Saving the ephemeral art gallery: The director of Tate Liverpool on preserving institutional history

'History is unpredictable, and we cannot know which obscure artist or minor exhibition may once be regarded as a groundbreaking historical event'


If you want to know what was served at the Turner Prize Award Dinner in 1999, you should ask me, as I am sure to have saved the menu (though actually locating it in the creative chaos that is my study might be a bit of a challenge). I am an incorrigible hoarder, fighting a lonely battle against the forces of eternal oblivion. Therefore it is only appropriate that I work in a museum, having at my disposal one of the greatest collections of art in the world. Museums and galleries have a legal obligation to preserve their collections, publicly display them and make them available for study and research. While we know much more today about the historical development of the museum, some of that history, in particular visual, remains forever lost. Great resources and efforts are invested in the preservation, storage and presentation of works of art while usually not much conscious thought is given to recording the history of an institution itself. With an ever-expanding network of institutions, rapid cycles of exhibitions and frequent turnover of staff, some of these histories are inevitably lost forever. As the great curator Pontus Hultén once told fellow curator Hans Ulrich Obrist: “The day someone decides [a kunsthalle] is too expensive, it’s all over. A few catalogues, and that’s it.”

Institutions have a responsibility to record their own stories, not just for the sake of posterity but because they can teach us important lessons about the art shown. The circumstances of an acquisition, the context of presentation (or the fact that a work of art has been exiled forever to storage) and the marginal manifestations of label, wall text, catalogue and invitation card all matter in establishing meaning. History is unpredictable, and we cannot know which obscure artist or minor exhibition may once be regarded as a groundbreaking historical event. Van Gogh’s Starry Night, 1889, was a virtually unknown work when it entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1941. And who would have predicted the importance of the “Freeze” exhibition in London in 1988? Systems of distribution and conventions of presentation are impermanent and as much subject to changing fashions as the art itself.

Significantly, it was in the 1960s that the conventions of collecting, categorisation, display and exhibition were most violently attacked. This took not only the form of protests and sit-ins in art galleries and museums, but was reflected in works of art themselves. Hans Haacke systematically photographed museum visitors at the second “Documenta” exhibition in 1959, while Chris Burden literally, and metaphorically, exposed the foundations of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1986. “Institutional Critique” was born, questioning not only the conventions of collecting and displaying art but, more importantly, its underlying ideological and political structures. This type of critical practice developed into a prominent strand that, by the 1980s, had become the subject of numerous exhibitions of both historical and contemporary art. Louise Lawler’s photographs deconstructed the implications of ownership, display and sale of works of art, while Thomas Struth elevated images of crowded museums to the level of carefully composed genre pieces. However, by the mid 1990s this trend of “context as content” had become an increasingly exhausted academic discipline, fetishising the document and losing itself in circuitous self-reflection.

The greatest challenge to the recording and remembering of institutional histories are posed today not by dwindling funds and resources but the dematerialisation of the means of communication. How are the thousands of emails that are sent every day preserved? How are we going to ensure the survival of film, video and digital documents, not to mention works of art? The whole history of an institution might disappear at a push of a button though, ultimately, bits and bytes are probably more stable than flaking paint or fat on a chair. At the same time, digital technologies offer incredible opportunities that will transform archival preservation as well as the experience of art and audiences’ interaction with museums. It is now possible to view some paintings in ultra-high resolution, see 360-degree views of installations online and take a digital walk through galleries. Soon temporary exhibitions can be experienced long after a show has closed and the loans have been returned to their owners all around the world. History will be instantly accessible without barriers of space or time. The fact that this knowledge is available is in itself not significant—the importance lies in how it will be used, how it can enhance a gallery visit or the understanding of a work of art. It will need to be an integral part of museums in the 21st century: open, permeable, multi-vocal, diverse, interactive and always aware of their own frameworks of reference.

The writer is the director of Tate Liverpool, and has written extensively on the history of museums and installations and issues surrounding the presentation of art