Exhibitions as Cultural Practices of Showing: Pedagogics

Dorothee Richter

Creating exhibitions today can be seen as an assembly of cultural practices that lead to certain displays. These displays are at once the presentation and performance of objects and structures. They place objects and subjects in a certain relationship to one another and are thus elements of communicative processes. They are founded in discourses and produce discourses, thus generating meaning.


Display: Defining a Concept

Even as recently as the early 1990s, the English word display was not particularly widespread in reference to exhibitions in the German-speaking world. The concept of Inszenierung (presentation, staging) was popular from about the mid-1970s on as well as Ausstellung (exhibition). The word Inszenierung is derived from the Frenchmise-en-scène, or “putting on stage,” and hence suggests the world of theater, cabaret, opera, and later film and then by extension the exhibition (as medium). By contrast, the term Ausstellung is related to zur Schau stellen (putting on display) and hence with presentation and exhibitions at annual fairs.[1] Walter Benjamin derived the concept from the culture of display and fairs and alluded in that context to an ancient culture of eventful displaying and enjoying.[2] The English word displayhas been used in German-speaking lands for exhibitions only recently, for about a decade. Its semantic context of presentation display, display and packaging, advertising and computer display points to new economies and new conceptions of (re)presentation based on a particular “screen,” a “user interface.” Display can be used in English to refer to a computer screen and the visual presentation of facts. The semantic horizons of the word already point to a primacy of the surface against a complicated, difficult, and intelligible background.[3] Understood in this way, a study of “exhibition displays” already transports us into certain conceptions of the manner of performing objects and subjects within an exhibition. If we think of the complex constitution of exhibitions in the sense of a social and politically located and effective apparatus, then we can view the dominance of phenomenalism as an effect of this apparatus.

Seeing and Perceiving as Historical Concepts

When we study exhibition presentations using discourse analysis, it is necessary first, in the process of making distinctions within this sphere, to point to the fundamental historical constitution of seeing, showing, and perceiving. Behind this is the idea that this analytical process itself belongs to the practices of the production of meaning. In analyzing discourse, speech and material manifestations are seen as intertwined, mutually generating practices.

The history of the origins of the museum and the art space was central to the constitution of a notion of the bourgeois public sphere. The first public display of art was during the French Revolution, when the common people, the people of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” were shown art taken as spoils. The paintings, furniture, and art objects taken from the defeated class, the nobility, were presented publicly in the Louvre. Already inscribed in this first spectacle were both appropriation and affirmation. In accordance with bourgeois concepts of the autonomy of art, of the subject conceived of as autonomous (as well as male and white), of the subject of single-point perspective and the “thing in itself,” and of a unassailable object that is elevated per se, the bourgeois art museum evolved over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries into a space of showing and displaying that illustrated and promoted these concepts. Following Foucault, it is possible to understand the technologies of displaying and commenting as a practice within which certain subjectivities are produced and certain hierarchical relationships organized, as has been shown by, among others, Marion von Osten with reference to the work of Tony Bennett.[4]

Also inscribed in the bourgeois space of “displaying” are concepts and effects of gender difference that since the Renaissance have centered around establishing distance and around the male subject of single-point perspective. “Woman” becomes an object, a thing observed, a thing available, the character of the commodity attaches itself to her image. Against this backdrop, we are meant to understand that the gaze is, as a rule, associated with the male, while the thing seen, presented for view, is associated with the female. Seen structurally, “woman” occupies the location of the seen, the viewed. Like many contemporary art historians, Anja Zimmermann has described it as follows: “that means the position of the person who is ‘in’ the painting and thus ‘is’ the painting and the position of the person who looks at the painting are gender-specific positions. Not in the sense of an assignment to specific subjects but in relation to the significance of this regime of the gaze for the definition of gender difference itself.”[5] Eroticizing the gaze, the desire to view, is now as much as ever the indispensable prerequisite for addressing the thing one desires to see: the fact that the thing displayed becomes sexually loaded is a consequence of this structure.

