘Ivan Karl is the curator of African ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.’ He believes it is extremely important that there is a possibility to problematize the messages that are being performed by these museums. By doing so, the audience can contribute to the creation of a multicultural society in which it is even possible to be part of multiple cultures.

Karl Ivan based part of this analysis on several exhibitions of the artist Fred Wilson. An artist who uses the museum as a palette to shape his exhibition. In doing so he presents the important and true stories behind the objects. Wilson uses not only objects but also the space and knowledge of the museum itself to shape his exhibition. Fred Wilson and Ivan Karl published an article on this matter in 1993, but the subject is still up to date. The message conveyed by the article, supported me to think about how museums represents intricate subjects. I think that museums should indeed have an educational function, but they should not impose a one-dimensional narrative on the visitor. Mining the Museum, an innovative and important exhibition made by Fred Wilson in 1992, is a perfect example of an exhibition that critically reflects on the visitor’s view of the space and objects. In order not to show the visitor the stereotypical Indian, Fred Wilson positioned some statues of Indians with their heads to the wall. “They do not look like Indians, I know, and my mother is Native American.” The statues in this exhibit instead look at photos of contemporary Native Americans. This causes the visitor to face the unrightful, dominantly created image of the Indians.

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Mining the Museum, statues of ‘Indians’ facing photographs of contemporary Native Americans in Maryland.

The colonial past of the Netherlands is a subject that is considered complicated and sometimes consciously forgotten. Even today there are places where the unilateral perspective on the Dutch Golden Age is not displayed. The Indonesian artist and architect Iswanto Hartono demonstrates how the location (The Old Church) is a integral part of his work. The objects and setting combined thus form the artwork. In the midst of colonial past, which is represented by the many prairies of the seafarers who have colonized areas, the pieces of Iswanto Hartono are exhibited.

“These were men who were honored as national heroes, but now also symbolize an ethnocentric empowerment of the ‘other’, based on their own cultural perspective.”


Iswanto Hartono in Oude Kerk voor social 38
Iswanto Hartono with a statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen that he made for the exhibition in the Old Church in Amsterdam.

This combination of space and object makes a significant impact on the visitor. This is exactly what I think is the purpose of an exhibition that attempts to demonstrate the struggle for identity. Iswanto Hartono reflects on the constructed images of the past, on stereotyping and imagery today, where one does not always consciously think about. Representation can therefore cause problems. When I look at the way in which Fred Wilson and Iswanto Hartono handle an exhibition, there is a ‘relative incorporation’ in both of their work. Both artists expose the issue of representation by exhibiting objects in their (sometimes belated) power, because of the space they are placed in. This allows the viewer to think about the meaning of this object.

To my great joy, many people are actively engaged in bringing about a new practice of representation. For example, the FramerFramed project, started in 2009 aimed at discussing transcultural art in institutions in the Netherlands. However, in my opinion there are alternative perspectives  and interpretations that should be included in the exhibitions. Museums have shown awerness of this line of sight, but there is still work to do. Hopefully they will think about how Fred Wilson presented his objects within the space of the museum.


Eva Flipse