The Museum is a Theater of Time

by Christopher Kennedy |

The museum is perhaps the greatest durational and ongoing performance modernity has ever encountered. From wonder rooms and cabinet of curiosities, to taxonomical libraries and mummified remains, the museum performs a specific version of history, by preserving certain artifacts for their display and adoration. Art museums in particular, play a pivotal role in translating historicized artifacts into a language of culture, but do so in a way that displaces the context and meaning of these works from their original form and experience. [1] In so doing, museums are not just a conservator of specific pasts, but rather a political and social instrument that shapes our collective identity and preserves the status quo.  Although, this may be something museums continue to address, Didier Maleuvre and others warns us that the “undoing of museal culture”, is still relevant today: “the community–aware, decentralized museums, which aim to find a mode of museum exhibition authentically tied to the life of the surrounding society, show that such concerns are still with us.” [2]

Despite such concerns, the prevailing discourse on museums and institutional practice rarely considers ways to step far outside the bounds of the accepted culture, and to reconsider and deconstruct the museum as something different altogether. The museum perhaps as a platform, a hub, or an atelier that is fundamentally shaped by the contextual and relational circumstances that defines its physical and conceptual boundaries, and the people that activate these concepts in the everyday. In this way, a museum can be much more than just a repository of artifacts, information and experiences – it can actually be a place of antagonistic confrontations with the ‘Other’, a place to deconstruct layered histories of oppression, and to find ways of ongoing adaptation and expression. Simon Sheikh points out “we cannot talk of art’s spaces as a common shared space we enter with equal experiences.” [3] Rather, we must imagine the museum as an unfolding arena where there is no generalized spectator but instead public spheres, where the notion of publicness is challenged in “opposition to the normative bourgeois public sphere.”  [3] In this negotiation, a kind of ‘counter public’ space can unfold – where “other or oppositional discourses and practices can be formulated and circulated.” [4] Here the architectural framework as Sheikh puts it, remains unchanged – yet the behaviors allowed within this space changes drastically. The counter public arena then allows for a more reflexive and relational kind of sociality to develop within a museum space, allowing it to organically circulate strategies for membership.

The museum has a central role in defining a culture, and with this comes a responsibility to go far beyond the preservation of artifacts that tell a particular story of history, and to instead provide a space that allows us to confront the ‘Other’, to tell histories untold, and to imagine new ones altogether. The needs are not budgetary or fiscal, but rather ideological. Here we must shift our view from the emergent politic of symbolic community engagement and move toward something more vulnerable and intimate – of integrating living systems, embodied experiences, of creating counter-public realms where the goings-on of a community merge alongside disruptive practices that provide opportunities for dialogue and real exchange. This will not happen in the form of a seminar or lecture, in the arts and crafts family day, in a conventional museum tour – but emerge in the ambiguous and relational nature of liminal spaces – an encounter just outside the museum, in the navigation of awkward lobbies, the gaze of security guards, in unexpected chance encounters with artists, with other people. Here the durational performance of the museum becomes an unfolding inquiry into life itself, as is perhaps disrupted with a cup of tea or something just as simple.


[1] Carol S. Jeffers (2003): Museum as process. Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 107-119.

[2] Didier Maleuvre (1999): Museum memories: History, technology, Art. Stanford.

[3] Simon Sheikh (2010): Letter to Jane (Investigation of a function). In: Mick Wilson and Paul O’Neill (eds.): Curating and the Educational Turn. Amsterdam, pp. 61-75.

[4] Oskar Negt/Alexander Kluge (1993): Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere. Minneapolis.


Christopher Kennedy is teaching artist and organizer who works collaboratively schools, youth and artists to create site-specific projects that investigate queer identity, radical schooling and local ecologies.

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