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  • Writer's pictureCait McQuade

Displaying Processes of Knowledge: How Do Museum Exhibitions Know What They Know?

Updated: May 13, 2020

Please welcome my first-ever guest poster, Stephanie Pearson! She makes videos and writes essays about museums at and Ideas on Display. We traded posts this month: visit her blog to find mine, about a museum in Mexico..


Hello readers! I’m delighted at the invitation to do this guest post, and moreover, to have found a kindred spirit in the subject of museum display (or rather, that she found me). This post is a small contribution to our common project of analyzing the impact of different display decisions. It takes archaeology as the focus material and explores how it can be shown in a way that promotes critical thinking. Museums can be different things to different people. What a museum should ultimately be or do is a question to which not only specialists but museumgoers at large will have widely varying answers to. A museum can be a place to encounter new stories and ideas; to visit your favorite object one more time; to let your kids explore and learn hands-on; to escape the summer heat into an air-conditioned interior! One of the things I think a museum can do is help us to look closely, compare, contrast, analyze, and see things from a new perspective. Taken together, I would call these actions critical thinking—“critical” not in the sense of negative, but in the sense of an intensive analysis that might throw into question the very premise of an interpretation presented to us. To think critically means to ask what the basis for our interpretation is, how we came to formulate it, and whether it is valid—where “interpretation” often goes under the slightly misleading name of “knowledge,” which we forget to question. As a teacher, but more importantly, as a person in the world, I think critical thinking is a vital Tool for Life: it helps us deal with complex issues in a thoughtful way, which, to judge from the newspaper headlines, is a major challenge of our times. Okay, even if you’ve hopped aboard my train of critical thought and are willing to go along with it at least for the sake of getting to the picture part of the essay, maybe you’re still skeptical (good! You’re already thinking critically!). Maybe you’re asking, Even if museums should actively seek to encourage critical thinking, how could they do so effectively without plastering their walls with philosophical texts that no one will read? I’m so glad you asked! Museums can promote critical thinking with only minimal changes to their displays, and texts no longer than the existing ones. The display itself is the basis for the change: what objects are shown, next to which other objects, and with what sort of texts. That’s exactly what museums are already doing! The only difference is to tweak these components to highlight how we came to the interpretations that are normally presented as “knowledge” (in what Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art, calls “the curatorial God-voice of anonymous authority”) and thus remain unquestioned. But questioning is useful! Questioning makes us more able to handle complex issues—and the world is nothing if not complex. It turns out not to be so hard to display the way we “know” what we “know”—what one fantastic exhibition on this topic called our “processes of knowledge.” Here is just a small selection of techniques by which this is possible. The examples are drawn from Pergamonmuseum, Das Panorama, a fairly new exhibition of antiquities in Berlin that was curated together with a contemporary artist, leading to some new methods of display. (You can watch a short tour by the vice director of the museum on Youtube, with good English subtitles.) Three Ways to Display Processes of Knowledge in an Archaeology Museum

1. Show uncertainty in the text

Disembodied heads of stone are a common sight in museums of ancient art and archaeology. It might be argued that they are more interesting when we know what person they represent; but it’s also interesting to see how that identification might work—or not! Here the object text on the wall voices uncertainty about who this head represents, and why it’s hard to tell: “The frequently voiced opinion that the head is a portrait of the last king of Pergamon, Attalos III, cannot be proved: there is no trace of a royal headband, nor do we possess any securely attributed portraits of him on coins.” Instead of certainty, we have an air of mystery… and an idea of the interpretive process. This could be effectively paired with a game, in which the visitor learns some ways to identify the king’s portrait (headband, etc.) and then applies this to some examples. Just as an idea.

2. Show variations in the reconstruction

Most ancient art is not perfectly preserved. How it looked in its original display context can differ dramatically from how it looks today. Highlighting this is a great way to make viewers aware of the many decisions that go into research and museum display, and affect our understanding of the ancient objects. A female standing statue in the Pergamonmuseum exhibition is a great example: while the statue today appears to be a plain white marble, in fact it used to be brightly painted. A light projection from above reconstructs the possible original colors in a slowly changing series, so you can see immediately that there are numerous color options. The preserved traces of paint on the statue don’t allow a single definitive reconstruction. Learning via a stunning light show, who’d have thought!

3. Show the interpretive process via modern art

Another way to show that modern interpretations of archaeology are constructed, and therefore multifaceted and subjective, is by shining a spotlight on our modern interpretive “filters.” One of my favorite ways to do this is by juxtaposing modern art with ancient art. A number of exciting shows have done this (you can read more about them in my essay over here ) and the Pergamonmuseum does too. In one case, an ancient marble head of Hercules looks across the visitor’s path to a series of paintings by contemporary artist Yadegar Asisi, who helped conceive this exhibition. To my mind, this is a visualization of what researchers and curators do: based on an ancient object, come up with a more filled-out version of its story. That’s it! Exactly how we do this, based on what evidence, is different from one discipline to another: researchers might use certain sources in order to uncover something about a past society, while artists might use certain other sources in order to uncover something about our own society. But the general process is astonishingly similar, because the end result is an interpretation.

Your thoughts on this essay are most welcome—send them to the email address web[at]

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