April 1, 2018, by Mike Heffernan

Reading Group: Making Spaces of Display

The AHRC Conferencing the International reading group gathered around the now familiar table in the Hogarth Room on the 1st March to consider three essays on ‘Making Spaces of Display’, a theme that connects with several aspects of the AHRC project on the politics of event management. The reading group meeting also foreshadowed a project workshop, held at Primary in Nottingham three weeks later, on 27th March, to facilitate conversations between project members and professional practitioners from Nottingham museums and galleries who have direct experience of organising exhibitions and related events.

The first essay, introduced by David Beckingham, is the opening chapter in Timothy Luke’s Museum Politics: Power Plays at the Exhibition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002) on the ‘Politics at the Exhibition: Aesthetics, History, Nationality in the Culture Wars’. In this essay, Luke, who is an American political scientist and co-author of several articles with political geographer Gerard Toal, his Virginia Tech colleague, provides an engaging commentary on the controversies associated with a 1991 exhibition at the National Museum of American Art (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) on ‘The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier 1820-1920’. This widely-debated exhibition drew extensively on the so-called ‘new Western historiography’ that emerged during the 1970s and 1980s, exemplified by Richard Slotkin’s massive revisionist trilogy on the American frontier as a space of violence and redemption which was nearing its completion in 1991.[1]

Conservative critics, led by the former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, were outraged at the exhibition’s critical perspective on the traditional idea of the American western frontier as a nation-defining, liberty-cultivating environment of fearless hunters and homesteaders, noting the irony of a generously-funded Washington museum challenging quintessentially American values of independence and fortitude that had been forged on the frontier just as these ideals triumphed around the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ‘victory’ of the United States and its allies in the first Gulf War. For Boorstin, ‘The West as America’ exhibition was evidence of a pernicious and disputatious multi-culturalism that was fragmenting the consensual, assimilationist vision of American political culture which Smithsonian museums had been established to defend and promote, a familiar lament that won surprising support from some liberal and even left-leaning cultural critics.[2]

As Luke argues, however, the controversies generated by this exhibition cannot be reduced to a simple ideological clash between traditional conservatives and progressive revisionists. By contrasting the grandiosity of the Smithsonian exhibition with the more playful displays of Americana in Gene Autry’s Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles (a site beloved of cultural geographer and historian of American kitsch Dydia DeLyser), Luke reveals that our ideas the American West, whether conservative or revisionist, owe far more than we might wish to acknowledge to historical visions derived from cinema, advertising and other forms of cultural representation identified by the term ‘entertainmentality’, a concept which – as David Beckingham noted – has been developed by the British historian Peter Bailey.

Despite all the angry recriminations, ‘The West as America’ was a very successful exhibition, at least in terms of the number of visitors. Indeed it seems likely that subsequent Smithsonian exhibitions in the 1990s – on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, on African-American migration from the rural south to the cities of the industrial north, and on the end of World War Two – adopted similarly revisionist perspectives on these other aspects on America’s history, while also giving a voice to previously overlooked constituencies, precisely to generate comparable levels of public debate and interest. In the last of these examples, however, the planned exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War Two was effectively stymied altogether by pre-emptive attacks from conservative critics, and others, who were angered by the original decision of the National Air and Space Museum to display the Enola Gay, the aircraft from which the atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima, as the centrepiece of the exhibition. If the 19th century history of the American West was at least available for discussion in 1991, the legitimacy of the United States as global hegemon after World War Two was less willingly re-negotiated in 1995.

Topics discussed in the reading group emerging from this essay included the dynamics of exhibition spaces, the role of curators in choreographing encounters between people and objects (a theme revisited in the subsequent project workshop in central Nottingham), and the wider politics of visual display, the latter reflecting on the work of Gillian Rose and others. A valuable final observation was provided by Jake Hodder who noted that the seemingly entrenched American disputes of the 1990s, which focused on the role of the Smithsonian as custodian of the nation’s cultural heritage, are almost unimaginable today, though for reasons that would have surprised the original protagonists. For the current generation of embittered, disillusioned and anti-government American conservatives, including those associated with the Trump administration, it is simply impossible to imagine that a Washington museum could be anything other than deeply subversive of American values.