This culturally anchored regime of the gaze is the matrix on which contemporary displays unfold as well. They are based on displays as one of the unnamed, unconscious hierarchical arrangements. The status of an object that cannot reflect on itself but is rather merely a bearer of representations is attributed to the nonwhites, who also become the Other of the autonomous male subject.

The techniques of self-disciplines of the “autonomous” bourgeois subjects form and are formed by seeing and being in the image; there is always an imagined observer; even the subject is to some degree always at risk of becoming an object.


The Apparatus of Signs and the Grammars of Display

The exhibition space and the exhibition display are, however, only parts of a larger setting or apparatus, if you will. This idea picks up on the concept of what Louis Althusser called “Ideological State Apparatuses.”[6] The concept of the apparatus describes the principal material or textual—that is to say, discursive—constitution of the dispositive “exhibition” and points to its function as an “educational” model. The display would thus be only the user interface of a differentiated process of production from material, the production of knowledge, and the rules of discourse and ideology inscribed therein.

Borrowing Foucault’s perspective of the order of discourses, one could name external and internal mechanisms of exclusion that try to rein in the unpredictability of discourses and events by means of procedures of classification, by ordering the principles of distribution, types of speech, the commentary and function of the author and various disciplines. This also refers to the “will to know” and is thus an academic, analytical approach to the object exhibition and thus ultimately to disciplining, the stemming of the “murmur” of discourse in which the resistant and deviant are expressed.

One the one hand, the function “exhibition” is conceived as the product of a process to control, select, organize, and classif meaning that then reveals itself to be a material setting. The concept “apparatus” incorporates the material location, the exhibition space, the exhibition hall, the museum and the respective architecture, concepts, budgeting, the respective concept of publics, the hierarchical organizational structure of the staff, the working conditions of the employees, education of the employees, the connections to the sites of social consensus-building such as committees for cultural policy and interest groups, the production and the deployment of the media, the concept of subject and object that the display offers, the ideological composition of reaching, the ennobling of the object, the possibility of the viewer’s passivity/activity, the opportunities for subsequent action by those who have seen it, the budgeting and financing of the exhibition project, the people who commissioned it, the way the exhibition product is discussed, the narration of the display, the gaps in the display, the performance of the objects, the exhibition architecture, lighting, labels sounds, the exhibition spaces open to the public in relation to backstage, organizational and storage spaces.

The concept of the apparatus also points out that the formation “exhibition,” its setting and its elements, constitutes a historical setting and cannot and does not wish to claim to be a formulation of totality. Moreover, the concept can be connected to the Freudian idea of the psychological apparatus and thus opens up new possibilities for the viewer’s perspective to connect to it.

The site of contemporary exhibition is a communicative space in which psychological, aesthetic, social, and political spaces interlink. It is one of the discursive spaces within which the conversion from social and cultural capital to economic capital (and vice versa) that Bourdieu describes can take place, and, as Isabelle Graw has shown, in art exhibitions this happens with a certain reciprocal dependence on the stock market. Nevertheless, a potential for resistance exists in this space, as a kind of surplus discourse. The axes of affirmation and resistance should thus be understood as relationally and historically related. Every act of exposition goes hand in hand with an ennobling of the objects—they and the way they are handled are always a means of distinction as well.

The apparatus of the contemporary exhibition should this be questions along the parameters developed here. In exposing the rules of discourse, what matters is who speaks for whom, what ideology is put on view, what and who is suppressed and excluded and what relationships of desire form the matrix of the exhibition. This can be studied, with no claim to completeness, by questioning and comparing the elements described, the symbols and grammars of exhibitions.


Viewers: The Implied Addressees of Exhibitions

Exhibitions are communicative situations that are produced in order to convey content. Exhibition is thus based on a didactic idea whose emphasis or retraction can, however, vary considerably depending on the type and the historical development. The visitors remain the unknown entities of an exhibition. On their side lie the tasks of achieving a synthesis of the visual formal impression, reading labels, perceiving material, media offerings, producing memories and associations.[8] The exhibition institutions present themselves to an ideal viewer about whom certain assumptions are made. It is assumed in principle, for example, that the viewers have a store of images that has been influenced by Western culture. A certain frame of reference, certain conventions of perception, have to be brought with them in order to construct chains of associations and meaningful connections.

