This October, our fourth biennial graduate symposium, organized solely by the graduate students in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture, was a great success. We continued our tradition of organizing these symposia in conjunction with Carnegie Museum of Art – this time drawing inspiration for our topic from the museum’s fall exhibition Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851-1939. This year’s symposium was titled “Exhibition Complex: Displaying People, Identity, and Culture” and sought to reexamine the ephemeral exhibition space. We sent out a call for papers last spring asking for proposals that analyzed the many modes of display, types of artistic production, and built and existing structures that constitute ephemeral exhibition spaces. In return, we received many good proposals, and were able to invite some presenters who we thought were doing truly interesting work. In addition, we invited Associate Professor of art history at UCLA, Saloni Mathur, to deliver a keynote address on her work on the display and reception of South Asian culture in the West and the development of museum culture in South Asia.
The quality of the graduate research was outstanding and the papers covered a variety of topics in relation to our theme. Some of the papers questioned which modes of display and motivations associated with ephemeral exhibition spaces remained in place as the temporary transitioned to the more permanent space of the museum. As several papers revealed, including Dr. Mathur’s keynote, museums displays have often failed to escape the original colonial hierarchies and capitalist strivings of their ephemeral predecessors. Another recurrent theme was the importance of conceptions of “primitivism,” “folk,” “rural,” and other imagined conceptions of the past in the construction of notions of modernity. Many presenters in our symposium explored the task of the exhibition to foster (and sometimes to confound) official narratives and political power through various means, including new forms spectatorship, use of collective memory, and complex interactions of the exhibition with its spacial context. One of the guiding questions that emerged repeatedly in our presenters’ papers, is how ephemeral exhibitions and fairs continue to impact us long after the display has ended. In response, they suggested that world’s fairs, national exhibitions, and museum reorganizations have had an enduring afterlife in the museums that appear in our contemporary times, in new types of displays, and in enduring and contested national narratives.
Despite tighter operating budgets and financial difficulties in many departments and centers within the university, we had a number of sponsors who we would like to thank again for making this year’s symposium possible: Department of History of Art and Architecture, Carnegie Museum of Art, Provost’s Office, Indo-Pacific Council, Center for Russian and East European Studies, European Union Center of Excellence and European Studies Center, Global Studies Center, Cultural Studies Program, Humanities Center, Women’s Studies Program, Graduate and Professional Student Assembly.