The second essay was a more recent article by a former undergraduate and PhD student from the School of Geography at Nottingham, Harriet Hawkins, now developing a stellar career pioneering research in the ‘geo-humanities’ at Royal Holloway. Hawkins’s essay, ‘Geography and art – an expanding field: site, the body and practice’, Progress in Human Geography 37 (2013) 52-71, was introduced by Philip Jagassar who provided a close and detailed reading of its various parts. As Philip noted, this is essentially a review essay for student consumption, of a kind that features commonly in PIHG. It reviews cultural geography’s engagement with art, conceived both as a historical discipline of analysis and criticism and as a creative practice. Drawing on the work on Rosalind Krauss’s discussions of art’s ‘expanded field’, Hawkins argues that the geography-art connection has widened and deepened since the 1980s when a pioneering generation of cultural geographers, led in the UK by Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels, began to re-consider artistic representations of landscape from an explicitly geographical perspective using modified versions of techniques developed in the preceding decades by historians of art.

According to Hawkins, a new generation of cultural geographers have built on this earlier work in recent years, while shifting their focus from the early-modern European artistic representations favoured by Cosgrove and the 18th and 19th century English paintings analysed by Daniels to consider a wider range of artistic forms, many produced in the last century. A new and expanded sense of landscape has emerged from this manoeuvre, claims Hawkins, which has less to do with the study of different forms of representation and more to do with the sites where artistic work is created through different kinds of embodied practice. The journey traced by Hawkins is, therefore, from an earlier representational cultural geography defined by its associations with art history to a new, non-representational cultural geography shaped by the creative impulses that inspire artistic practice in the present.

There is a great deal to admire in this essay, though its historiographical character, and focus on a rather narrowly defined disciplinary story, even when invoking different forms of inter-disciplinarity, limits the scope to demonstrate exactly how geographical concepts such site, space, place, environment and indeed landscape have worked differently with reference to specific examples of creative art practice. One might also challenge some aspects of the essay’s narrative arch, specifically the implication that an earlier generation of cultural geographers (who were themselves anxious to differentiate their work from that of an even earlier generation of conservative, mainly American cultural geographers whose methods and ideas were borrowed from anthropology and archaeology) operated within a largely pre-20th century representational framework and had little to do with artistic practice. After all, it was this ‘intermediate’ generation of British cultural geographers, influenced by the crises of UK higher education in the 1970s and 1980s, who readily embraced the need to design and curate exhibition sites and spaces in which to display their work, surely a form of creative art practice.

The final essay considered at the reading group was a very recent 2017 PIHG article, apparently the first in a series of review essays, by the Cambridge political geographer Alex Jeffrey that introduces some of his fascinating work on legal geographies, specifically the ‘materiality’ and spatial organisation of law courts. Introduced by a somewhat sceptical Mike Heffernan, the essay provoked an interesting discussion about the development of legal spaces of display (‘justice must be done, and be seen to be done’!), the nature of legal rhetoric, and the relationship between modern law courts and the ‘court societies’ that surrounded Medieval and early-modern monarchies, discussed so brilliantly many years ago by sociologist Norbert Elias and other historians of cultural mores, customs and manners.

The reading group also discussed international contrasts in legal spatialities, determined by the various judicial traditions and conventions in different countries, a theme surprisingly ignored in Jeffrey’s article. This latter point is especially relevant to the AHRC project on international conferences. Although Jeffrey’s research is primarily – and justifiably – concerned with how the spatial organisation of British courts influences legal processes and outcomes today, the themes he explores are highly pertinent to an historical consideration of the design and organisation of international legal courts. It’s interesting to note in this regard that the specially designed Nuremberg courts in which leading Nazis were tried after 1945 were designed by the same group of American architects deployed by the OSS (the precursor of the CIA) to design the venue for the 1945 Conference on International Organisation in San Francisco which produced the UN Charter.

[1] Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier 1600-1860 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973); The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization 1800-1890 (New York: Atheneum, 1985); and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Atheneum, 1992).

[2] Boorstin, who was a member of the Communist Party during his student days at Harvard in the 1930s, moved inexorably to the political right after 1945 and became, by the 1980s, the pre-eminent advocate of the consensual and conservative vision of American cultural and political history. For a liberal version of Boorstin’s concerns about the damaging impact of ‘political correctness’ and ‘culture wars’, see Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars (New York: Henry Holt, 1995).

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