Museum Theatre


Fall 1999

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

Department of Performance Studies

Tisch School of the Arts, New York University


Museum Theatre focuses on the agency of display and the museum as a distinctive medium. Our goal is to develop a performance theory of museums. In that spirit, we will build a theoretical foundation based on artistic, curatorial, installation, architec tural, and other practices, both historical and contemporary. We will seek out instances of "performed theory" and explore situations where that which is on display is complicit with (or subversive of) the conditions of its display. We will tease out how the historical avant-garde, postwar experimental performance, and contemporary performance and installation art have dealt with the performativity and the theatricality of spaces of showing, "substance with strong presence," and the notion that a thing is a slow event.

The term museum is used here to refer to museums and galleries, public and private, as architecture and as institutions that exceed the boundaries of their physical plant. Drawing on the work itself, artists' statements, and critical debate they have e ngendered (including Michael Fried, among others), we will attempt to theorize exhibition practice in a variety of settings and in relation to such figures as Fred Wilson, Ilya Kabakov, Christian Boltanski, Joseph Kosuth, Hans Haacke, David Wilson, Robert Wilson, Peter Greenaway, Adrian Piper, Alicia Rios, and Guillermo Gomez-Pena, among others. We will consider historical as well as such recent exhibitions, artists' museums, and experimental curatorial practices as the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Mini ng the Museum, The Play of the Unmentionable, Art/Artifact, Salon de Fleurus, Te Maori, All Roads Are Good, and the Museum as Muse (MoMA, spring 1999).



The work for the course will include weekly readings; site visits to collections, installations, and exhibitions; and a research project (oral presentation of work in progress and final essay of 20 pages).

Site Visits

Some site visits will be assigned for the class. Try to visit at least three others, independently or with other members of the class, and keep a journal of your observations.

Research Project

The research project will identify a particular theoretical issue, develop this issue in a way that draws and bears on performance theory, and explore it in a particular site, while excavating the site itself for theoretical possibilities. The site may be historical, using primary sources, or contemporary. It may deal with normative or experimental practice. It may focus on a particular exhibition, institution, curator, artist, or event. Final papers are due: December 14 at our Tuesday evening fina l session. Those presenting on December 13/14 may hand in their final papers on December 20.


A goal of the weekly readings is to identify concepts, arguments, and cases useful for building a performance theory of museums. The weekly reading assignment includes a 1-2 page written response to the reading that identifies such theoretical poss ibilities. This assignment is to be turned in at the beginning of each class.

You will be expected to read intensively, based on a resource bibliography from which to develop a reading list specifically for your project. Everyone is expected to have read the following basic texts, if not prior to the course, by the end of the se mester:

Bennett, Tony. 1995. The birth of the museum. London: Routledge.

Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Duncan, Carol. 1995. Civilizing rituals: inside public art museums. London: Routledge.

Fisher, Philip. 1991. Making and effacing art: modern American art in a culture of museums. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Karp, Ivan, Christine Mullen Kreamer, and Steven D. Lavine, eds. 1992. Museums and communities : the politics of public culture. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Karp, Ivan, and Steven D. Lavine, eds. 1991. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. 1998. Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. Los Angeles and Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stiles, Kristine. 1998. Uncorrupted joy: international art actions. Out of actions: between performance and the object, 1949-1979. ed. Paul et al Schimmel, 227-329. Los Angeles and New York: Museum of Contemporary Art and Thames and Hudson.



9/13 Introduction

READ: Tony Bennett. The Birth of the Museum (London: Routledge, 1995).


9/20, 9/27 Classes cancelled

READ: Mary Anne Staniszewski. The Power of Display: a History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).

Use this time to identify the site you wish to study and begin the research.


10/4 The New Generation Museum I: Te Papa Tongarewa/Museum of New Zealand

READ: Paul Tapsell, "The Flight of Pareraututu: an Investigation of Taonga From a Tribal Perspective," Journal of the Polynesian Society 106, no. 4 (1997): 323-74.

DUE: One-page draft of project ideas.


10/5, 10/6 Meet with BKG about project ideas.


10/11 The New Generation Museum II: American Museum of Natural History

READ: Karen Wonders, Habitat Dioramas: Illusions of Wilderness in Museums of Natural History, Figura Nova Series, 25 (Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 1993), first chapters.

Michael Lynch, "Representation Is Overrated: Some Critical Remarks About the Use of the Concept of Representation in Science Studies," Configurations 2, no. 1 (1994): 137- 49.

Solomon, Deborah. "He Turns the Past into Stories, and the Galleries Fill Up." New York Times, 21 April 1999, 12.

Scott Bukatman, "There's Always Tomorrowland: Disney and the Hypercinematic Experience," October 57 (1991): 55-78.

Corinne Kratz, "Rethinking Recyclia," African Arts 28, no. 3 (1995): 1-12.

DO: Visit the American Museum of Natural History. Focus on at least one of the following: Hayden Planetarium; Hall of Planet Earth; Hall of Biodiversity; Recycled Reseen.


10/18 Excavating Museum History I: 18th and 19th centuries

Guest lecture: Donald Preziosi, "Being Present at a Past: The Astrolabe of the Enlightenment and the Sir John Soane Museum"

READ: Helen Furjan, " The Specular Spectacle of the House of the Collector," Assemblage 34 (1998): 56-91.

Donald Preziosi, "The Art of Art History." The Art of Art History: a Critical Anthology, ed. Donald Preziosi, 507-25 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Donald Preziosi, "No Art, No History." Unpublished essay.

Walter Grasskamp, "Reviewing the Museum--or: the Complexity of Things," Nordisk Museologi 1 (1994): 65-74.

DUE: Project proposal (3 pages, including bibliography)


10/19 Guest lecture: Donald Preziosi, "No Art, No History." Studio, 7 pm Tuesday


10/25 Excavating Museum History II: 20th century

Guest lecture: Michael Fehr, "The Museum as Autopoetic System," with examples the Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum (Hagen)"

READ: Lawrence Wechsler. Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders (New York: Pantheon, 1995).

Ralph Rugoff. "The Nintendo Holocaust and the Strength of the Pathetic." 1996.

Michael Fehr, "Dump or Museum: Terminals in Western European Societies," Minerva Conference, Groningen, 1998.


11/1 Towards a Performance Theory of Museums

READ: Ilya Kabakov, " On the "Total" Installation, trans. Gabriele Leupold, and Cindy Martin (Ostfildern, Germany: Cantz, 1995).

Michael Fried, "Art and Objecthood," Artforum, no. June (1967).

Heinz Otto Sibum, "Working Experiments: a History of Gestural Knowledge," Cambridge Review 116, no. 2325 (1995): 25-37.

Kristine Stiles, "Uncorrupted Joy: International Art Actions." Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979, ed. Paul et al Schimmel, 227-329 (Los Angeles and New York: Museum of Contemporary Art and Thames and H udson, 1998).


Oral presentations of work in progress.

Please bring the readings for your session to class the week prior.

They will be placed on reserve in the Performance Studies Archive.


11/8 Laura Biagi, M.J. Thompson

11/15 Lynn Sally, Pat Novelli

11/22 Dorita Hannah, Lacey Torge

11/29 Johanna Burton, Jen McGrew

12/6 Chris Mills, Michael Beatty

12/13 Michelle Chase, Jeanne Bouhey

12/14 Leanne Sims

Final session is Tuesday evening, December 14, 7 pm, at my home.

Final papers are due 12/14. Those presenting on 12/13 and 12/14 have until 12/20 to hand in their papers.

Updated 17 September 1999

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett