Challenging the Archive: Fred Wilson and the efficacy of Institutional Critique


 In 1992, the Maryland Historical Society hosted an exhibition by contemporary artist Fred Wilson. Taking objects from their collections and inserting them into their traditional displays, as well as making other sensorial interruptions in the museum, Wilson’s Mining the Museum became a now famous example of institutional critique. Many, however, are dubious as to how effective such a ‘criticism’ can be, and the effects of Wilson’s art work remain extremely thought-provoking. 

The primary aim of Wilson’s intervention was to challenge the perceived ‘truth’ of museum discourse. In the first room of the exhibition, the viewer was confronted with a ‘truth-telling’ prize, once awarded to advertisers. This purpose seems laughable today, when it is generally felt that truth and advertising are opposing concepts. The viewer is left to wonder how such a value could ever be attributed to a practice dedicated to presenting only what is favourable to them, with the aim of generating profit. However, having just seen a video-loop of Wilson inviting them to ask their own questions, it is assumed that they will then question whether ‘truth’ within the museum is any more viable than it is within advertising.


As such, the idea of truth, and its usually unassailable association with the host institution is undermined. Objectivity in the form of a monolithic opinion is no longer a realistic option, allowing Wilson to present a second strategy in substitution – a plurality of voices. This is most explicitly manifested in the third room of the display, where the unnamed black characters in colonial paintings were literally given voice in the form of motion-triggered recordings. However, this premise can be found throughout the exhibition, and was explicitly signalled to the viewer as they entered the building, to be greeted by a banner promising “another” history. The composition of Mining the Museum, therefore, destroys the idea of a single objective truth, possessed by the museum, and instead advocates a multi-layered understanding of the past.

Is this an accurate description of what happened within the piece? Was the truth of the museum allowed to resound together with many other truths? The artist stressed that he did not wish to replace one singular view with another, but merely aimed to use one to reveal the other as simply another opinion, so that both could co-exist. The issues explored within Mining the Museum, however, associate the previous ideology of the museum with violence and cruelty, which may damn it too strongly for it to be considered even a valid opinion. The implicit viciousness of the manacles and whipping post (placed in ‘Metalwork’ and ‘Cabinet-Making’ displays, respectively) become symbols of the museum’s, indeed all museums’, practice and message, discrediting it beyond rescue.


While in once sense this can be seen to shake the notion of encouraged variety, in another it has the potential to further close the eyes of the museum’s visitors. Might not Wilson’s statement be considered too heavy handed? Rather than causing the museums clientele (which, prior, to this exhibition was nearly exclusive made up of the white middle class) to question the institution and explore new viewpoints, the presence of the visible horror of slavery might simply push too hard. It is not difficult to imagine the visitor feeling that the artist equates their previous lack of challenge to historical hegemony with a complicity in this past atrocity. The feelings of guilt and anger this could produce in the regular museum goer could potentially therefore make them fonder of the singular ‘truth’ they previously encountered, rather than the perhaps implied accusations of ‘another’.

This feeling would perhaps be encouraged by the sheer efficacy of Wilson’s attempts to play chameleon to the norm. Of all the rooms within the museum, this theme of violence was more apparent within those which most closely resembled traditional museum display. In the installation ‘Modes of Transport’,seemingly neutral objects, such as the sedan chair, implicitly asked the viewer to consider who was carrying whom. The servitude of minorities supports and enables the movement and progression of white dominant elites, signified by the eerie presence of the Ku Klux Klan hood within a pram. This latter display also makes clear that this division perpetuates the association – in the place of a child, the hood is evidence of an inherent racism moulded in the cradle. Making use of the collection, Wilson demonstrates a historic division of labour by race, and suggests that its naturalisation ensures its continuation. This is most uncomfortably to those who, by virtue of being well-versed in the normative display of heritage, are most comfortable with the display before they notice this.


However, it is also in these space that the strengths of Wilson’s techniques become most apparent. Here, the viewer is interrupted by the ‘new’ objects before they can become reacquainted with the familiar. It is clear that the juxtapositions within this particular display – all the more strange for being familiar– interrupt the viewer’s process of naturalisation. They cannot merely glance at the display and move on, as these stumbling blocks force them to consider the strangeness, not only of Wilson’s intervention, but also of museums in general. Where usually silent acceptance of principles is usually demanded, Wilson’s space begs interrogation, acting as a visible disruption of the labour divide.

Often, critiques of institutional critique focus on their lack of real-life effect. Aside from changing or challenging the privileged viewer, or encouraging new audiences to these spaces, it is often said that they fall short of causing tangible change. In this sense, however, the theme of work proves to be a strength for Wilson, as his practice focussed on the present day labour divide within the institution itself. Prior to the work, the MHS received funding for employing a large number of minorities, regardless of the fact that the majority of these were in low-pay, low-responsibility jobs, with control still firmly in the hands of the white elite. As part of the Mining, Wilson sought out those who were experts, not on the ‘official’ history of the society, but on the ‘alternate’ he offered. He, therefore, awarded narrative power to those not only usually silent in the pages of history books, but also within museums themselves.

By reversing the division of labour in this way, Wilson re-proposed and enacted his solution to it: by offering a plurality of voices, the group representing the presented ideology would constantly shift, denying the formation of a binary between elite and subjugated. Though longevity and the sustainability of such a change remain problematic bookends to such a bold intervention, Wilson’s piece nonetheless appears to directly respond to these criticisms to his practices like his, as well as offering a more dynamic and democratic model of information harvesting and historical storytelling.

However, the simple fact remains that Wilson’s project was not as rebellious as it may seem. This was not a forced entry, with the artist rearranging objects and labels in the middle of the night. Though Wilson claimed to have selected the MHS due to its specific collection of “deep Americana”, the reality is that the museum invited him in. Furthermore, it was not alone; heritage organisations all over the city were clamouring for an intervention of this kind. As such, what is posited as a challenge to the museum is in fact often more of a collaboration with it. And while this reflects positively on the institutions themselves – who seem to be not just accepting of but also actively seeking change – it seems to dull the edge of the artist’s sword.

In the end, Wilson’s Mining the Museum remains a brilliant piece, and an excellent example of the concurrent contemporary artistic trends of institutional critique and of engagement with the ‘archive’. However, as usual, practical realities and contextual norms interrupt glorious ideology. No matter how affecting and eye-opening his interventions, these factors will always prompt murmurs of doubt to both the strength of Wilson’s bite, and to the visibility of the scar left behind.

Adapted from own essay originally produced as part of module Cultures of Collection and Display, studied at the University of St Andrews 2015.


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