Various authors assume that the ideal viewer is also distinguished by a certain ritual behaviour, what Eva Sturm has called the “gesture of viewing”: the viewers move about in expressive surroundings, observing intently, holding back, passive vis-à-vis what is shown.[9] Museums and other places that store objects of special value, place them on pedestals, hang them in frames and place them in display cases. These things are protected from “dust, theft, dampness and wear and tear” and above all from the viewers’ grasp.[10] If we accept Walter Grasskamp’s argument, viewers experience something astonishing, things that cannot be touched or sold. The objects shown thus obtain a quasi-religious value, that of a sacred, worshipped object. This is how Benjamin understood the shift from cult value to exhibition value.[11] The basic synaesthetic equipment of human beings, Grasskamp argues, allows them to connect the sensations of difference sense organs. The museum—the site of exhibition—bans haptic experience; visitors must control and curb their movements. The museum conveys as experience the primacy of the distancing sense of vision, as well as the primacy over the subject of the object, which thus devalues the former, as it were, and, as mentioned at the beginning, puts it risk, as an object that is to be observed further, of suddenly changing its status from the subject to the object of the gaze.

In some ways, therefore, all of the media employed in exhibitions for purposes of animation attempt to close this gap and thus seize the viewer’s attention. The situation at auto shows or other trade fairs is not fundamentally different from this matrix: although people are permitted to touch the objects, they may do so only in a very limited, controlled and ritualized form.[12] Even if someone wants to purchase something, the desire most be temporarily postponed. The communication structure of exhibitions, according to Anna Schober, is thus in principle closer to that of mass media than of educational facilities: content is broadcast to a heterogeneous auditorium; the members of the audience are neither involved in direct communicative exchange nor, as a rule, connected to one another by social networks.[13] According to a study, visitors spend an average of eight seconds in front of an object in an exhibition, no matter whether it is an art exhibition or a boat show. From a historical perspective, a neutralizing exhibition style became increasingly common during the 1970s, one that conveyed a claim of objectivity; today, there is more of an effort to involve visitors emotionally. This may also be connected with a general tendency away from an educated elite as audience in favor of a mass audience. As Bourdieu has shown, the understanding of culture is class-specific and functions as a means of distinction.[14]

Exhibition institutions are fundamentally confronted with the problem that they are presenting to a heterogeneous audience but must at the same integrate all the various groups (at least when faced with the goal of maximising attendance figures). Institutions attempt to solve this problem in different ways.


Ideology and the Ways It Functions: Is Emancipatory Pedagogy Possible?

What does it mean for a specific visitor that an exhibition is addressed to an audience, and how are they influenced by the setting? Individual aspects of the messages that the visitor-subjects receive as subtexts of exhibitions have already been addressed above.

The visitor is addressed as a white member of Western middle-class society; as a viewer he or she is located in a “male” position; he or she is increasingly addressed as a member of a large crowd that (generally speaking) is not differentiated but rather infantilized.

Oliver Marchart has proposed relating Louis Althusser’s concept of “ideological state apparatuses,” or ISAs, to exhibition institutions as a way of distinguishing their preformulated assumptions as either “dominating” or “emancipatory” pedagogy. If we examine Althusser’s concept more closely, it is evident that he conceived the formation of subjects in a highly complex way.[15] Althusser viewed art and other institutions as apparatuses that convey ideology in materialized form. The material existence of ideologies may be thought of as rituals and practices and thus connected as spaces, architecture, structures and objects, each of which is performed or produced by the individuals anew. As it relates to the situation of an exhibition, this means that not only curators but also artists, visitors, cleaning personnel, guards and so on produce through their actions the material form of the Ideological State Apparatus. Seen in this way, all those involved are both actors and addressees of the ISA, even if they may have different opportunities for access.

