sensory, material, & digital anthropology

Photo Essay: Art in a Museum

‘The museum effect today extends, through the website, beyond the walls of the museum in ways that exceed photographic reproductions in publications. The gradually shifting definitions on the part of the museum about what the public may properly see, where they may tread and with which perspectives they may leave the premises reflect the dynamism of this cultural institution (Bouquet 2012: 31)’.

“Let’s not just talk about art. Because, finally, the museum’s purpose is not just to develop an appreciation of art, but to develop an appreciation of values.” (Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights)

“What people want when they go to museums: to be told what they should value, so that they can then decide for themselves whether or not to agree.” (Michael Kimmelman, ‘Museums in a Quandary’)


The 1980s and 1990s saw a resurgence of debate around art and material culture, yet mainstream anthropology treats the museum, as a research resource, with ambivalence. Ironically, the museum is where the public has become familiar with anthropology (i.e. Pitt Rivers attracts over 300 thousand visitors). ‘The spaces of, and between, museums and anthropology today are full of paradoxes… they connote colonial dustiness. Yet in the early 21st century they are probably more successful than ever before – they attract more visitors, they loom larger in cultural life, and they are better resourced financially, in general, than they have been at any time in the past’ (Thomas 2010: 6).

Through this photo-essay, I argue, like Thomas, that the museum is not only an institution but also a method. ‘It goes without saying that curators choose or select objects for displays (or for other purposes), but these terms imply operations more rational than might be apt… one may be distracted by another work of art… it reflects the contingency of dealing with things, but, in another sense, it represents a method – powerful because it is unpredictable (Thomas 2010: 7). I ask, what sort of institution is the museum today? How does it deal with its past in order to produce exhibitions that communicate contemporary values and shape various identities? This photo essay should be used to consider how contemporary museum exhibitions explore multilayered communication through visual and verbal means in designated space.

Unfortunately, the utility of the photo essay is often disregarded, arguing that once research work has been conducted, it must be written up in the most straightforward fashion, not presented photographically. However, I argue like Marcus Banks, that photographs should not be taken lightly, included as an afterthought, or thought to be self-evident (Banks 2011: 144-145). My aim with this photo essay is not only to emphasize the value in the method, but also to explore how it can be used to convey the museum as a site of anthropological analysis. In order to better understand art in the museum, I wanted my photographs to be inclusive of the viewers, the space and the art. Thinking carefully about the images and possible text, I realized that I preferred the images to stand-alone.

While I understand that often text and images work in tandem to advance the argument, it was important for me to experiment with another form. As Banks writes, ‘Some images, of course, may benefit from an accompanying text – but the text should mediate, not dominate’ (Banks 1997: 68-69). And conventionally in academic publications, photographs are often tied to the main body of text through use of captions and/or in-text reference. Albeit all this, I decided to not use captions. I hope that this accompanying explanation proves beneficial for context and understanding.

The photographs I took at MOCAK are meant to be wholly descriptive of the space and the experience. At first I was hesitant to be caught taking photographs. I stumbled upon this museum as a tourist. There has always been a certain taboo about taking photographs in a museum. Fortunately since photographs are permitted inside MOCAK, it was easier to pretend I was just photographing the art itself and not the public. Yet, I was most interested in catching the moment of viewing.

Nevertheless, I am not sure if I reached any conclusion from the photographs or this method. I found that the success of the photo-essay is dependent on the order of which things are done when using the method. This photo essay may have been more conducive if I had a clear argument that I wanted to ‘prove’ with the photographs. In the future, I would try to speak to a museum curator or specialist of the exhibit, beforehand and after my visit. However, the photo essay did become my way of exploring the unknown. For this, I am content that I have let the images speak for themselves.









Alper, S. (1991) ‘The Museum as a Way of Seeing’, in I. Karp and S. D. Lavine (eds), Exhibiting Cultures. The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 25-32.

Banks, M. (2001) Visual methods in Social Research, London: Sage,pp. 1-12 and pp. 111.

Banks, M. and Morphy, H. (1997) Rethinking Visual Anthropology, New Haven and London:Yale University. 

Bouquet, M. (2012) Museums: A Visual Anthropology, London and New York: Berg.

Bourdieu, P. (2010) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, London and New York: Routledge.

Kratz, C. (2011) ‘Rhetorics of Value: Constituting Worth and Meaning through Cultural Display’, Visual Anthropology Review, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 21-48.

Pink, S. (2001) Doing Visual ethnography: images, media and representation in research, London: Sage. [Chapter 6: ethnography and printed text]

Pomian, K. (1990) Collectors and Curiosities. Paris and Venice, 1500 – 1800, Cambridge: Polity.

Potocka, M. (2012) The MOCAK Collection II. Krakow: Wydawca.

Schneider, A. and Wright, C. (2006) Contemporary Art and Anthropology, Oxford and New York: Berg.

Thomas, Nicholas. (2010) ‘The Museum as Method’, Museum Anthropology, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 6-10.

Vogel, S. (1988) ART/artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections.

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This entry was posted on 05/05/2014 by in Alejandra Blohm and tagged , , , , , , .