The Imaginary Museum and other Stories

The grainy black and white photograph depicts an elegant interior, taken, as if looking down from a mezzanine. Photographic plates taken from the pages of a book cover the floor in a grid formation. A single male figure, dressed in a tailored suit stands in the midst of the images holding a piece of paper, as if preparing to give a speech.

The man is André Malraux, the plates are from his book The Museum without Walls (1947), in which he argues for a collection of world art that is not held within any given architectural space, but is instead held between the covers of a book. The photographic document takes the place of the work.1In his book On the Museum’s Ruins (1993) Douglas Crimp debunks Malraux’s position by arguing that this approach misses out on Photography as an art-form, suggesting that it would require the rephotographing of photographic works if these were to be included in his canon of world art. This is of course precisely the subject tackled by artists such as Sherrie Levine and Louise Lawler. Lawler rephotographs the images of other artists, but always as arrangements (again, undertaken by others such as gallerists, curators or collectors).

The French title of Malraux’s book Le Musée Imaginaire served as an inspiration for the eponymous exhibition that saw MOI’s first exhibition in its new space in Deptford in 1997. Held in two parts within a raw three-storey building it presented a new vision of the organisation, as a ‘museum with walls’ but without a traditional collection of artworks. Instead, it performed the rituals and functions of the institution: displaying, collecting, and cataloguing Installation art. It included an archive that contained the beginnings of the Box Project, an exhibition of tailor-made, identical cardboard containers that had been mailed to artists to fill and interact with.2The Boxes contained a set of instructions or questions that asked participants to comment on the concept of the Museum of Installation, a space without a collection which was about to collect several hundred boxes as ‘proposals’. This project grew to include works by some 300 individuals and toured widely throughout Britain and Europe.

The boxes echoed the function of Malraux’s book. Each one acted like one of his pages; it contained a work, it was ephemeral, cheap and lent itself to endless recombination.

Calum Storrie, an exhibition designer, who later conceived the travelling display system for the Box Project, presented a small publication for Musée Imaginaire, devised in the manner of a guide for a local history museum. It traced the (imaginary) story of MOI in Deptford, spanning several centuries, arguing that the present premises was the last remaining architectural fragment of a vast building once present on the site. His work points to one of the museum’s chief functions: to create myth.3According to Roland Barthes, Myth presents itself as natural and transparent, but is a cultural signification driven by ideology. Similarly, the idea of the museum may project an aura of neutrality, but is taxonomies are opaque, cultural and ideological products. The question of myth in the museum was clearly addressed in the work of Nicola Oxley whose arcane arc-light was modified to project a tiny, indistinct image of Malraux’s famous layout. In other words, the apparatus (of the museum) serves not to reveal, but to obscure instead.

The function of display is clearly central to the idea of Installation art. What is an exhibition? Where does it take place? What is the context? These are questions at the heart of the discipline, whose tasks are to examine new forms of art-making and placement, and to interrogate the function of the gallery. Each new organisation we began addressed aspects of these questions, and though not all the works were installations per se, they all referred to its discourse in some way. It is arguable that today Installation art is written into the very DNA of Contemporary art.

Malraux, writing in 1947, was not to know that later in the 20th Century there would be at least one art-form, which would reaffirm his photographic thesis, but not in the way he might have imagined. Installations warrant documentation, not because they are timeless masterpieces but because, without photography, they would not exist beyond their brief moment of exhibition. Here, the image ceases to be purely a document, but becomes the sole recollection – not timeless, but out of time. Moreover, it might be said that the photograph releases the work from being collected as a physical entity, and takes Malraux’s argument to its logical conclusion: a house built, not of walls but of images.