Accepted paper:

Doing Ethnography at Public Art Museums - Rethinking the Concept of Participation


Enke Huang (University College of London )

Paper short abstract:

In response to the emerging applications of anthropological work at public art museums in the 21st century, this paper re-assesses the changing meanings assigned to the notions of 'participation', 'public' and 'institutional critique' at the conjunction of anthropology theories and museum practices.

Paper long abstract:

The concept of 'participation' as the anthropological tradition has been designated as a methodological necessity for anthropologists to gain knowledge through intimate involvement with their subjects.But 'participation' in the arts often mentioned after the 'social turn' or 'participatory turn' since the early 1990s has been constructed with intentions to facilitate the idea of institutional critique and the empowerment of the public, as opposed to the one-to-one relationship of interactivity between artists and art institutions. In recent years museums have developed more socially engaged or informed approaches with their audience through interdisciplinary research and programming with anthropologists. It seems pertinent to ask how may the new exchanges be conceptualised and whether the often-discussed notions of 'participation', 'public' and 'institutional critique' are actually descriptive of the conceptual entanglements behind the desired partnership. This paper investigates if the current recruitment of anthropology at art museums is helpful to increase social inclusion and its accompanying risk of internalisation and instutionalisation of the historical institutional critique that used to be conducted by artists. To respond, the author examines the role of ethnography research in 1)understanding the institution's diversifying notion of the public 2)negotiating museum practices and policies on audience engagement and 3)questioning the value of institutional criticism, through discussing two case studies of hers, a one-month exploratory ethnography on Chinese visitors for and at the British Museum in 2017 and a 10-week public learning programme at Tate Modern in 2016.

panel P008
Anthropology in the Art Museum