A book on exhibition practices by leading artists and curators from Australia and Canada promotes the power of objects to reframe knowledge.

A book of essays on curating helps museums and galleries re-imagine their futures. The book, Curating Lively Objects: Exhibitions Beyond Disciplines, is co-edited by Associate Professor Lizzie Muller from UNSW Sydney and Professor Caroline Seck Langill from OACD University in Canada. Its authors – researchers, artists and curators working in universities and cultural organisations across Australia and Canada – consider how objects can generate new ways of organising and sharing knowledge.

“I would say that’s the biggest question facing museums today: how are they going to reorganise the knowledge that they represent?” A/Prof. Muller says. “Because the way that they've represented knowledge up till now has been, and continues to be, quite 19th century, still discipline-centric, and therefore still colonial.”

However traditional distinctions between disciplines have changed dramatically over the past 20 years. The curator and practice-led researcher from UNSW’s School of Art & Design is interested in how curators respond to disciplinary change to create more inclusive museums.

Curating is more than selecting, organising and caring for objects in a collection or exhibition, she says. “It is the intelligent orchestration of how the public experiences culture.”

Over the last decade, curators have increasingly combined objects from diverse disciplines in exhibitions, says A/Prof. Muller. “So, what's the future of museums in relationship to knowledge and disciplinary change? And is there such a thing as a post-disciplinary or a non-disciplinary museum?”

The book argues that objects have the capacity to shape museums just as museums give objects value, that objects can become “lively” catalysts for imagining futures beyond disciplines for museums. Its authors discuss meaningful objects from their practice and their ability to influence our understanding of material culture.

The authors include curators from the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences (MAAS) and Campbelltown Arts Centre, and practice-led researchers from SymbioticA, an artistic research centre at the University of Western Australia (UWA), as well as other independent artists and curators.

Interdisciplinary Australian artist Brook Garru Andrew, who curated the 2020 Sydney Biennale, argues that stolen First Nations objects – including cultural objects and human remains – are often rendered “harmless” through colonial collection practices and contemporary storage and display.

He describes how he re-contextualises objects to create powerful experiences where history speaks back, says A/Prof. Muller. “Anna Davis [Curator at the MCA] talks about digital objects, particularly robots and robotic artworks, things she calls 'troublemakers' in the museum. She argues that curators must defend these troublemakers who ultimately force museums to evolve.”

Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, co-founders of SymbioticA, explore the uncomfortable collision of knowledge with the monstrous in their biological art. They engineer living and semi-living tissue for artistic expression in the form of lab-grown food, tissue-cultured clothes and semi-living sculptures, such as semi-living worry dolls.

The book’s focus on practice-led research prioritises alternative perspectives, such as decolonial thinking, Indigenous knowledges, environmentalism, feminist critique and digital aesthetics.

“There are all kinds of knowledge that have been excluded from the way we represent what we know as a society or what we value,” A/Prof. Muller says. The research contributes towards a shift in the knowledge that’s represented to create more inclusive, dialogic knowledge spaces, she says.

Transforming public engagement in museums through digital technologies

The book recognises how digital objects and new technologies are transforming the public relationship to museums, A/Prof. Muller says.

Museums & Galleries of NSW (MGNSW) saw its relevance for the many organisations across the state who are contending with the challenge of how to use digital technologies creatively to engage audiences. They partnered with A/Prof. Muller to launch the book in an experimental virtual environment, where participants could encounter and engage with authors and their objects.

MGNSW has created a free online resource aimed at industry professionals based on the book that provides three chapters particularly relevant to NSW organisations.

“The research makes an invaluable contribution to industry, forging new pathways for curators and artists to reinvigorate knowledge exchange in partnership with museums,” says one of the book’s authors, Katie Dyer, Senior Curator, Contemporary at MAAS.

Continuing this dialogue between researchers and cultural institutions is vital to regenerating knowledge, says A/Prof. Muller. She co-founded the Sydney Culture Data Salons to facilitate discussions on cultural data to inform strategic planning and daily decision-making in the sector. The Salons are part of the Sydney Culture Network that promotes collaborations across the academic, cultural, technology and business sectors.

During the pandemic, the conversation zeroed in on managing the digital pivot as cultural institutions rapidly switched to providing cultural experiences online. It provoked a reframing of the digital as a fertile site for knowledge and cultural exchange, she says.

“The Salons became a real lifeline for peer-to-peer sharing in that space… We looked at case studies from the Art Gallery of NSW and MAAS and other big organisations and the data that was coming out of those digital pivots to try and see how the whole sector could be more strategic.”

A/Prof Muller argues that disciplinary change and digital technologies represent huge shifts in how museums engage audiences in the creation of knowledge. “Rather than, how do we communicate our research to the public, I think that museums need to, and actually universities need to start to ask how we involve the public in knowledge creation.”

Research and culture should operate in symbiotic relationship: the cultural sector providing access to the public; the academic sector, to methodologies that produce evidence, she says. “Together these two things are really strong.

“Our collaborative job, I think, is to help articulate the value of inclusive, diverse critical knowledge … [and] to help society stay flexible, imaginative, compassionate, smart – all those things that we want to have in a resilient, mentally healthy society.”

Top and bottom: Digital objects and new technologies are transforming the public relationship to museums, says A/Prof. Muller. Images: Museums & Galleries of NSW. 

Lead image: Lindsay Kelley, Ballistic Bundts, 2018, installation view from 'Human non Human' 2018, Powerhouse Museum.  Image: Marinco Kojdanovski.

This article was originally published in 2022.

Written by Kay Harrison