Tate Encounters


Editor for this Issue:
Andrew Dewdney

Editorial Board:
Victoria Walsh
David Dibosa
Isabel Shaw
Sarah Thomas
Morten Norbye Halvorsen

[E]dition Four: Post-critical Museology

The title of this edition of working papers announces a position that Tate Encounters is developing in relationship to the field of museum studies, and to the art museum itself. Post critical museology establishes itself upon an argument that whilst theoretical analysis has revealed the European museum as a product of specific post colonial and state knowledge/power discourses, most museums have not significantly changed their organisational and knowledge hierarchies to which the critique pointed. In the view taken here, the analysis of the museum achieved by critical museology has a practical corollary, as well as social trajectory, which is to overturn the central historical hierarchy of museum knowledge, not only in theory, but in practice1. In the terms of this argument, the practical corollary of critical museology is understood as the effort to change the practices of museums along the path of their ‘democratisation’, or, put another way, towards the realisation of the museum as fully public.

Over the last decade the critique of the European museum as an institution of regulation within a particular system of knowledge/power has been elucidated and established as an interdisciplinary academic discipline. Museum studies as Macdonald (2004) says, has ‘come of age’ and as we would add, is now taught in a wider variety of undergraduate and postgraduate courses in UK universities. Such a development is a cause for celebration for a number of reasons, not least amongst them being: that it reflects the continuing enjoyment of museums; it contributes to the further professionalisation of occupations in museums; and it establishes the academic base of a new field of enquiry. However, these very successes also represent an obstacle to the realisation of the critical project. The first problem is that Museum Studies, as organised in higher education, raises the question of how this new body of knowledge becomes useful. Museum studies as a discipline has been operationalised by universities within the framework of a new vocationalism, which is rooted in a culture of educational audit. Not only is the organisation of learning on museum studies courses subject to audit culture, but also the world to which this ‘teaching and learning’ about the museum is directed. Within cultural policy, museums are now included as part of the ‘creative industries’, and conceptualised around an economic audit. Thus the museum is subsumed within an operational field of the economic marketplace and its goal of exchange for profit. The ‘learning and teaching’ of museum studies is, in this sense, conducted as training for business, which is to say, business as usual in the museum. Here the audit cultures of learning and teaching and the audit culture of the museum elide.

The second and related problem is that the trajectory of critical museological knowledge remains precisely directed at undoing the ‘usual’ business of the museum. The effort here has been to understand the development of the museum as a knowledge/power system, or network, which operates to limit, or rather unwittingly thwart, the extension of the public realm. The burden of the critical project of museology has been to demonstrate how the museum positions both subject and object in what we might now term a ‘double gaze’. On the one hand, the critical effort has been to see and reveal how the curatorial practices of collection and display constitute historical artefacts as bearers of particularised meaning – about nations, cultures, histories, peoples – and on the other, how exhibitionary practices position the possible gaze of the spectator and construct particularised audiences. Now all of this knowledge is ‘out there’ in papers, books, journals, spoken at conferences and as part of the flow of virtual information, inclusive of this work. Critical museology is a currency amongst other currencies, a knowledge amongst knowledges to be accrued and held by individual knowledge holders – curators, educationalists, academics. But what of the institution that is the museum itself? How has critical museology impacted upon the practices they sought to bring into critical focus? Such a question deserves to be taken seriously and demands, beyond what is possible here, that we look at contemporary museums from a post-critical museological perspective. What it has been possible to focus upon in this volume is Tate Britain as one example of the state of post-criticality.

This volume brings the project’s methodological and theoretical frameworks together with its cultural histories and ethnographic practices, to focus upon Tate Britain and the experience of the people who constitute its’ networks. As Tate Encounters begins to consider how to elucidate its fieldwork findings, the papers presented in this edition show in some measure, how it is employing reflexive modes in order to consider the construction and legitimacy of the voice of research. In this reflexive mode a moment of accountability is reached. This is to say that in framing an approach to any account of Tate Britain, as the product of research, the position of the researcher becomes accountable (understood here as accountable to a peer community and the public purse) as a holder and speaker of certain knowledges. The starting question in the papers presented becomes; “how did I become a speaker of these (un)certain knowledges?”

