Museum Displays and Moral Loopholes

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the difference between art and artefact. Or rather, I’ve been questioning if there is an inherent difference and what effect this has on the presentation of objects. This has in part stemmed from a paper I’ve been writing on the Staffordshire Hoard. In the paper I criticise the presentation of the collection as ‘treasure’. This has got me thinking about the types of exhibits that appeal to me when I go to a museum or gallery.

I’d like to claim I read all the information panels. I don’t. I might check the card next to the display so that I can read up on the object later. I have rarely read the actual information in full, however. My mother is the exact opposite. She reads every sign, every panel and every information card. You might imagine we run into difficulties moving through a museum at the same pace; surprisingly, we don’t! She glances at the objects, then reads about them in depth. I might spend 15 minutes considering the object, without ever looking at the information card. We just have very different ways of approaching exhibits. As a result I tend to enjoy exhibits with an aesthetic appeal and appealing use of space. She favours simple presentations that clearly link information to object.

I genuinely don’t believe that either of us is approaching the gallery in the “wrong way”. I also don’t believe that displaying objects in a manner which accentuates their visual appeal is inherently wrong. Having talked a lot recently about how to address archaeological issues in the exhibition space I find the “place a sign commenting on lack of provenience” or “explain in the information sheet” method to communicate ethical issues relating to specific collections problematic. Firstly, this isn’t usually a practical suggestion – few museums will discuss possible ethical issues in such an abrupt manner. Secondly, this relies on individuals reading the information. I’m not sure on this, but I suspect that there are a lot more people using “my” approach than my mothers.

The issue I have here is that by suggesting “putting up a sign” we are suggesting that by acknowledging the ethical problems we provide a loophole through which we can display/discuss an object. This has been troubling me for weeks. Does simply admitting that there is an ethical issue in an artefacts past give carte blanche for the presentation of the object?

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