Making meaning beyond display
In the early weeks of January 1999 I started planning an exhibition to mark, later that same year, the centenary celebrations of Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum. Paul McKee, the museum’s exhibitions ocer, had invited me to consider the contents of the reserve collection as my theme. ere was, McKee let me know, a great quantity of things in the storerooms and archives that remain year after year unknown to the public and, on the occasion of the museum’s anniversary, the idea was to ask an artist to respond imaginatively to this hundred-year-old residue of collecting. e commission followed a trend. roughout the 1990s there had been growing interest in artists as ‘agents of change in the museum environment’. is phrase, which I rst encountered at a conference entitled ‘Engaging Practices: the forum for artists and museums’,1
introduces the topic of this chapter. I wish to review what happened when an idea about placing contemporary artworks amongst historical or scientic exhibits (my modus operandi at the time)2 was refocused ‘beyond display’ to address collections held out of sight and in reserve.3 I had been invited to speak at ‘Engaging Practices’ and so someone somewhere must have described me in appropriately transformational terms, even though the agent of change idea seemed, on rst hearing, rather too instrumental to capture my own understanding of artistic endeavour. However, the phrase has rhetorical value in this chapter because it allows me to place curatorial meaning-making in a face-to-face relationship with my activities as an artist and thus form an interestingly asymmetrical image that renders contrasting ideas about experiencing materiality in the museum. We will follow this motif even though more complex aliations between artists and museums are actually the case.