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Spilling over the Canvas of Convention: A Brief Look at Museums and Galleries

'This fascinating article looks at the boundaries between art and science, and how the two can be blurred through digital technologies and interactives. In working towards a modernising of the museum and gallery space, O'Connor explores the permanence of the 'fourth wall' and how the spectator can help change our digital artistic landscape for future generations.'

Matilda Bentley

Spilling over the Canvas of Convention:

A Brief Look at Museums and Galleries

Kristen O'Connor

Conventions are made to be broken. In the sciences as well as the arts, progress is contingent upon shifting boundaries and exposing the unimaginable as not only possible, but as truth. The minds and hearts most hailed by history are those which challenge the known, dissolve social norms, and construct new paradigms. Whether by a full-speed breakthrough or a slow, shuffling gait, we step ever-closer to new possibilities only as we step away from that which is familiar. While this fluidity of convention is perhaps more readily understood at the macro level, it becomes less concrete at the micro scale. What does change actually look like in a lifetime, a generation, a year?

The conventions of galleries and museums have suffered the growing pains of progress, like any other. Long ago, these spaces were once regarded as a novelty of exotic art and artefacts, from the Babylonian princess who curated what may have been the earliest museum in 530 BC (Grande 2017) to the ‘cabinets of curiosities’ and ‘wonder rooms’ of 16th and 17th century Europe (Lubar 2018). Throughout history, these budding museums were typically organized by aristocratic types, replete with displays of art, artefacts, and specimens which would express both the wealth and intellectual tastes of the organizer. Such spaces were intended to spark astonishment, and simultaneously to satisfy the self-serving nature of their curators. The price paid to line these halls of bewilderment with objects often involved exploitation, looting, stealing, cultural appropriation, and far worse atrocities. The classification systems within these early museums also catered to the ‘great chain of being’, a longstanding concept originating in ancient Greece which placed all living and nonliving things in a hierarchy of complexity, superiority, and value (Kable 2014). This conceptual ‘chain’ or ‘ladder’ positioned god above man, king above commoner, man above woman, and humanity above all other life.

Out of the antiquarian movement, modern museums and galleries of the 18th century were born. Throughout Europe in this time, many public museums began to open, most notably the Louvre and the British Museum, although entrance was still largely reserved for upper- and middle-class visitors. The style of these founding museums were an improvement to the ‘wonder room’ era, but continued to project a directive of colonialism. Earlier views of “civilized” and “savage” were at the forefront of cultural exhibitions, and many of these institutions established themselves as an authoritative voice over artistic and scientific discourse. It wasn’t until the dawn of the 19th century that scientists such as Darwin took a pair of bolt cutters to the ‘great chain of being’, and until the 20th century that anthropologists became self-aware of the inherently racist and Western perspectives pervasive in cultural studies.

Fastforwarding to the 21st century, modern museums and galleries have come a long way since their predecessors, incorporating cultural relativity, modern science, and increasingly better public engagement tactics. But have they really changed all that much? Broadly speaking, communication tends to remain unidirectional and interactivity is at a bare minimum. Visitors are assumed to arrive with an interest, be willing to read, and ready to absorb the knowledge provided to them as open receptacles, despite the fact that this is not always the case. Many museums and galleries still appear steeped in the residue of antiquarian methods, while a small few are spilling onto new shores. Without overlooking the continuous funding cuts and limited resources museums and galleries have to pull from, there is still much more that can be done to instate change in the present and future. Perhaps the answers lie in pixels.

A new era or smoke and mirrors?

Simone Vezzani’s 3D art video provides a succinct visual metaphor for the shifting of gallery conventions. The short video shows a wall in Berlin’s Bode Museum of 15th century paintings, when suddenly one of them comes to life. The painting appears to pour from its frame, the colors oozing into a free-form mass that hovers slowly through the room. Such a sight quaintly draws into question our notions of displaying and viewing art, begging the mind to explore new possibilities.

Another notable project is teamLab, an art collective of “ultratechnologists” based in Tokyo that designs otherworldly digital installations. Their creations not only place visitors in a fantastic realm of amorphic lights, colors, shapes, and sounds, but these scenes are also responsive to visitor interactivity. For example, touching a wall or bulb may initiate a room-wide shift in color or tone. While these experiences are themselves the exhibition, they provide a glimpse into new toolkits and tactics for setting the senses aglow, for engagement, for excitement, and for crafting a truly memorable display.

These are but two examples which appear on the surface to be recalibrating how people view and interact with modern museums and galleries. But do they really represent a change in the sector? I think so, but I do not claim to have the answers. What I do claim is that museums and galleries are long overdue for a makeover, and our digital era has made this possible on the most profound of levels. Whether or not these institutions take the reigns and power forward is another matter. Digital interactives are not limited to the awe-inspiring examples mentioned above, and can include anything from basic social media engagement to virtual and augmented reality. What they offer is an opportunity for museums and galleries to break out of the physical barrier and tear down the ‘fourth wall’ of the audience. Visitors are as much a part of a gallery as its displays, not empty vessels into which information must flow. Art and artefacts are not merely objects of the past, but nodes of connection between the past and the present - windows into the hearts and minds of those who dreamed before us.

How do we continue this digital push? As visitors you are the ones who can actually help inspire change - by supporting novel exhibitions, by talking to staff, by filling out those silly little comment cards you think nobody ever reads. No one person can usher in a new paradigm. It is by the persistent work of the many who instigate change from the inside out and from the outside in. Further, while the collapse of conventions can bring with it new social and cultural insights, it should not be done haphazardly. It is important for us all to look back and see where we’ve been so we know what road we’re on. And so we march forward to the beat of shared wonder, armed with telescopes, paint brushes, and pixels.


Grande, Lance. 2017. Curators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums. University of Chicago Press.

Kable. 2014. The Great Chain of Being in Elizabethan Times. Youtube.

Lubar, Steven. 2018. “Cabinets of Curiosity.” Medium. Medium. October 1, 2018.

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