James Putnam
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From British Museum Magazine, No.41 Autumn/Winter 2001

Sacha Craddock interviews James Putnam.

Sacha Craddock: There has recently been a strong shift in the relationship between the art gallery and the museum, a distinction which seems to have become increasingly blurred. Could I begin by asking you simply to define what you understand to be the differences in function between the art gallery and the museum?

James Putnam: I’ll take the two most obvious and appropriate examples, given the context of our discussion? the Tate Gallery and The British Museum. It seems significant that when Nicholas Serota and his colleagues were reviewing what to call the institution they were effectively relaunching, they decided to drop the word? Gallery? from the titles in favour of simply Tate Modern and Tate Britain. I imagine there were a number of considerations based on popular perceptions of the words ‘Gallery’ and ‘Museum’. ‘Gallery’ inevitably evokes the idea of paintings hung in a specific space; unlike the word ‘museum’, it doesn’t necessarily suggest the idea of a permanent collection. In fact many art institutions, such as the Hayward Gallery and the Whitechapel Gallery, embrace this idea, in that they are spaces to exhibit art which have no permanent collection ? they are what the Germans call ‘Kunsthallen’. Yet the Tate does, of course, have a collection and also exhibits contemporary art. Perhaps significantly it didn?t follow the most influential example, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, by calling itself the Tate Museum of Modern Art. When I recently interviewed the eminent art historian Ernst Gombrich, he pointed out that a museum of modern art is itself a contradiction in terms. If we consider the image that is conjured up in peoples? minds by the word ‘museum’, they inevitably think of an institution that has more associations with the past rather than the present. I don’t think they immediately think of art. At the British Museum we have a collection that includes some great works of art, but we are certainly not intending our visitors to focus their attention exclusively on the appreciation of the artistic. In fact, some of the most inspiring objects in our collections were created for votive or utilitarian purposes and not as art for art’s sake.

SC:You came from another discipline to establish a strong involvement with contemporary art. Can you chart this transition and say what you principally consider yourself to be doing now?

JP: I’m actually an art historian by training, and when I was studying the subject I was disillusioned by its limited and rigid parameters which focussed essentially on the history of Western art. At the time, it was not easy in this country to study ancient Egyptian or Greek art unless you became an archaeologist or a classicist, or to study African art without reading anthropology. I was lucky enough to get a job in the Egyptian Department here at the Museum, which gave me the opportunity to learn a lot about the subject through years of working with the collection. Yet my interest in ancient Egypt was paralleled and eventually superseded by a passion for contemporary art. But how do you study contemporary art? You can’t study it at university, because if it is truly ‘contemporary’ it is of the present, so you have to get out and see as many exhibitions and shows as possible to have any idea of what’s going on, right here, right now. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the last ten years and I’ve found it fascinating to contrast this activity with that of my previous discipline, in which I was immersed in the investigation of the past. I’ve become increasingly interested in the way the past and the present can trade off each other and this has led me to investigate the exciting area of juxtaposing the culture of the past with that of the present.

SC: Can you elaborate a little on the change in attitude in which even the most off-hand, current artwork is absorbed into an historical understanding. It may be forgotten that the relationship, for instance, between the Tate and contemporary art is still relatively recent. Maybe the tendency to absorb contemporary practice and make instant art history influences the museum as well? What do you think?

JP: That’s a good question. We’ve got a situation at the moment in which artists have, comparatively recently, adopted a ‘museological position’. In other words, artists have the opportunity to have their work acquired and exhibited by a public institution in their own lifetime. You used to have to be dead to enjoy that privilege! By acquiring contemporary works of art, museums validate them as being worthy of preservation, conferring on them an ‘official’ seal of quality, and, perhaps indirectly, accord them historical significance. Sceptics are only too quick to postulate that certain contemporary artists, who may be ‘flavour of the month’, will be forgotten and unfashionable within the next decade. Yet they overlook the fact that once they’re in a public collection they’re here to stay, since in the UK public museums are forbidden to de-accession their objects. The fact is that once artists are acknowledged by a museum as very visible, and hence ‘important’, within the microcosm of the contemporary art world, they arguably reflect the culture or taste of that moment in history and are henceforward deemed culturally significant. This practice of institutional validation naturally affects the artists themselves, who in turn drive and sustain the museum acquisition system, which can lead to their works being preserved for posterity in the context and company of acknowledged masterpieces. So there’s a fascinating two way process going on, in which artists influence museums and museums influence artists.