There are a number of ways in which the papers in this edition approach the question of an accountability of voice in relationship to Tate Britain, each of which reflect the different research dimensions of the programme and the strategies thus far employed. In The Self that Follows the Discipline: Visual Cultures and the Tate Encounters Research Project, David Dibosa addresses the issue of accountability as someone producing knowledge through research, by focusing upon the formation as well as the speaking of the self. In doing so, he questions any simple objectifying notion of the research process and outcomes:

“In making myself accountable in the ambit of a research project, I could be seen to be under-writing the more generalized claim that account-ability serves a function in the democratization of knowledge. Under the aegis of democratic knowledge much can be promised: researchers can claim to have set aside their favourite things such as the cloak of invisibility or the shield of impartiality – devices designed to protect them from the effects of their thinking. In the current era, during which invisibility has given way to increasingly radiant transparency, we researchers are called to become more explicit about our own motives, to reveal more of our predilections, to confess our artistic indiscretions, and even to hint at our intellectual promiscuities.” - Dibosa (2008)

David Dibosa’s strategy of accountability is the reflexive mode and moment where he puts himself firmly in the frame. He looks at his subjectness as a means of revealing his knowledge formation, which he locates within the experience of a migrant family and in relation to his own social mobility. The strength of this reflexive position is that it engages a history and narrative of the racialisation of social life. David Dibosa indicates the journey through critical museology to his current position, that of post-critical museology, which he defines as the interrogative mode:

“To question an institution and its practices is seen as a means of placing the viewer’s cultural agency in the service of the development of his/her subjectivity rather than in conformity with the institution’s objectifying strategies. The status attributed to such questioning is not without difficulty, however. For, to constitute the conditions of a museum encounter in terms of a question – what is it that I am doing here? What do I want from this situation? Where I am? – leads, as one can see, to a questioning of the self: What is being asked of me in this situation? Who is asking? Who am I?” Dibosa (2008)

A related question, of how the racialisation of thought/language has been entailed in cultural policy, is taken up in relationship to the framing of the Tate Encounters research method in Andrew Dewdney’s paper, Identity, Difference and the Art Museum, which was written specifically to engage with the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), and Tate’s Diversity Forum. The paper identifies certain elements of an internal critique of one of the key assumptions of the project’s formation. Tate Encounters originally framed the problem of the museum achieving a balanced/inclusive, i.e. multicultural, audience, within what we now see as a racialised set of social categories, categories drawn in part from social science classifications of race and ethnicity. The classifications of migrant individuals and families into ethnicised and racial groups were contained in the original application. These were revealed to reinforce the categories by which difference is defined, rather than to discover new things about difference through encounter:

The rejection of racialised thinking requires the effort to speak/invent a new language of recognising, valuing and living with difference. This is something which potentially takes place everywhere, but also has a formal engagement in specific critically reflexive contexts, of which research is one, education another, and creative practice yet another. In our research team it remains something which comes in and out of focus and we struggle to give words and meaning to it. Dewdney (2008)

The exploration of difference, and the effort to detach its intellectual reach from the politics of labelling, is the subject of Mike Phillip’s contribution to this edition in this short paper, People Who Look Like Me. Here Phillips continues to add to the attempt to understand the problems of contemporary cultural diversity policy in terms of his own and others participation within the formation of the Black Arts movement:

In this context, the Black Arts moment, reflected a break with traditional modes of representation, but it was more than that, because it offered up a visual polemic focused on skin colour, and in the process, began to redefine the way that migrants could see images; and it also began to reshape the way that the rest of the country could see the imagery of black people’s identity. “Blackness” had been invented - ‘people who look like me’. Phillips (2008)

The issue for Mike Phillips is that the pole of positive difference established by the term and cultural associations of British Black Arts, was returned by a dominant and ‘White’ authority as a limiting category.

The problem for people who subscribed, however mildly, to notions of racial exclusivity, was to do with language. In a context where they continually rubbed shoulders with whites, and where their claim to equal treatment was based, (whether they liked it or not), on a liberal and integrationist model, the language of racial assertion created difficulties. So, in the assimilationist marketplace of multiculturalism, the euphemism emerged as a way of signaling ideas without precisely articulating them. ‘People who look like me’ became a shorthand for communicating disapproval of mixed race relationships, homosexuality, and various kinds of educational processes. The phrase also indicated a catchall defiance of the entire integrationist project. Phillips (2008)

Mike Phillip’s paper continues to place an understanding about the racialisation of culture, and the problems of finding an alternative language and set of perceptions of difference, squarely in the foreground of any consideration of cultural ways of seeing. It is another way of holding the project to account and of discussing accountability.

