Representing the Nation: The historic and continuing role of national art institutions

Freya Spoor, Assistant Curator, ‘Celebrating Scotland’s Art’, The Scottish National Gallery Project
Neil Lebeter, Senior Curator: Modern & Contemporary Art, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales


In late 18th-century Europe, a number of royal art collections were nationalised. The purpose of such institutions was to house significant collections of art that would be representative of the nation and its cultural aspirations. The best way to achieve this aim has been subject to continual debate. Some institutions have prioritised displays of recognised masterpieces in order to elevate local art production and the perceived cultural status of the nation. Others have provided a national forum for art either by resident artists or that depicts subjects of national interest. With large, historic collections, these strategies are rarely distinct and often overlap. Factors that shape the display policy might include the political climate, economic considerations and social necessity. The physical space available and location of the gallery can also determine the presentation made and whether or not it is seen as successful. More recently, the development of new technologies has broadened audiences for national art collections to a global scale. With increased visibility comes greater public scrutiny about the processes by which collections are formed and displayed, as well as how representative they are of contemporary society. Thus, the papers in this session examine the historic and continuing role of a variety of national art institutions, interrogating the relevancy of the collected image of a nation that they purport to represent.



Freya Spoor and Neil Lebeter

Avoiding the ‘Omnium Gatherum’: National identity and collection building

Melanie Polledri (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales)

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales (AC-NMW) was an institution hard fought for. Coming well after its sister institutions in Scotland and Ireland, its Royal Charter was eventually granted in 1907. Following a wave of political and cultural Welsh revivals, the new museum proclaimed with nationalist vigour that its aims were ‘to teach the stranger about Wales and the Welsh about their fatherland’ (Programme of the ceremony of the laying of the Foundation Stone, (1912) Cardiff: AC-NMW). The initial imperative was to build an art collection of the ‘highest national importance’ by avoiding the ‘omnium gatherum’ of haphazard collecting policies (W. G. John, (1913) Method of Purchasing Works of Art, AC-NMW Archive). Yet, despite the best of intentions, this programme was embedded within late-19th century worldviews that rendered the British Empire (and all that it entails) an assumed and invisible norm.

This paper considers the legacy of such collecting and display policies. It contributes to ongoing debates by considering how museum professionals approach these collections to make them meaningful within, in this instance, a Welsh global context. In an age of renewed activisms, how do we redress the collecting policies of our predecessors, whose imperial endeavours are now considered at best inappropriate and at worst offensive and just plain wrong, to increasingly multicultural and diverse audiences? In rejecting the old order of one gaze and one narrative, this paper examines how democratic approaches to the interpretation of the collections explores national identities within, to name just a few, black, Asian, feminist, and LGBTQ+ communities in Wales.

European National Museums Rhetoric

Sofia Mali (Buckinghamshire New University)

This paper explains why, despite the efforts of national museums to democratise their offerings, curating still reconstructs the ideology of the ‘national’, which in itself is inclusive of a unitary identity, exclusive of the ‘other’ and hence, incompatible with the rhetoric of the ‘democratic’. The paper’s central focus is on the curatorial concepts/practices of ‘democratisation’ and ‘demystification’ which have become incorporated into the curatorial practices of contemporary national museums around the world and which are used in the construction of their exhibitions.

Briefly, ‘democratisation’ as used in this context, suggests making exhibitions which are inclusive of and welcoming to a wide audience, providing equal opportunities for all to access exhibitions; and ‘demystification’ here, means, constructing exhibitions free of culturally informed perceptions and of deliberate manipulation of ideology-specific exhibitionary messages. Exhibitions, as well as being products of culture/power are also a product of curatorial research and are informed by the latest curatorial ‘currents’. What is articulated here, is the way in which the discourse/practices of democratisation and demystification serve a reconstruction of concepts and practices around the national to offer an understanding of the conditions that allow the reproduction/reconstruction of a specific, ‘unitary’ and therefore ‘undemocratic’ national identity within the final visual outcome (that is, images and texts) of national museum exhibitions.

