Challenging conventions - Museums Association

Challenging conventions

Interpreting and displaying collections in new ways
Profile image for Marc-Olivier Wahler
Marc-Olivier Wahler

One of the key challenges for museums today is to be creative and to make this possible they need to rethink conventional hierarchies. They must be able to play with their collections across the different disciplines, and the relevance of the objects and their uses must be at the heart of this reflection.

Exhibitions are obviously the museum's main medium for engaging with audiences. They must be used as ways to investigate, connect and explore ideas. The creation of an exhibition should be conducted like a laboratory experiment.

The life of objects is made up of many interpretations, and I’d like to see objects interpreted in a broader way. There is an aesthetic view of objects, but there is also a more ordinary view. What happens when different behaviours and views are suggested in an exhibition?

One of the things I am interested in is the space between objects and the significance of that. The notion of negative space is familiar to any architect, town planner, or geographer, but it is rare in the art world.

This is surprising, in some senses, as the planning an exhibition involves not just the works themselves but the spaces between them – the spaces that connect them and make each element of the exhibition possible. As we move through an exhibition, our bodies participate in a physical correspondence with the works. We must take into account the negative space that separates the objects – this is crucial since as it is about the functioning of our vision.

In this sense, the work of the artist Jakob Lena Knebl, guest curator behind the Walk on the Water exhibition at the Museum of Art and History (MAH), is extraordinary in its ability to reveal the vacant spaces between works, as opposed to a neutral place that would be filled through the interpretation of visitors. And it seems to me that the public is ready. Sensitivities have changed and each of us are in a position to cross new boundaries, to consider new interpretations of the objects.

Artist Jakob Lena Knebl curated the Walk on the Water exhibition Photograph by Julien Gremaud

The collections of “encyclopaedic” museums often feature as many objects of utilitarian value as of aesthetic value. A broad approach to interpretation allows us to reflect on the language of exhibitions and how they have developed. Exhibitions should never be fixed or presented in a way that removes them from current debates.


Seeing a work of art integrated in a context that combines applied arts, fashion, fine arts, archaeology, watchmaking, numismatics, architecture and interior design breaches the barrier of standard curatorial conventions. In a traditional exhibition, you don't hang a piece of clothing on a Giacometti sculpture; you don't play with a Bellmer doll; you don't show a marble Venus in a shower cubicle, an ancient Roman vase in a modern kitchen cabinet or a Dutch Golden Age landscape in a garden shed.

Jakob Lena Knebl has an ambitious goal: to give viewers the chance to forget about cultural hierarchies. The arrangements she has put in place make it possible to consider exhibitions as places where every object, every image has equal “dignity”.

We need to consider the museum as a functional tool that allows us to move forward. A museum which, in its architecture and through the movement of visitors, encourages us to reflect on this while navigating the space and the objects.

Marc-Olivier Wahler is the director of the Museum of Art and History (MAH)

The Museum of Art and History (MAH) reopened in March with a redisplayed permanent collection. The Geneva institution, which first opened in 1910, covers 7,000sqm over five storeys.

Under the helm of recently appointed director Marc-Olivier Wahler, the museum has launched a new programming strategy aiming at re-contextualising its collection. MAH has also unveiled a new visual identity and announced expansion plans.

The museum houses 650,000 items, ranging from archaeological artefacts to Byzantine art and classical antiquities to modern paintings.

For the reopening, Viennese artist and designer Jakob Lena Knebl, who will represent Austria at the forthcoming Venice Biennale, was asked to curate a display of objects from the collection in dialogue with new works. The exhibition, Walk on the Water, is on until 27 June.

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