Critical reflection on methodological assumptions is the starting point for Isabel Shaw’s paper, Situating Method: Accountability and Organisational Positionings, which cautiously begins to outline the complexities involved, not only in conducting an organisational study of Tate Britain, but in doing so from the position of a research project uneasily but productively sited within the institution it seeks to understand. Once again the question of the constructedness of voice in relation to knowledge is addressed, here in the specific terms and framework of science and technology studies, which provides a resistance to the various forms of pressure upon social science research to deliver knowledge as facts and proofs which can be directly engaged in social policy.

The importance of the issue of accountability is underlined in Isabel Shaw’s paper, which is the first of three papers planned to map out the dimensions of the organisational study conducted by Isabel Shaw as part of the Tate Encounters research programme. The organisational study was undertaken to achieve the project’s aim of examining “whether and how notions of Britishness are reproduced through the professional practices by which the collection is continually produced” (Tate Encounter’s Research Programme, 2007: 28). The strategy adopted for this aspect of the fieldwork originates within the field of science and technology studies, and in particular our interest in the utility of concepts derived from Latour and Law’s work on Actor Network Theory. The question of accounting for the voice of research is here at the outset:

“The aim of this working paper is to discuss and initiate a practice of accountability as part of the research process. By this, I mean the processes by which research findings are found and represented: the conceptual tools that inform this, the relationships that are negotiated as part of ethnographic research, and the discriminations that are performed as part of research in processes such as methodological considerations and analysis (McLean and Hassard, 2004: 508-511)”. Shaw (2008)

More than this, Shaw recognises that the Tate Encounters research project is not easily or necessarily separate from what it is seeking to understand and describe.

“Tate Encounter’s ambivalent position as a research project within an organization that is also the focus of study, requires a reflexive methodology that continually accounts for existent and potential organizational positionings and relations.” Shaw (2008)

Shaw’s paper can be regarded as laying the early foundations upon which the structure of the organisational study will be laid out in subsequent papers. What is achieved in this first account is a demonstration of the use of a reflexive mode in relationship to the object of study.

The question of the legitimacy of voice to speak in and about the museum with confidence and authority, i.e. to be listened to, is central to the Tate Encounters project, which is founded upon and continually engages with the centrality of diversity and difference. This is taken up in Andrew Dewdney’s paper, Identity, Difference and the Art Museum, in which he identifies how the Tate Encounters fieldwork mediated the relationship between project participants and Tate Britain, in order to create the terms on which their occupancy of the museum gained authority – the authority to be taken seriously:

“Tate Encounters operated as ‘a secret door’ into the deeper recesses and workings of the museum through which they [student participants], could develop greater understandings and develop further insights into their own reactions and experiences. Simply put the project legitimated their presence in the museum and gave them the status needed to overcome their initial reactions or what might be termed barriers to access.” Dewdney (2008)

The position of participants as co-researchers is focused upon in the practical ethnographic work of the project, and in the edition, where Sarah Thomas’s visual ethnographic essay can also be understood as addressing the issue of the authority of voice in the museum. This is true in the way it centres on Patrick Tubridy’s project to trace the authority of his interest in Tate Britain to his family in West Claire, Ireland. And, in the way Sarah Thomas challenges the medium she is using and the rules she acquired during her training as a visual ethnographer. The visual essay can be taken as a form of critical practice, or even, practice as research, a method Tate Encounters has invested in relationship to the co-researchers.

