Art in a science museum ‒ a marketing strategy or re-evaluation tool?

Over the last few decades, collaboration between artists and museums of natural history, science and art, as well as other memory institutions in the world, has taken various and diverse forms, among them ‒ art interventions in permanent exhibitions and holdings, often initiated by the museums themselves; artists’ residencies at museums, which, over an extended time, offer a way of critically re-examining the process of developing museum collections and principles of display, and the so-called art-science projects (collaboration between art and science) that see artists get involved in various scientific areas, working with scholars and researchers, developing new visual forms and creative research techniques, searching for solutions to acute problems relevant to science and society.

This collaboration is not just an opportunity for the artists to expand the field of creative research, exploring both the museums’ exhibitions and their ‘invisible’ part ‒ the holdings and the work of museum researchers; it also serves as an important component part of museum programmes, adding diversity to the museums’ activities, attracting new audience to science and history museums and contributing a poetic, critical and sometimes also ironic take on the everyday working life of these institutions. 

Although rooted in the tradition of institutional critique, which has been calling for re-evaluation of the elitist nature of museological activities, the link with colonial-era values, the influence museums exert over formation of art and science canons, as well as of the justification of organizational and classificatory principles of museums and their holdings, collaboration between museums and artists is currently viewed as a mutually enriching and productive practice. To name an example, Freud Museum London has mounted over 70 art projects since 1989, hosting exhibitions by renown British and international artists, including Louise Bourgeois, Susan Hiller, Sarah Lucas and Sophie Calle. Oxford University’s Pitt-Rivers Museum, founded in 1884 to house collections of archaeological and anthropological objects, has been collaborating with artists for 20 years, integrating their works into its exhibitions. The Art Policy adopted by London Science Museum in 1996 calls for artists to be involved in every one of its major projects. Hannah Redler, art project curator of 17 years for Science Museum, explains the motivation behind museum’s work with artists: ‘In bringing art works into the Museum we hope they will either act as provocative elements, encouraging visitors to add their own questions to those of the artists, or as catalysts which, seen in our context, may offer unexpected entry points for visitors to explore science.”1 Berlin Natural History Museum has likewise implemented an ambitious four-year programme entitled Kunst/Natur (Art/Nature), which concluded in 2019, inviting international artists representing not just visual but also sound arts and the field of literature to work with the museum’s holdings and all its departments, creating interventions. The museum describes the programme as a strategic reorganization promoting its openness to other cultural disciplines and a new circle of museum-goers. The Berlin Natural History Museum cites attempts ‘to experimentally transcend the communicative barriers between the artistic domain and that of the natural history museum, in order to open up fresh perspectives both on nature and on museum culture, to shed new light on scientific objects, and to change the way we view natural history museums in general’2 as the objective of its Art/Nature programme. Meanwhile, the former contemporary art curator for the London Natural History Museum Bergit Arends describes the role of contemporary art in a museum the following way: ‘Through the arts we hope to disrupt engrained perceptions for the benefit of the Museum, to change its course and to reveal new knowledge in this process.’3 In all these museums involvement of artists in interpreting the holdings and permanent exhibitions has been recognised as a practice adding to the museum’s activities, revealing new perspectives and cognitive methods, diversifying the museum exhibitions and encouraging re-evaluation of the museum’s activities.

In 2020/2021, Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine has invited artists Katrīna Neiburga and Jānis Noviks as its first artists-in-residence, programmatically opening a year of redefining and re-evaluation for the museum. Stradiņš Museum echoes Pitt-Rivers Museum and Berlin Natural History Museum in using art as a device for highlighting the objects and stories that live here and turning to hitherto unexplored subjects like the acoustic dimension of medicine ‒ observation of the ‘soundscape’ of the patient’s body ‒ or the lesser-known pages of the history of medicine: self-experimentation as practiced by physicians over the centuries. Art legitimises subjective intervention in the order of things at the museum or even generally in medical science as a discipline, revealing questions that the visitor or viewer today may have as they explore the museum or some of its exhibits, particularly if they were given enough time to examine some of the objects normally hidden away in the holdings storage.