Representing National Heroes as Transnational Actors: Nordic studio museums

Charlotte Ashby (Birkbeck, University of London)

Alongside national galleries of art, artists’ studio museums were some of the first public art galleries in the Nordic countries and continue to be prominent in the field today. Such museums were established as the joint initiatives of artists, national and local government, and the general public, and were enshrined as monuments to national creativity embodied in the nation’s artist-heroes. This process was intimately connected with the establishment of a unified national art historiography and the production of hagiographic texts publicising the importance of these artist-heroes in the ‘revival’ of the national art culture.

These museums remain in operation and the hagiography they represent remains largely intact in the message disseminated to the local and touristic audiences the museums address. This message is increasingly out of step with art histories that have turned away from stories of national genius towards an emphasis on transnational art cultures and studies of the networks, structures and institutions that lie behind the success of such key actors. This paper will explore ways in which such museums can interact with these debates. Frequently, collections include the artists’ libraries and papers, which reveal an alternative story of the artist as intimately intertwined in transnational debates and communities. Finding ways to make this parallel story visible to visitors is a key step in revealing the museum as not merely a repository of national culture, but as an actor in its ongoing invention.

Britain of the South: The role of Britain in New Zealand’s national art institutions

Anya Samarasinghe (University of Auckland)

The formation of New Zealand’s major national art institutions parallels the genesis of New Zealand as a nation in the context of a settler-colonial identity. Many migrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw New Zealand as an outpost of Britain and a ‘Britain of the South.’

Using Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki (AAG), opened in 1888, as its chief example, this paper will draw attention to concerns around encounters between the colonial heritage of New Zealand’s art collections, and its relevance and place in a contemporary context.  Narratives around who identifies with a particular aspect of a nation’s history is a charged topic. These early works, particularly the Victorian and Edwardian artworks, which form a significant portion of the nascent collection, can act as nexus for conversations around how these works can be relocated into a more inclusive view of New Zealand heritage, one that still engages with its connection to Britain. Looking at the history of an institution such as AAG, there are still significant links with Britain, evidenced by the exchange of exhibitions that occur on an ongoing basis and the continual display of permanent collection works acquired in the early colonial period. How can these collections be presented in a way that does not set them diametrically opposed to the burgeoning drive for more New Zealand art – specifically more representation of Māori and Pasifika in national institutions? 

Who is the Britain within Tate Britain: Or how can Tate critique notions of ethno-nationalism when initiating safe(r) space for People of Colour in a post-Brexit Britain?

Janine Francois (Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London)

‘Safe(r) spaces’ has reached mainstream attention with arguments for and against its use. Whilst competing definitions may circulate, this paper will define what a ‘safe(r) space’ is whilst problematising if Tate Britain can be a 'safe(r) space’ to discuss race and cultural differences? Tate Britain is an art museum entrusted to the ‘British’ public, however, it’s frequent and most ‘traditional’ audiences are often white and middleclass. I will pose, ‘who is the ‘Britain’ within Tate Britain? And how does this contend with ‘Britain/Britishness’ that is transnational, racial, historical and colonial, as national events like ‘Brexit’ (2016) and the ‘Windrush Scandal’ (2018) has shown it to be? By interrogating the historical, ontological and textual framings of Tate Britain through comparing the art works and wall texts of Brunia’s ‘Dancing Scene in West Indies’ (1764-96) and Piper’s ‘Go West Young Man’ (1987) both artworks depicts enslaved bodies for differing reasons and temporalities. And adopting Araeen’s (2010) critique of whiteness pervading cultural institutions alongside Hall’s questionings of heritage, nationhood, memorialisation (2008). This paper will explore who is ‘safety’ intended for and what are they seeking safety from? Especially as ‘safety’ is employed through the discourse of surveillance culture to protect the white-western-neo-liberal-nation-state. Therefore, how might a site like Tate Britain reinforce dominant structures through security, curatorial /interpretation and public programming? I will conclude by proposing ‘brave(r)’ spaces as both a counter-position to ‘safe(r) spaces,’ and as a praxis for art museums to address their colonial histories through the lenses of intersectionality and decoloniality. 





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