The idea and new definition of 'museum' in the context of visual arts

Examining the new definition of 'museum' issued by ICOM, and the Museum of Rape Threats and Sexism that expands the idea of the format associated with a museum.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Aug 29, 2022

While we contemplate the expanded concept of a museum and how it should be, there is a worldwide council dedicated to the research, protection, preservation, and transmission to society of the world's natural and cultural heritage, present and future, tangible and intangible. On August 24, 2022, the Members of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) voted collectively to update its long-standing definition of a 'museum' with a more contemporary one. The new definition includes terms such as 'accessibility,' 'inclusivity,' 'diversity,' and 'community,' indicating a more horizontal and democratic approach to the modern museum.

The ICOM definition of a museum was last modified in 2007, during the General Assembly conference in Vienna. However, changes to the ICOM definition have been minor since 1974. In its entirety, the amended definition now reads:

A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.

The moment we think of a museum, we make a visual image in our minds. A pristine quiet room, objects on pedestals and walls carefully spot-lit. But could there be an expanded idea of a museum? One that may appear to be an archival library but is aimed to evoke certain emotions? Museum of Rape Threats and Sexism is one such example that was recently presented as a cohesive exhibit for public viewership. It aims to memorialise and evoke an outrage, therefore becomes an apparatus to remind us of violations and eventually collectivise the incidences. Indian research scholar Isha Yadav initiated this project with the hope to “museumisation of structural violence and rape culture”, for which she has created confrontational and advocacy art to raise this deliberate concern. She says that she is well aware of the anxieties that latch on the title of the project, especially to the usage of the word ‘museum’. Museum for her is a metaphorical category for feminist imagination. It comes with a chronology, houses objects, and cultivates affective experience for the viewers. She reminds me of the Museum of Prostitution in Amsterdam that lives only to celebrate the history of safe prostitution in the country. Orhan Pamuk’s novel Museum of Innocence, which was a love story and how Turkey struggled with modernity, was later conceived as a museum that housed objects from Istanbul. “The word museum then was used to evoke a house where innocence was preserved. In its traditional sense, this project I have hoped to create a dynamic exhibition where affected communities can speak for themselves,” says Yadav. The project is a social movement that resists sexual violence, brings them to light in a peaceful, democratic, and in a demonstrative sense to engage the conversation about the verbal violence women endure every day, and eventually aimed to excavate it out of normalisation.

Untitled, 2022, crowd-sourced screenshot in golden frame | Museum of Rape Threats and Sexism | Isha Yadav | STIRworld
Untitled, 2022, crowd-sourced screenshot in golden frame Image: Courtesy of Museum of Rape Threats and Sexism

Works presented are primarily textual in nature. A repository of collected messages that are threatening in nature, leading to sexual harassment. Yadav explains the significance of what seems only factual data. She says that Dr. Karen Keifer-Boyd wrote about Data visualisation art, that helps numerous approaches to present information visually in the form of charts, graphs, and maps. HarassMap begun in 2009 as a website that enables women worldwide to anonymously report acts of sexual harassment via text message and other ways. Harassment locations are marked on the website and local community outreach efforts are coordinated where harassment occurs. Further, she says that the PhD scholar at Penn State University, Lauren Stetz, too writes extensively about the idea of a feminist art map created to visualise violence against women. “The idea of using visualisation of data as a material, medium, form and inspiration is what drives my project. Installations are built with only data given to me in form of either screenshot of conversation or questions and remarks from women. The display of 70 framed screenshots point towards the magnitude of problem, the endless continuous stories of experiences of assault point towards the everlasting effect of violence,” says Yadav.

Museum of Rape Threats and Sexism is certainly not the first one to use data and facts as a form of visual art. Catcalls of NYC, a movement started by Sophie Sandberg in New York writes about harassment on streets, Guerrilla Girls complains about the discrimination in the art world through their art. Yadav says her initiative, a community curated art installation raising voice against online harassment, is in direct conversation with these art movements and is a very radical approach to how women and artists choose to respond to this menace.

Yadav won the Linda Stein Upstander Award and Grant in 2021 to build this museum as an interventionist and advocacy art.

Video of the exhibition in New Delhi Video: Courtesy of Museum of Rape Threats and Sexism

Yadav agrees that keeping it primarily to text makes it limiting. The project also does not speak of ground reality. The primary data is screenshots and text that is limited to digital presence alone. That itself comes with a barrier of privilege of a functional mobile and internet connection. The very construct excludes a large proportion of victims that remain outside the scope of this research. “Yes, there are several limitations to this project. The literacy, the intellectual capacity is required to understand this project outside the garb of sensationalism and clickbait-obscenity attached to the title and content of the project. The language in my project was also just Hindi, English primarily, because the project only reached mainstream language speaking citizens,” she says. But that aside, violence is violence, irrespective of the context, name, gender, caste, or location.

Untitled, 2022, embroidered text on cloth, Isha Yadav | Museum of Rape Threats and Sexism | Isha Yadav | STIRworld
Untitled, 2022, embroidered text on cloth Image: Courtesy of Museum of Rape Threats and Sexism

I wondered about the efficacy of the format. Given the urgency and the sensitivity of the issue in focus, how does it create the required intensity to make an impact? Yadav feels that the format is very effective. The works are triggering, leaving a deep impact. Indecently, which is also why the exhibition has a trigger warning about the content. “The exhibit was a difficult space. I saw several people broke down, step outside for air, not able to stay through. As a visual artist too, the mediums I chose were effective, and as an activist, to be able to build a museum only out of the issues and plight of women is also most effective. As a scholar working on violence, too, this is way more effective than what academia will ever grant me, with respect to being able to create an impact,” she says. In future as the project grows, Yadav aims to invite survivors and contributors to curate this experience. It may even include visual or physical material that encapsulate the violence, say a diary note, photos. It will make the victim an artist and will demonstrate how they are empowered. It will offer them to question how they can have artistic imagination towards the experience and then, will the experience transform them? Does a new category of victim art emerge from these dialects? How can silence be curated?

Process video for making display works Video: Courtesy of Museum of Rape Threats and Sexism

Museum-viewing triggers action. It is a petition call to social media for education and awareness, implications and culture change. Could the initiative create a sort of watcher’s army of men and women online, who can indulge in an educative discourse for the harasser? Yadav has plans to continue this and expand its scope. She says, “I plan to exhibit in different places with different stories and chapters. The movement needs to keep running. I am going to exhibit the project at Penn State University, USA, later this year. I have also prepared a travelling kit of this exhibition, using which other art practitioners, activists, academics, and feminists can build their own ‘Museum of Rape Threats and Sexism’ to educate their own local community”. The installation was born out of an advocacy lens. It challenges participants to engage with the universal connection we have with profanity, with act of writing violent threats and what gives this specific rape culture myth so much power. The project puts the onus of the language and threats on harassers, not on victims. Yadav’s long-term vision is to see it as a radical art movement that brings online violence in the front, and also strengthen affective communities and build stronger global women connections and survivor’s network. “My long-term vision is to eradicate this menace,” she says.

What do you think?

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