Exhibition fragment from the residency programme “Museum Blood Count”. Photo: Toms Majors

The importance of a subjective perspective is also emphasized in his practice by the American artist Mark Dion, who, visiting Riga as part of the first Riga International Contemporary Art Biennial (RIBOCA) in 2018, arranged and showcased objects found in the rooms of the abandoned building of the Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia.4 During his career, Dion has mounted a number of installations and projects thematising the globally dominating principles of exhibition design, exhibit classification and research work at the world’s leading museums and highlighting the impact of institutions on the popular perception of culture, science and history. In his work, he borrows from and imitates scientific research methods employed in disciplines like archaeology, for instance, classifying objects found on the canal bed in Venice or on the shores of River Thames and temporarily integrating the various artefacts into permanent exhibitions of prestigious museums.

Marks Dions (Mark Dion), A Tour of the Dark Museum. 2018. Photo: Kristīne Madjare. Arterritory, RIBOCA1

Dion makes a point of stating that he is happy to identify with an amateur or dilettante driven by curiosity and passion for learning, thus avoiding the necessity to represent a narrowly specialized scientifically authoritative opinion, reproducing the existing scientific canon. He frequently refers to the predecessor of the modern museum, the presentation form that was known as Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities. The private Wunderkammer collections, widespread in the 16th-century Europe, were created as testimony to the enlightenment and social status of the owners; the modern museological practice of systematizing and cataloguing was not yet applied to them. Depending on the proprietor’s interests and preferences, objects of various origins were arranged for viewing in random order: naturalia (natural objects), arteficialia (man-made objects) and scientifica (scientific tools). Retrospectively viewed today, the cabinet of curiosities embodies a subjective, creative and interdisciplinary principle of organization, one that has not as yet been subjected to the dispassionate norms, categories and didactics of the scientific gaze.

Marks Dions (Mark Dion), A Tour of the Dark Museum. 2018. Photo: Kristīne Madjare. Arterritory, RIBOCA1

The interaction between contemporary art and museums has a history of more than 100 years. Since the 20th century beginnings of the avant-garde, museums, as institutions representing scientific or artistic canons and seemingly objective principles and criteria for the classification of art and other fields, have often been a direct target of artists' criticism. As an early and radical example of an avant-garde attack on museums, the 1909 Italian Futurist Filippo Tomaso Marinetti's "Manifesto on the Founding of Futurism"5 is usually cited, which he used to call for vandalization of museums, comparing them to cemeteries and pointing out that these institutions are ‘identical, surely, in the sinister promiscuity of so many bodies unknown to one another’, alienated from life and visited once a year. In 1919, the Berlin leftist Dadaist artists George Grosz and John Heartfield wrote the following in their polemic appeal ‘Der Kunstlump’, referring to the clashes between the Kapp Putsch counter-revolutionary forces and workers in Dresden: ‘We are welcoming with joy the fact that bullets are flying in galleries and palaces, [piercing] masterpieces by Rubens, not in the homes of the poor in working-class neighbourhoods!’6, pointing at museums and art galleries as institutions detached from contemporary processes and guarding the values of the elite.

Once the wave of avant-garde had subsided, museums as elitist institutions linked with financial and political power structures and representing their values once again caught the attention of artists in the 1960s, thanks to the conceptualist interest in formation of ideas and concepts, methods of classification and archiving, and mechanisms of representation. The first wave of institutional critique is vividly exemplified by works of the New York-based German-born conceptualist Hans Haacke, which systematically highlighted the connection between museums, their founders and audience on one side and the financial capital flows on the other ‒  for instance, in his ‘Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Board of Trustees’, a series of mounted silk-screen sheets, where Haacke laconically points at the extensive international corporative connections enjoyed by trustees of the Guggenheim Museum. In the late 1960s, the Belgian conceptualist Marcel Broodthaers introduced a different, poetically ironic view on the principles of museum holdings by founding a paradoxically named fictitious entity, ‘Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles’7. Broodthaers broke up his ‘museum’s’ holdings ‒ a collection of various representations of the eagle as a symbol of power ‒ into 12 sections, himself assuming the duties of the founder, assistant and spokesperson. The ‘Department of Eagles’ served as an ironic paraphrase on the representative methods of political power and the institutional museal forms that sustain it.

