Exhibiting the ‘Orient’ : historicising theory and curatorial practice in UK museums and galleries

Bryce, Derek and Carnegie, Elizabeth (2013) Exhibiting the ‘Orient’ : historicising theory and curatorial practice in UK museums and galleries. Environment and Planning A, 45 (7). pp. 1734-1752. ISSN 0308-518X

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Abstract

This article examines the extent to which theory emerges in practice within the context of museum curatorship and the public discourses surrounding it. The theoretical context is the legacy of Edward W. Said’s canonical study, Orientalism and its call for ‘Western’ reflexivity in the politics of representation of the Islamic Near East. We argue that Said’s study has, in its own right, engendered a field of professional academic discourse in the areas of Cultural Studies and Postcolonial Studies. We, however, begin to ask about the extent to which its arguments and insights explicitly inform the work of representation and interpretation of the material culture of the Near East in ‘Western’ institutions. This exploratory, study draws on four cases of exhibitions on Iranian, Turkish and the broader field of Islamic art in nationally funded or endorsed museums and galleries in the United Kingdom. All of the exhibitions took place following 2001 amongst cultural and political discourses concerning Islam during the so-called ‘War on Terror’. This convergence of an established ‘Saidian’ theoretical legacy and recent geopolitical events that once again raise questions about the relationship between ‘the West’ and ‘Islam’ allows these exhibitions and the discourses surrounding them to be historically emplotted in quite specific ways. Analysis of exhibition catalogues, consultants’ impact reports and interviews with curatorial staff leads us to conclude that while a specific engagement with Said’s work may not be in evidence, institutions and their staff do inhabit and act upon a discursive field that corresponds to that book’s priorities and agenda. This invites further investigation into the form and process within which critical theory makes the transition from citation and discussion in strictly academic discourse to actual implementation in historically situated organisational practice.