The Exhibition and its Histories

Since the turn of the 21st century the irresistible rise of the figure of the curator has been the defining feature of the contemporary art landscape. In response, educational institutions have increasingly sought to offer programmes with an emphasis on curating and the curatorial. The University of Edinburgh offers three such programmes, while many others exist elsewhere in Scotland and beyond. Thanks to these shifts – in combination with the establishment of biennials and mega- exhibitions at the pinnacle of contemporary art and the renewal in recent years of a concern with the politics and economics of the production of art – it has become impossible to ignore the import of the exhibition as the predominant location for the presentation and reception of contemporary art. Accordingly, the exhibition (and its histories) has become a fertile site of inquiry in art and art education. As Florence Derieux has rather polemically claimed, ‘it is now widely accepted that the art history of the second half of the twentieth century is no longer a history of artworks, but a history of exhibitions.’

The intention is in no way to suggest or to support a view that the exhibition is the correct vehicle for artistic or curatorial practice, nor is it to condemn the exhibition as an anachronism, an irrelevance or restrictive framework. Rather, in light of these developments, the ambition of this symposium is to engage in an increasingly urgent examination both of the implications of a privileging of the exhibition within art and art history, and of its characteristics, its politics and its histories. In order to do so we have invited contributions, which address the exhibition from both historical perspectives and through contemporary practices. In particular, the following key, if not exhaustive questions, have been devised to provide a starting point for the day’s discussion:

  • Why has the history of exhibitions come into currency at this specific moment?
  • How does the study of exhibition histories contribute to the discipline of art history?
  • Why study the exhibition? What does it offer us that the study of an artwork or an artist’s practice does not?