In the late 1980s, the younger generation of artists transferred their critical interventions to the actual premises of museums. Thus, Andrea Fraser in her work ‘Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk’, appearing as a Jane Castleton, museum employee and associate professor, guided performative tours of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, revealing the museum as an institution both produced and attended by the priviledged classes and speaking about the exhibits and functional objects of the museum’s set-up with wildly exaggerated reverence. Fraser’s contemporary Fred Wilson highlighted the biased representation of the race issue in museums and their inclination to keep silent about the historical age of slavery.  In his 1992 project ‘Mining the Museum’ he used the collection of the Maryland Historical Society, juxtaposing the featured sophisticated household objects historically used by upper-class white Americans with slavery paraphernalia and adding the hitherto missing names of historically significant Afro-Americans to the display.

The lively contemporary practice of artist-museum collaboration frequently raises the question whether critical re-evaluation of museums and their work is still an essential part of artists’ interventions or perhaps the latter mostly serve to maintain the public image of the institutions, attracting more visitors and diversifying their programmes. These questions are also asked by Fraser in her influential article ‘From the critique of institutions to an institution of critique’, where she revisits the history of institutional critique and refers to involvement of contemporary art in the global art market and museum programmes. And yet she arrives at the conclusion that, viewing the whole art scene ‒ both the museums and the art market and the work of artists ‒ as a cohesive social field, the mission of artistic critique is not taking a stand against museums and other institutions while assuming an affected air of idealism but ‘protecting’ museums and the art scene from elitism or purely economically-driven activities. To quote Fraser: ‘It’s not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution. It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to.’8 

It’s not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution. It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to.

Andrea Fraser

Perhaps it is this impulse of saving museums from the rut and humdrum repetitiveness of their own work by demonstrating the existence of other perspectives, both social and subjective, of other associations and motivations, that is the reason behind the increasing involvement of artists in the work of developing and re-examining their programmes and exhibitions everywhere in the world. 



  1. Hannah Redler: “From interventions to interactions: Science Museum Arts Project’s history and the challenge of interpreting art in the Science Museum,” Journal of Science Communication (JCOM), 08 (02) 2009. CO4. (25.01.2021).
  2. ‘Kunst/Natur. Künstlerische Interventionen im Museum für Naturkunde Berlin‘: (25.01.2021).
  3. Bergit Arends, ‘Contemporary arts in the Natural History Museum London: symbiosis and disruption’, Journal of Science Communication (Jcom),  08 (02) (2009), C02.
  4. Tomas Pārups, ‘Being a dilettante is exciting. A conversation with artist Mark Dion‘, Arterritory (25.01.2021).
  5. Filippo Tomaso Marinetti, The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism (23.01.2021). First published as Filippo Tomaso Marinetti, ‘Fondation et Manifeste du Futurisme’, Le Figaro, Paris, 20 February 1909.
  6. Georg Grosz, John Heartfield, ‘Der Kunstlump”, Der Gegner. 1 (10–12): 48–56;——-en-20–1–txt-txIN-Gross—— (25.01.2021).
  7. Dirk Snauwaert: “Marcel Broodthaers, “Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Section des Figures, 1972”, The Artist as Curator. An Anthology, ed. Elena Filipovič, Mousse Publishing, Koenig books 2017, 123–136.
  8. Andrea Fraser: “From the critique of institutions to an institution of critique”, Artforum, September 2005, (24.01.2021).

Published: March, 2021

Māra Traumane

Māra Traumane

Head of the ESF project


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