Essay Series

Unease at the Museum: The Story of an Artistic Contribution that a Museum Did Not Appreciate – Jorunn Veiteberg

This essay was written by Professor Dr. Jorunn Veiteberg, Professor of Curatorial Studies and Craft Curator. It was delivered as a paper at the first symposium of the research project Ceramics in the Expanded Field on the 10th January 2012.

‘Museums can be dangerous places,’ says Andrew Lord in an interview in which he gives several examples of how his ceramic works has been misunderstood and misused in museum exhibitions.[1] That is a statement many artists could subscribe to. Even though a purchase means that you are appreciated, being included in a collection also means losing control over how your work is presented and interpreted. Museums create their own narratives, and that is how things must be. Meetings between artists and museums are therefore not devoid of tension and their interests do not always coincide. It is perhaps surprising that so few museums are open about the choices they face all the time and that they do not pursue follow the example of Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in the Netherlands, for instance. Under Director Charles Esche, this museum has defined ‘openness’, ‘hospitality’ and ‘knowledge exchange’ as core values for its activities. Allowing others to influence what works are to be included in the museum’s collection or exhibited is one of the experiments that the museum has introduced as part of this policy.

What ends up in museums is important, because museum collections serve as our collective memory bank. Questions should therefore always be raised about how museum curators exercise their power as writers of history and stewards of our memories. The National Museum in Stockholm also wished to encourage debate on this issue when it started the Undersöka form (Exploring Form) project, which ran from 27 March to 24 August 2008. The museum has been collecting fine art, design and craft for more than a century now. Ceramics are included in two of the museum’s permanent exhibitions on design and studio craft: Formen i Sverige 1500–1740 (Form in Sweden 1500–1740) and Den moderna formen 1900–2000 (The Modern Form 1900–2000). The problem with permanent exhibitions is keeping the public interested. Artistic interventions are a method that, at one and the same time, meet people’s expectations of changing exhibitions and satisfy the desire to give permanent collections renewed relevance. Whether it was this or other ideas that lay behind the museum taking the initiative for the Exploring Form project is not important here. Whatever their motive, they contacted six artists/designers and invited them to come up with a comment, an idea, a work – not big wide-ranging interventions, more subtle intercessions – that addressed the museum’s role as interpreter of the history of form.[2]  As they themselves worded the question in an introductory text: ‘But what happens if we change this relationship and let others “interpret the museum”?’

One of the works resulting from the invitation was the film Nationalmuseum och jag (The National Museum and I) by Zandra Ahl. The debate it gave rise to was an excellent illustration of ‘how historic collections can be animated through a dialogue with contemporary practice’ – even though Ahl’s response is more verbal than visual. The conflict that followed in the wake of the film can also serve to shed light on some of the cultural differences that often exist between artists and museum curators as regards working conditions and ways of thinking.

Ahl is well known in Sweden, both as an artist and a participant in public debate. The newspapers like to refer to her as the ‘punk princess’ and ‘queen of kitsch’, and she is an object of both fear and admiration: ‘She is young and angry with a taste for the ugly – but also a curator, editor, writer and a respected designer.'[3] It is especially the lack of gender and power perspectives among arbiters of so-called ‘good taste’ and the Swedish design institutions they run that have borne the brunt of her criticism. This has resulted in books such as Fult & Snyggt (Ugly & Beautiful) (1998) and Svensk Smak – myten om den moderna formen (Swedish taste –the myth of the modern form) (2001, co-writer Emma Olsson). She has also edited the fanzine Slicker for several years (together with ceramicist Andrea Djerf). Internationally, she is probably best known as head (together with Päivi Ernkvist) of the Craft in Dialogue/IASPIS project (2004-2006), whose aim was to establish closer ties between Swedish and international craft circles through exhibitions, seminars and workshops. Since 2009, she has also been professor of ceramics at Konstfack, University College of Arts, Craft and Design in Stockholm.

