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Museums under the spotlight
| The Redpath Museum is making a name for itself as an institution that isn't afraid to host exhibitions that reexamine the roles of museums themselves.
|A curator prepares an exhibition entitled, "The Forest Floor" at the American Museum of Natural History in 1958|
Last fall, the Redpath hosted Fauna secreta, an exhibition of concocted but believably presented animals, that raised questions about authenticity and curatorial biases.
McGill's natural history museum is now playing host to an internationally acclaimed collection of photographs designed to make the viewer conscious of just how museums construct the past.
Vic Ingelevics, a Toronto-based artist and photographer with a deep-seated curiosity in what archival photography at museums tell us about the history and method of museums, began his search of museum archives eight years ago at none other than the Redpath. As it turned out, the museum had few photographic archives and Ingelevics continued his search in the archives of numerous North American and European museums finishing with a collection of 89 photographs.
When the curator of paleontology, Ingrid Birker, caught wind last fall that the show was up and travelling, she asked Ingelevics if it could make a stop at the Redpath. Ingelevics was delighted at the prospect of the show appearing in a museum. "This was a unique situation to have the photographs in a museum," he said over the phone from Toronto, "All the other exhibitions have been in galleries on blank walls."
That isn't from a lack of trying on Ingelevics's part. While many museums contributed to his exhibit, most were reluctant to actually host the show.
Ingelevics hypothesizes that the reason museums, like the Royal Ontario Museum (who participated in the research), didn't want the show hung inside its walls is that they are reluctant to see themselves so starkly "as historical and social institutions." Museums present culture or art or history to the world. They 're uncomfortable when the spotlight focuses on how they go about doing this.
Birker, for her part, was keen to have the exhibit because "it was about us in a way. We don't see natural history museums noted the way historical and art museums are." The McGill Associates, who every year grant from $2,000 to $3,000 for projects that promote McGill in the public realm, agreed to fund the exhibition.
An unusual twist to this show relates to where the artist decided to locate each photo, for in many of his selections he makes a playful nod to the hidden history of the Redpath, itself something of an artefact of natural history museums of the past.
One of Ingelevics greatest finds in the Redpath was of some letters, embossed long ago and long since painted over on a wall in a small corridor leading off the top floor mezzanine. "Apparition des *toiles les plus anciennes de notre galaxie," they read. Running ones fingers over the wall a little higher reveals the English words. Who knew that natural history museums also included the solar system in the days before planetaria? Appropriately enough, Ingelevics hung the 1925 photo "World's First Museum Planetarium," (1925, The Deutsches Museum) at the spot.
But there's at least one nod to the museum's hidden history that Ingelevics missed. Walking up the stairs toward the stuffed lion and gorilla, for instance, the visitor sees a 1934 photo of a group of lions, in various stages of preparation by taxidermist James L. Clark of the American Museum of Natural History. A close look at the Redpath's gorilla's stand reveals that the same JL Clark also stuffed the menacing looking primate, also in New York.
Neither Ingelevics nor Birker were aware of the link when they hung the photo. When it was brought to their attention during the show's opening last week, they were both stunned. As Ingelevics put it: "As you can see, this display collects its own stories."
Camera Obscured runs until Aug.13, 2000. The museum is closed on Fridays during the summer.