The interrogative mode articulates a context for the field ethnography conducted by Sarah Thomas and Patrick Tubridy. The visual essay of Sarah Thomas, “Can you stop clicking Patrick? One thing at a time; you can do that later can't you?!” can be understood as the interrogative mode in action. The journey to West Claire contains two projects; that of Patrick Tubridy, a project co-researcher who is a recently qualified photography graduate, now wishing to investigate and make sense of his past through photography, and; that of Sarah Thomas, a visual anthropologist and project researcher who is engaged in an ethnographic process of producing video documentation of Tubridy’s experience. The video essay follows and narrates the centrality of migration in museum spectatorship, and specifically embodies and gives concrete detail to transmigration as a key mobilising concept, and how global mobility creates a greater sense of fluidity to identity. In Patrick Tubridy’s own words:

Initially I never thought that I would have been so divided in my thinking as I was. But from day one I found that to be interviewed on camera about my birthplace put me in a position of having to be a Londoner explaining and describing what it was like as a child growing up in that place, or a tour guide giving a walk through a lost civilisation’s ruins. Tubridy (2008)

Sarah Thomas makes the same point in reflecting upon her practice:

I shall also reflect on how I feel my own experience of being a transmigrational person has aided my ability to respond to a variety of fieldwork situations, and how the insertion of digital visual technology (video and photography) into the ethnographic context gives rise to particular sets of data and creates a particular kind of constructedness – of both the ethnographic moment and the visuality employed within it. Thomas (2008)

The reflexive and interrogative mode is very much in evidence in the film ‘Lie Back and Think of England’ by Aminah Borg-Luck, a co-researcher. This is Aminah’s second film (the first was published in the first volume of [E]ditions) in which she essays on the subject of nationality and its meaning as part of identity. Both films start from Tate Britain and ask the question, is it possible to ‘see’ or ‘experience’ an identity located in nation within the national collection of British art? The first film is structured as a journey to Finland, where Aminah’s mother grew up and where her grandmother still lives. The commentary muses on how the cultural inheritance of Finland is or isn’t part of her identity. In the second film, the journey is continued across the shifting border of Finland and Russia in order to question national and physical borders in a globalised movement of people. The second film returns the journey to Tate Britain, and returns the question of the relationship between Britishness and Tate Britain in an edited interview with Andrew Dewdney. The answers given by Aminah and Andrew about art and nationality are interestingly symmetrical, and reject any simple historical notion of nation. Instead, they stress how a sense of place is a stronger formative dimension of identity.

This edition also contains the project proposal of Sophie Orlando, a research student from the Sorbonne, supervised by Professor Phillippe Dagen, who, as part of her PhD. (La notion de britannicite dans l’art contemporain britannique des annees 1980 a nos jours) is undertaking a specific study of Tate Encounters: Britishness and Visual Culture. This study focuses upon the formation of the research within British cultural policy discourse and will attempt to understand how they are reflected in the subsequent shaping and operation of the project. We welcome this study in the spirit of its central reflexive mode and are more than interested in how her study sheds light upon the ways in which our project has constructed its field and its objects.

This volume of Tate Encounters [E]ditions posits the idea of post critical museology, and starts to populate it with cultural histories, methodological problems, and practical questions. In doing this, and in seeing what has been achieved as the current state of the post critical art, a picture emerges of something which is highly engaged and struggling to reconnect with a social and political account of culture and actions within it. As we look at it in what is for the project its birth pangs, we see something necessarily messy, in tension, and full of life:

In Tate Encounters we have crept up upon this larger and more abstract politics of culture not through polemic, but through the embedded and engaged process of ‘narrating ourselves’ within and towards the institution. Our stock of research practices have developed from the continuing encounter with the institution, what it is to be there, how that feels, how we engage, what responses we receive. Dewdney (2008)

1 The distinction being made here between theory and practice is between the abstraction of knowledge, most clearly recognised in the practice of theory, the work mostly carried out in the academy and the theory of practice, constituted in the knowledge, or, ‘know how’, of those who practice in the museum.


Borg-Luck. A. (2008) Lie Back and Think of England, Edition 4. Tate Online

Dewdney A. (2008) Identity, Difference and the Art Museum, Edition 4. Tate Online

Dibosa D. (2008) The Self that Follows the Discipline: Visual Cultures and the Tate Encounters Research Project, Edition 4. Tate Online

Goodwin P. (2008)

Latour B. (2005) Reassembling the Social. Oxford University Press

Law J. (1994) Organizing Modernity, Oxford, Blackwell Press

Macdonald S (2004) Museum Studies: A Reader. Routledge. London

Phillips M. (2008) People Who Look Like Me, Edition 4. Tate Online

Shaw. I. (2008) Situating Method: Accountability and Organisational Positionings, Edition 4. Tate Online

Thomas S. (2008) “Can you stop clicking Patrick? One thing at a time; you can do that later can't you?!”, Edition 4. Tate Online