The complexity of the way in which, according to Althusser, the ideology of cultural institutions is conveyed in a continuous process and form subjects as individuals as a lasting process, will be outlined only in brief here. First of all, he distinguishes between Repressive State Apparatuses and Ideological State Apparatuses; both systems serve to maintain the relationships of production in the interest of certain classes or groups. He defines as “Repressive State Apparatuses” the government, the administration, the army, the police, courts, and prisons. They are all based on a violence that can be enforced directly. By contrast, Ideological State Apparatuses get individuals to agree voluntarily to the existing relationships of production. Althusser himself points to parallels with Gramsci’s concept of civil society.[16]Althusser defines the following institutions as ISAs:

  1. the religious ISA (the system of the different Churches),
  2. the educational ISA (the system of the different public and private “Schools”),
  3. the family ISA,
  4. the legal ISA,
  5. the political ISA (the political system, including the different Parties),
  6. the trade union ISA,
  7. the communications ISA (press, radio and television, etc.),
  8. the cultural ISA (Literature, the Arts, sports, etc.).

Although, if we follow Althusser, the Repressive State Apparatus works above all on the basis of violence, and the Ideological State Apparatus on the basis of ideology, each of these apparatuses uses both methods; this results in constant, subtle links between violence and ideology. In contrast to the relative homogeneity of the Repressive State Apparatus, there are many different ISAs. These are often private institutions. To ensure the dominance of a group or class over the long term, it is necessary to support it with a universally recognized ideology. ISAs are thus not just, to use Althusser’s terms, objects of struggle but also sites where the “class struggle” is carried out, or, as Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau will later describe it, a place where a number of antagonistic relationships fight it out. It is worth noting that this disproves on a theoretical level the often-stated suspicion that critique in the cultural field is powerless or has only symbolic meaning. At the same time, it becomes clear the extent to which politics must necessarily possess symbolic (ideological) character. Although Althusser shows, in keeping with the Marxist tradition, that in the final instance consciousness (that is, all ideological relationships) is dependent on the base, on material relationships, nevertheless within a certain perimeter there is also a counter-movement that consciousness influences being.

As it relates to exhibitions projects, one interim result of this argument is that it makes sense for a leftist project to address visitors in new ways and to incorporate the production of meaning in different ways, even if it is the case, as is often lamented today, that technologies of project work are also employed in other branches of immaterial work to the benefit of the corporate capital.

How does the influencing of subjects by ideology function? First of all, Althusser makes it clear that what people represent in ideology is not their real living conditions, but rather primarily their relationship to those living conditions: “what is represented in ideology is [. . .] not the system of real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of these individuals to the real relations in which they live.” This explanation goes beyond the production of ideology through cultural hegemony; even alienation is not a sufficient explanation here.

When Althusser wrote this essay around 1970, he saw the apparatus of the schools as the dominant ISA in the formation of capitalist society. Today, in 2006, when, for example, adults in Germany on average watch more than three hours of television a day, the mass media can be seen as the dominant Ideological State Apparatus, which also have the task of stimulating consumption.

The fundamental function of all ISAs is to constitute concrete individuals as subjects. As Terry Eagleton has noted, Althusser based the constitution of the subject on the Lacanian institution of the imaginary. Like the mirror stage, this formation is based on a structure of a failure to recognize. According to Althusser, constitution by means of Ideological State Apparatuses occurs by means of four steps in mirror symmetry: the appellation of individuals as subjects (which he describes as pre-figuration, analogous to a family expecting an unborn child, as described by Freud and Lacan), the subjugation to the SUBJECT (which can also be called, following Lacan, the Great Other), the recognition of the mirror situation between subjects and the SUBJECT and the subjects among themselves as well as the subject’s recognition of itself, and, the fourth step, the absolute certainty that everything is indeed like that and the subjects acting accordingly. The subjects work “all by themselves.” This model described by model represents a kind of ideal case, that is, a situation of a failure to recognize that is threatened by ruptures. For, if we follow Freud and Lacan, the constitution of the subject is never possible without loss; it occurs through breaks and ruptures that that survive as latent fractures.

The subject as a construction thus always remains susceptible to breaking down. If we summarize Althusser’s theoretical concepts and apply them to the field “exhibitions,” it means that subjects of educational institutions are primarily situated as subjects of instruction and entertainment.