Ahl has also challenged conventional ideas of taste in her practice as a glass and ceramics artist. The vase Kassler from 2001 is part of the National Museum’s permanent collection. While it is made from pink and shiny glass, as the title indicates (kassler is Swedish for loin of pork), the vase also refers to the body and flesh. Metal wire is wound tightly around the glass body, so that the ‘flesh’ protrudes. Ahl also took part in Konceptdesign, the museum’s big exhibition in 2005. So the museum and Ahl know each other well. This is documented in the yearbook for 2005 in which Ahl is virtually omnipresent. This is primarily because Craft in Dialogue was responsible for several of the exhibitions in the museum’s staircase hall in 2005, a collaboration that both parties were very happy with.         

But Ahl is also shown in a full-page photo while chewing food – not a very flattering situation[4]. The caption reads: ‘Designer Zandra Ahl … taking part in the opening of the design year at the National Museum in connection with the publication of Poppigt, sakligt, politiskt (Pop, Unbiased, Political) at the National Museum on 12 January 2005.’ As Ahl herself comments: ‘I pop up in several places in the book. People can laugh at the photo of me eating free food, but is it really funny? It has full focus on my cleavage, and shows me with a messy plate and with food in my mouth?'[5]

Ahl thus has personal experience of the museum using her in an informal, but not particularly friendly manner, and she has to live with the fact that her opinions have given her a public image as angry (read: a Fury). The museum knew all this when they invited her to explore their history of form and explicitly asked for ‘exciting input’. And Ahl took them at their word. Taking exploration as her theme, she produced the 14-minute documentary The National Museum and I that was to be shown on a monitor in the The Modern Form exhibition.

The film starts with her introducing the viewer to the building and herself, before stating that both those who work at the museum and herself as a craft artist create history. She therefore wants to find out what those in charge of the craft and design collection think about developments in the field, how they view their task of communicating contemporary practices and, not least, what their attitude is to gender issues. To put it simply, she wants to turn the spotlight on people in key positions in relation to defining contemporary craft.

Ahl asks the museum’s three permanent curators many questions, and she has added her own comments after their answers. She wonders, for example, how these experts’ verbal embracing of post-modernism and the freedom it encourages can be reconciled with the claim that they are presenting history in an objective manner and with the fact that the museum has a permanent exhibition based on the history of style and a modernistic ideal of taste. The museum’s director, who also features in the film, blames lack of funding and expert personnel, run-down buildings and a big workload. These are not things that are exactly unknown to artists, Ahl points out, but artists are not in a position to use excuses of this kind to explain away their lack of results. Using rhetorical language and barbed humour, she succeeds in getting the viewers on her side. We see the museum through the artist’s eyes, which was the intention behind the invitation, was it not? And the museum personnel have undeniably said what they said on camera. But Ahl also exploits what is not said – for example, the long, awkward silence that arises when one of the curators is asked what role the gender perspective has in his work. The issue is clearly completely alien to him. After a while, however, he arrives at the same conclusion as his female colleague: At the National Museum, they collect form and not designers, objects, not names, and ‘objects have no gender’. It is incredible, comments Ahl, that they can isolate form from its context and that they can completely put aside the glasses through which the rest of us have to look at the world. The film ends with Ahl picking up the vase she has made and running towards the exit with the vase under her arm, as she concludes: ‘Maybe we don’t need each other any more, the museum and I.’ But the door is closed. She is trapped: By the museum as an institution and how the museum presents history. And even though the vase is her creation, it is the museum’s property.

