15.30 Affecting Heritage: "The Servant Problem" and "Museopathy"
This presentation will describe two projects by DisplayCult that have evolved out of our on-going engagement with redefining notions of the aesthetic and commitment to experimenting with exhibition prototypes. Whereas “The Servant Problem” involved a series of tableaux vivants with the curators themselves assuming the guise of “minor characters” in the history of Eldon House in London, in turn, “Museopathy” involved commissioning contemporary artworks that were installed in heritage and popular museums throughout the city of Kingston. Both exhibitions adopted the strategy of museum intervention to critically engage the affect—the atmosphere or mood—of these museums.
The Servant Problem (1999) was staged at Eldon House, an 1834 residence operated by a house museum by Museum London. Our series of performative tableaux addressed the situation of servanthood as a social phenomenon and focused on the lives of servants in a house that is, for the most part, a monument to private ownership. The intervention sought to re-inhabit and haunt the space with the histories of servants, as a counterpoint to the lives of the masters. The figures of maid and security guard reference the dual identity of Eldon House as both a home and a museum. Whereas the security guard alludes to the current public domain of Eldon House, the maid stands in for its history as a private familial enclave. If servants were judged on their unobtrusive and deferential demeanour, to the degree they avoided being “a problem,“ these performances deliberately foregrounded obtrusive and resistant behaviour as a way of entering into, and exploring, the problematic of servitude.
Museopathy (2001) involved commissioning fourteen artists to create site-specific installations in museums throughout the city of Kingston, Ontario. The distinct atmospheres of heritage and popular museums became an integral medium for the artists. The city’s diverse institutions could be considered a Foucauldian dream, and the exhibition encompassed prison, hospital, marine, military, and university museum contexts. Museopathy’s interventions were remarkably varied, encompassing playful, personal, pedagogical, and polemical approaches. Artists responded to artifacts at their sites by recontextualizing them in new arrangements, mimicking their production, or trying to glean information from them in unusual ways to raise questions about authenticity, historical veracity, and believability. The project as a whole defined a Kingstonian version of the “grand tour” whereby the entire network and accumulation of experiences was just as important as any individual artwork or site. By merging art and artifacts in mutual relationships, the project crossed disciplinary boundaries and inspired a dialogue between traditionally separate domains of aesthetics, history, popular culture, science, and other fields.
Our focus on affect in these two projects provided an exhibitionary rhetoric that could both reveal and contradict the official museum stories. Both exhibitions functioned as performative interventions that carried an epideictic temporality—they amplified the charge of museum space in the present tense. This is distinct from forensic historical and heritage manners of narrating the past into the history of art. By engaging museal affects, these projects considered the extra-discursive aspects of historical civic institutions and posed the museum in its experiential aspects as well as generative capacities.