SC: Can you talk about ‘Time Machine’ held here at the British Museum in 1994 and in Turin a year later? To summarise ‘Time Machine’ for those who didn?t see it, twelve contemporary artists were invited to create a response to the Museum’s Egyptian collection with works in various media which were intermingled with the historical artefacts. What were the main responses and objections to that exhibition, if any ?

JP: The responses to the exhibition were great, certainly better than my museum colleagues and I had ever expected or hoped for. It was undeniably a huge success, critically acclaimed by the media; but most importantly it was well received by our visitors. Our Education Department was particularly active, with an excellent programme for schools and art colleges. They also did extensive video interviews with a broad cross-section of the public and museum staff which are extremely informative. It was also significant in that it attracted a new young adult audience to the Museum which doesn’t usually come to our historical shows. It was experimental, not based on a tried and tested formula, and thus ran the risk of being a failure. The Museum was very brave to go ahead with it.

SC:You discuss the whole notion of display in your book. Why do you think this has became such a preoccupation in contemporary art?

JP: It’s funny you should mention the word display because I carefully avoided ever using it as a topic for discussion in the book. I feel the word display when applied to art sounds cheap and trivial. I would rather refer to it as presentation: in the book I examine the influence of the language of museological presentation on contemporary artists ? their use of taxonomic arrangements and museum devices like vitrines and descriptive labels.

SC: When, in your opinion, does the placing of contemporary art in the museum context fail?

JP: Its rather harsh to say it fails because I’m sure that there are always some people who are moved and some who are not. Although the National Gallery’s ‘Encounters’ exhibition could be claimed as a great success, I found that because the contemporary works that were inspired by the masterpieces were isolated from them in a separate gallery, there was no dialogue or conversation. Similarly, in the V & A’s recent exhibition ‘Give and Take’, there seemed to be a lack of consideration for the architectural space which I believe is crucial for such interventions, although I thought that the installation of Marc Quinn’s sculptures with the Canova marbles worked brilliantly. I’ve got mixed feelings about the contemporary art commissions in the Science Museum’s Wellcome Wing, which seem to have become subordinate to the design of the interpretative display.

SC: You have organised a number of discussions with artists in the Museum. What kind of role do these occasions play? Also, what do you think some of the more notorious and newsworthy artists that you invite to talk at the Museum bring beyond their notoriety?

JP: I think the artists themselves feel very different about speaking here than they would at the Tate. For a start, I don’t encourage them to talk about their work, and try to focus their attention on our special exhibitions or our permanent collection which they are genuinely inspired by. I was really moved that Sarah Lucas improvised a sculpture using a dead chicken and a pair of melons while we were having a panel discussion. Gavin Turk, who also attended this discussion, came straight from hospital and spoke about witnessing the birth of his son, which couldn’t have been more appropriate to the topic of ‘Human Image Right Now!’ Similarly, Tracey Emin’s evening event was a spontaneous piece of performance art, embracing the spirit of the moment, and thus ‘contemporary’ in the true sense of the word.

SC: In a time when a simplistic post-modernism denies a relationship with history, is it outlandish to imagine that the Museum is more and more the place where possibilities can be set up?

JP: Although many contemporary artists may deny a relationship with history, their work is often linked to their own life-history. The British Museum is a museum of mankind. Its collection reflects all humanity, and that’s a great arena for reviewing the culture of the contemporary. As a kind of model of the world, the Museum’s heterogeneous nature provides the perfect foil to the enforced sterility of the art gallery space, the proverbial white cube. I believe the Museum can reclaim the spirit of endeavour it had a hundred years ago, when all sorts of exciting discoveries and breakthroughs were being made, providing a context for all kinds of possibilities.

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