Exhibiting Knowledge| Knowledge in Exhibitions – An Epistemic History of Exhibitions in the Second Half of the 20th Century

Basic premise

The work of the “Exhibiting Knowledge| Knowledge in Exhibitions” doctoral research group is anchored in the notion that exhibitions play a decisive role in the process of knowledge production. Using this premise as a starting point, the goal of the research group is to examine the interdependent relationship between knowledge production and public exhibitions in the second half of the 20th century. Our approach not only serves to enhance current research into museums and exhibitions, it also helps foster a deeper understanding of today’s knowledge-based society, which itself began to emerge in the era under examination. Indeed, for more than 50 years now, we have seen an increase in the number of exhibitions focussing on cultural themes and issues. Our premise holds that these exhibitions not only reveal a particular culture of exhibiting, they also form a large part of academic and social discourses and, in turn, have a considerable impact on them. In other words, the research group sees exhibitions as key sites and spaces for the production and negotiation of knowledge. Our mission is to pursue select case studies that allow us to examine precisely this interdependent field where knowledge and exhibitions meet in the second half of the 20th century.

Cooperative network

Each of the eight research projects involved in the “Exhibiting Knowledge| Knowledge in Exhibitions” doctoral research group examines one key thematic area and strives to reveal specific distinct characteristics and changes. However, it is only through the cooperation of all projects that larger cultural transformations can become visible. For example, when we compare different case studies among the eight projects, it will be possible to discern a number of distinct characteristics, paradigm shifts and trends, such as when certain themes or types of exhibition become more numerous, which objects are en vogue, whether there has been a shift in the relationship between theory and practice, and whether it is even possible to pinpoint exactly where the transfer of knowledge and exhibitions take place.

Key questions

The work of the “Exhibiting Knowledge| Knowledge in Exhibitions” doctoral research group is focused on seeking answers to the following key questions: What knowledge already circulating in academic and social discourses actually finds its way into exhibitions? What knowledge does not? Who are the individuals and institutions who possess and communicate this knowledge? How do exhibitions explain and interpret this knowledge? How is knowledge translated into spatial object arrangements? And how is knowledge then tied back into science, scholarship and society?

Forms of knowledge

The fellows in the “Exhibiting Knowledge| Knowledge in Exhibitions” doctoral research group see exhibitions as short-term visible embodiments of multilayered processes of negotiation that involve the participation of various players and actors, some of whom become visible and others who remain invisible. In turn, these actors are influenced by a variety of explicit and implicit contexts. This situation requires that we undertake an analysis of the relationship between knowledge and exhibitions – one that takes into account the written and pictorial sources that emerged in the course of their conception, implementation and reception. However, we must also consider the implicit and practical knowledge that is usually not preserved in written documents.

Hands-on practical phase

In order to better understand and do justice to the complex processes behind the production of exhibitions and their multifaceted impact on society and scholarship, the fellows involved in the “Exhibiting Knowledge| Knowledge in Exhibitions” doctoral research group each spend one year of their four-year funding period working at a partner museum whose focus closely corresponds to the subject of their research thesis. By assisting in the conception and implementation of an exhibition in this hands-on practical phase of their research, the fellows learn to engage in different perspectives on historical materials that are usually mostly text-based. This way, the academic work they carry out on exhibitions – which otherwise takes place from an historical distance – becomes enriched by means of their hands-on, practical work on exhibitions.
This combination of theory and practice, which is anchored in the research group’s curriculum, ensures that the fellows pursue a broader research approach. At the same time, the year of practical research enables them to gather key skills and experiences and to establish networks that allow them to best prepare for their future academic careers as well as for professional paths beyond the university.