In the process the values of the dominant Western social system are communicated; the subject is positioned as white and male and stands in a relationship of desire relative to the objects presented for view. As a rule, one important subtext of exhibitions is that the subject is and remains a passive viewer. He or she is a passive consumer of “aesthetic productions” that cultivate his or her taste into that of a refined connoisseur and consumer. Subjects are addressed individually, not as a group in which they could exchange things and articulate common interests. As a rule, the subjects of the exhibition are shown how to control and postpone their needs, or merely displaced in the direction of viewing pleasure. They “learn,” much as they did in school, to move their bodies in controlled ways. They learn to separate the levels “intellect” and “action.” They also learn to separate the various social fields (art, politics, public, private, kitsch, high art, etc.). If we relate all this to the post-Fordist concept of “immaterial work,” all areas are subjected to the primacy of economic profitability. All of this should not be thought of as a unique situation, but rather as a continuous practice that is communicated by rituals and settings in which subjects take part and which they acknowledge. It is what Pierre Bourdieu calls “habit,” the way in which exhibitions are appropriated, how social codes are used to speak about exhibitions and other cultural events, how exhibitions are enjoyed and formed. Bourdieu sees this “educational capital” as a historically constituted and socially conditioned system of schemas of perception, expression, and thinking. Seen in this way, there is absolutely no difference between mass media and presentations in a museum or other art institution. As a matter of principle, both locate the viewers and visitors in a position of passive enjoyment and mark them as subjects of a cultural paradigm.

Oliver Marchart has outlined, on the basis of his theoretical analysis, possibilities of emancipatory pedagogy; he proposes (a) interruption and (b) anticanonization. The interruption is thematized along with the naturalization effects described above. Anticanonization would use the definitional power of exhibition institutions in order to expand the canon radically in terms of both form and content.[17]

Addressing the same questions, Nora Sternfeld refers to historical concepts of pedagogy that made self-empowerment a goal. She identifies four essential criteria: First, the idea of a natural talent is called into question. Second, one urgent pedagogical goal is to develop an awareness of one’s own situation. Third, this is achieved by addressing social relationships that reveal the mechanisms of exclusion and exploitation. Fourth, it is essentially about creating the preconditions for changing these social and political relationships—that is to say, the pedagogical project must go hand in hand with a political practice. Sternfeld also examines talk about the emancipatory in the communication of art and culture. In this view, the task of communication today is seen as making accessible an awareness of the criteria outlined above and to permit counternarratives. As a result, this view of communication focuses on opening institutions to political practice and organization. This concept will necessarily bump up against institutional boundaries that distinguish, and that is precisely what separates emancipatory practice from merely participatory practice.[18]

The field of putting on view is a contested place; new attributions are not just discursive acts but also political and strategic projects. This is all the more true if we assume that Ideological State Apparatuses, the production and circulation of images, symbolic actions, and all forms of representation of political and social relationships have concrete effects and produce concrete subjects.





This article was written for the exhibition project “Ausstellungs-Displays” at the Institute of Cultural Studies in Art, Media and Design of the Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst in Zurich.

[1] See Anna Schober, Montierte Geschichten: Programmatisch inszenierte historische Ausstellungen (Vienna: Jugend & Volk, 1996), 9.

[2] Walter Benjamin, “Food Fair: Epilogue to the Berlin Food Exhibition,” trans. Rodney Livingstone, in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 2 (1927–34), ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 135–39.

[3] See Michael Barchet et al., eds., Ausstellen: Der Raum der Oberfläche (Weimar: VDG, Verlag und Datenbank für Geisteswissenschaften, 2003).

[4] Marion von Osten, “Producing Publics—Making Worlds! Zum Verhältnis von Kunstöffentlichkeit und Gegenöffentlichkeit,” in the present volume.

[5] Anja Zimmermann, Skandalöse Bilder, Skandalöse Körper: Abject Art vom Surrealismus bis zu den Culture Wars (Berlin: Reimer, 2001), 119.

