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The Museum as Muse

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Organizer: Michelle Clayton

Co-Organizer: Jorge Téllez

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In 1999, New York’s MoMA staged the exhibition “The Museum as Muse”, a collection of modern and contemporary works focused on exploring images and practices of the museum. Although it might seem inward-focused, the exhibition’s self-reflexive turn was responding to a wave of critiques being leveled at museums of art, anthropology, and natural history that zeroed in on questions of provenance, preservation, exhibition, and representation. More recently, the decolonial turn in art history, literary studies, and museology has broadened and sharpened these critiques, focusing increasingly on questions of extraction, appropriation, repatriation, and inclusiveness at all levels. At the same time, intriguingly, an array of other creative art-forms have turned increasingly to the museum as a metaphor, space, or protagonist in their works. Fiction, poetry, the visual arts, and performance, all of which have intermittently grappled with the idea or model of the museum since the mid-19th century, have recently shown an intensified interest in using the museum to think through questions of national histories and colonial depredations, pedagogical imperatives and the formation of a citizenry; at the same time, however, they invite us to think of the museum as a self-conscious, probing, and playful site of exhibition and encounter, fostering reflection and critique in its visitors and in itself, and potentially affording the opportunity for new articulations of collective memories.

We envision this seminar as a space for thinking through such engagements with the museum, with the following as possible topics:

– How do literature, film, and performance engage with the questions currently roiling the museum as an institution: questions about heritage and histories of extraction; about national patrimonies and international exhibition and control; about cultural politics and communitarian practices; about collection management and care? How do they bring these questions back to their own disciplines, and to what end? 
– Do these works conceive of museums as national spaces or international sites? Are they shown to stage national narratives, encounters with national patrimonies abroad or with foreign cultures at home, and what geopolitical resonances are found in these conjunctions? Do museums function or signify differently in sites outside the hegemonic spaces of Europe and North America? 

– How do these works engage questions of economics and market-value? What space do they find for considerations of aesthetic or other forms of value?

– How do they engage with questions of race, class, and gender in and across the spaces of the museum; in practices of acquisition, organization, and display; in interactions and interrelations between collectors, curators, custodial staff, and visitors? 

– How do these works imagine alternative museums, or imagine themselves as alternative forms of the museum?

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