Making the Invisible Visible in the Contemporary Art Museum

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Institute of Archaeology


The proposed doctoral research project 'Making the Invisible Visible in the Contemporary Art Museum' will problematize the proposition that greater transparency, and by turn greater inclusivity, can be achieved through making visible the currently invisible processes of the museum. Focusing on the work of the Collection Care and Conservation teams at Tate, and in particular the project 'Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks Live in the Museum', the research will develop new theoretical perspectives through which to evaluate the potential benefits and hazards of opening up these previously hidden processes.

I will situate my research in a theoretical approach that combines recent proposals in the field of museology with the critical theories employed by artists within Tate's own collection. I will consider the museum as an active network, whereby exchange occurs across a number of planes. This in turn will inform my methodological approach, which will employ actor-network-theory to measure the social implications of making visible these processes and connections to museum audiences. As individual artworks provide the case studies for the project 'Reshaping the Collectible', I will also take into account modes of institutional critique employed by artists.

In keeping with the stated aims of Tate to 'embrace the public' whilst 'championing art and artists', this doctoral research project will provide a vital examination and measurement of the links between the lives of artworks, their conservation and the impact that making these processes visible has on the audience, artists, and museum. As such, the research questions provided are: 1). How might making visible the private and behind the scenes processes of the museum broaden and diversify the museum's audience? 2). How does addressing the invisible and visible relate to current discourse around inclusion and exclusion? 3). What is the potential impact on stakeholders, including galleries and artists, of making visible the work of a contemporary art museum to a general audience? 4). What is at stake in redrawing these boundaries?

In order to approach these questions I will divide the research into three distinct stages. First, I will address what is seen, then investigate who sees and finally I will consider how processes become visible.

The primary source of information for the study will be the work of the project 'Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks Live in the Museum', based at Tate. As part of this research team, I will contribute to the work of the project which will select six artworks in the Tate's collection as case studies to observe how the life of an artwork unfolds over space and time. The nature of the 'hidden processes' that will be revealed and the extent of their visibility will be determined in conjunction with this team. The process of data collection will be informed by actor-network-theory, which is concerned with mapping the associations between the 'actors' and 'things' which comprise a social order - which is itself defined as a 'movement of re-association and re-assembling'. I envisage data collection as a collaborative process with selected respondees in order to re-map the relationships between audience, artwork and museum.

As Tate moves to establish its vision for a museum of the future, it is vital to assess how far the institution has achieved their aims to 'redefine the museum for the twenty-first century, integrating learning, display and social functions', and look for new and pioneering ways to effectively move towards this goal. The proposed doctoral studentship will support the aims of the Conservation team's pioneering work, whilst providing a critical framework through which to assess its impact. The study aims to lay the groundwork for new ways that Tate might conceive of conservation, access and display, and ultimately identify and reassemble the networks of knowledge that define the contemporary art museum.


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