The film grabbed journalists’ interest when it was shown at the press preview of  Exploring Form. It must have caused some discomfort among the museum staff, because, after only three days, the museum put up a sign saying ‘closed until further notice for health and safety reasons’. Ahl was not informed about this. A press release was issued at the same time with the heading: ‘Zandra Ahl’s film put to rest until further notice’. The press release was signed by the museum’s director, Solfrid Söderlind, who wrote: ‘The curators and I agree that the film asks several important questions. As regards the question of what choices the museum makes and its activities, a lack of financial resources and physical space for craft and design has until now strongly limited the possibilities open to us. But the issues Zandra Ahl raises, both modernism and the gender question, have a permanent place on our agenda today. We have also demonstrated this in a series of exhibitions, seminars and written texts in recent years. This is completely ignored by Zandra Ahl in her film, however. Instead, she has attacked members of staff and put herself in a position of power by making sure she has the last word in each case.’ At the same time, the director emphasises that it is not because of the criticism of the institution that the film will no longer be shown, it is solely out of consideration for the museum’s employees. ‘The interviewees have been very upset and hurt by the exposure, the more so the longer the film has been shown.’ The press release provoked a reaction from the film’s producer, Tobias Falk (also in the form of a press release): ‘The National Museum’s actions are a demonstration of the arrogance of power that is more revealing than intended. If the interviewed curators at the National Museum have to go on sick leave as a result of the film and the questions Zandra Ahl asks, this is an indication of much bigger underlying problems at the museum. The press release states that Zandra “has put herself in a position of power”. No, it is you at the National Museum who have given her this position, and now you do not hesitate to retract it.’

The affair triggered strong reactions in the media, which felt that the museum’s actions were tantamount to censorship. As the commentator in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter put it: ‘The film is in any case a perfect starting point for a debate about the underlying evaluations and unspoken rules that govern the museum’s work. The fact that Solfrid Söderlind chooses to pull out the plug instead of accepting the invitation to debate just makes the situation worse.'[6] ‘What did they expect?’ was the headline in the newspaper Göteborgs-Posten, implying: when they asked Ahl for a comment.[7] If they had wanted a rosy picture, then maybe they should have hired an advertising agency, Ahl argued [8]. The museum had clearly not expected such plain speaking, or ‘malicious tone’, as Söderlind called it.

The museum saw itself as a victim, and its solution was to change the curatorial concept for the exhibition. After a short time, the presentation of Exploring Form on the museum’s website was rewritten. Everything about interpreting the museum and wanting the invited artists to produce innovative works was removed. All that was left was the idea of input, and even the adjective ‘exciting’ in front of input failed to survive the rewrite.

With the exception of the director, the names of the museum staff were never mentioned in the press. They were referred to anonymously as ‘the curators’ or ‘the staff’ and could hide behind the museum’s management, the health and safety representative and working environment legislation. The artist has no such protection. As she did in the film, Ahl always speaks from a clear and visible position, and she has to accept that her name is associated with terms like scandal and censorship. Her investigations were driven by a series of questions that undermined the truth the museum believed it had stewardship of. Through her input, the museum’s narrative about aesthetics was politicised and questioned. Artistic interventions in museum collections have often had this function, from Fred Wilson’s exhibition Mining the Museum at Maryland Historical Society in the USA in 1992 to Linda Sormin’s installation Are You Land or Water? at Permanenten, the West Norway Museum of Decorative Art in Bergen, Norway in 2011.[9] By turning the spotlight on hidden narratives (Wilson on the slave economy) or destabilising the impression of a static collection (Sormin on the China collection), these examples, together with Ahl’s film, show that what museums achieve by inviting artists to come inside is unrest. Artists are used to taking risks. It is their job to ask questions, to challenge and disrupt  – no development without disruption. All institutions should therefore make sure they regularly undergo some artistic disruption.


[1] Andrew Lord, Milton Keynes Gallery/Santa Monica Museum of Art 2010, p. 18-19.

[2] The participants were Zandra Ahl, Markus Degerman, Malin Elgán, Andreas Nobel, Matilda Plöjel and Johan Redström.

[3]SvD 23 October 2005.

[4] Namu, Nationalmusei årsbok 52, National Museum, Stockholm 2006, p. 49.

[5]Zandra Ahl, unpublished lecture manuscript.

[6] Bo Madestrand, Dagens Nyheter 4 April 2008.

[7]Göteborgs-Posten 3 April 2008.

[8] SvD 4 April 2008.

[9] Mining the Museum. An installation by Fred Wilson, New York: The New Press, 1994.

[10] ‘Linda Sormin’, Thing Tang Trash. Upcycling in Contemporary Ceramics, Bergen National Academy of the Arts /Art Museums of Bergen 2011, pp. 118-119.