GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Title of Paper:
Displaying in/the Peninsula: Museums as creators of a visual identity
Paper Proposal Text :
Since the 1960s, and specifically after the early 1970s, the use of museums as a form through which to create and project visual identity – national and regional – has flourished in the Arab Peninsula. As institutions that are seen internationally as both producing and consuming visual culture, museums have the responsibility to enable visitors (actual and virtual) to interact, learn from and participate with existing and emerging visual cultures and representations. Specifically since the beginning of this century museum creation and building has grown extensively in the Peninsula, particularly in the UAE and Qatar. With this has come the museum as symbol of nationhood and modernity, both representing as well as regulating visual culture. Projects across the region have been led predominantly by expatriate museum professionals, hired for their curatorial and museological skills, thereby directly impacting these new museums’ projection of visual identity and culture.

This presentation will discuss aspects of the impact of western display aesthetics and methods in Peninsula art museums and their production of meaning. As museums have spread globally from Europe/North America the hypothesis used in this presentation is that many (though not necessarily all) museums in the Peninsula utilise aspects of western museum theory and/or practice, and that this is manifested visually to the population through display. Display is a museum’s primary form of communication with visitors, and as such has a direct impact on the consumption and therefore understanding of visual culture. How museums engage and communicate through display in western museums is based on rarely questioned cultural understandings. Certain cultural aspects are prominent within museums, such as the primacy of the visual, and these have spread with the concept of western museums around the world.

However, forms of communication and the preference and use of some forms over others, is not universal but culturally specific, and bound with regional, national and community identities. Within the Peninsula for museums this is compounded by the highly global nature of populations and therefore the wide variety of methods of consumption, and accompanying social values placed on visual culture by different communities.

Using both theoretical and in-museum research conducted in three Peninsula countries this analysis will show the impact and influences of imported display aspects and their possible understandings within Peninsula visual culture, many of which do not align with their western understandings. Two examples include ocularcentrism and silent reading. These practices have travelled from Europe with museums globally however they are not universal. Many cultures have alternate orderings of senses than that of the west, yet these are most often not utilised in museum display.

Cross-cultural communication theory has been defined as the study of communication between cultures. As museum visual display is a form of non-verbal communication, components of cross-cultural theory such as chronemics illustrate some of the often-overlooked aspects of how and what visual display produces and communicates. The culture-specific understandings of aspects such as space and colour, and their implications for proxemics within displays can also give significant insight into what art and displays may - or may not - be communicating, and why, and therefore what identity may be consumed.

By examining these ingrained components of bother western and Peninsula museum display this presentation will show that visual and cultural aspects and understandings play an important role, possibly a decisive one, in communication, and therefore the consumption of visual culture in museums. Indeed, components of display understood in the west may be conveying a completely different message to Peninsula museum visitors.

This examination is not only pertinent to museums in the region but also to those in the west attempting to attract more diverse audiences, and may contribute to the understandings of why some communities are not active museum users.