[6] As Oliver Marchart shows in his essay “Die Institution spricht,” this concept can be applied to contemporary cultural institutions: “Whereas we normally include with the ‘state’ such institutions as ‘the government, the administration, the army, the police, courts, prisons, and so on,’ Althusser extends our concept of the state considerably. He defines the institutions just named ‘Repressive State Apparatuses,’ because in case of emergency they can all fall back on the state’s monopoly on violence. According to Althusser, however, Ideological State Apparatuses—abbreviated ISAs—also belong to the state. Under this category Althusser subsumes the religious ISA (the churches), the school ISA (public and private educational institutions), the family ISA, the legal ISA, the political ISA (the political system including the parties), the trade-union ISA, the information ISA (the media), and finally the cultural ISA (Althusser includes here ‘literature, art, sports, and so on’)”; see Oliver Marchart, “Die Institution spricht,” in Beatrice Jaschke, Charlotte Martinez-Turek, and Nora Sternfeld, eds., Wer spricht?: Autorität und Autorschaft in Ausstellungen (Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2005), 34ff. Marchart’s list does not include the omnipresence of advertising, which Grasskamp has called totalitarian, or images from the mass media.

[7] Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, trans. Susan Emanuel (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), and idem, Zur Soziologie der symbolischen Formen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974) [a collection of essays including (French listed where no English available): “Structuralism and Theory of Sociological Knowledge,” Social Research 35, no. 4 (1968): 681–706; “Condition de classe et position de classe,” Archives européennes de sociologie 7, no. 2 (1966): 201–23; “Intellectual Field and Creative Project,” Social Science Information 8, no. 2 (1968): 89–119; “Postface to Erwin Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism,” in Bruce Holsinger, The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); “Outline of a Sociological Theory of Art Perception,” International Social Science Journal 20, no. 4 (1968): 589–612—Trans.].

[8] See Schober, Montierte Geschichten (note 1), 95.

[9] Eva Sturm, Konservierte Welt: Museum und Musealisierung (Berlin: Reimer,1991), 9.

[10] See Walter Grasskamp, “Unberührbar und unverkäuflich: Der Museumsshop als Notausgang,” in idem, Konsumglück: Die Ware Erlösung (Munich: Beck, 2000), 143ff.

[11] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” trans. Harry Zohn and Edmund Jephcott, in Walter Benjamin,Selected Writings, vol. 4 (1938–40), ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 251–70.

[12] See Katharina Tietze: special personnel are hired for auto shows to clean the cars of signs of having been touched. Interestingly, most of them are men.

[13] See Schober, Montierte Geschichten (note 1), 28ff.

[14] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986).


Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation),” in idem, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1977).

[16] Althusser refers to Gramsci, who explained that the distinction between public and private goes back to law. The state, which is the state of the ruling class, is neither public nor private; it is rather the condition for distinguishing between public and private. For that reason, Althusser is concerned only with how it functions. Private institutions can also function as Ideological State Apparatuses.

[17] See Marchart, “Die Institution spricht” (note 6).

[18] See Nora Sternfeld, “Der Taxispielertrick: Vermittlung zwischen Selbstregulierung und Selbstermächtigung,” in Jaschke, Martinez-Turek, and Sternfeld, Wer spricht?(note 6), 15–34.



About the Author :
Dorothee Richter, art historian, author, curator, organized symposiums as Curating Degree Zero – an international symposium on curating, GAK, Bremen (with Barnaby Drabble) 1998; Dialogues and Debates – feminist positions in contemporary visual arts 1999; The Quintessiental Hold of Images – The visuality of Theory vs. The Theory of the Visual (with Nina Moentmann), was the artistic director of Kuenstlerhaus Bremen (1999-2003), initiated with B. Drabble (2003) Curating Degree Zero Archive, an archive traveling exhibition and web resource on critical curating (www.curatingdegreezero.org) shown and re-interpreted with artists, curators, designers in Basel, Gent, Linz, Bremen, Bristol Lueneburg, Birmingham, London, Berlin, Edinburg, Milan, since 2005 a research associate 'Exhibition Displays' and Director of the Postgraduate Program in Curating at the School of Art and Design in Zurich.

The Ides of April, Spring 2007