Exhibiting Absence

Museums display objects to tell stories. What should they do when they don’t have the objects they need?

Steven Lubar
15 min readDec 2, 2018
“A Void,” a group exhibition curated by artist Paul Ramirez Jonas at 601 Artspace begins with black rectangles representing lost artworks. Photo by Stan Narten from https://hyperallergic.com/467148/a-void-601-artspace/

Museums display things: art, artifact, specimens. They do this, mostly, in the service of teaching facts, revealing ideas, or driving emotion or empathy. Things help museums tell stories.

But sometimes, we don’t have the things we need to tell the stories we want to tell. “No ideas but in things,” wrote William Carlos Williams, but that’s not always true. Sometimes, there are no things for our ideas. . More precisely: Sometimes the objects we need to tell stories are lost, stolen, misplaced, unavailable, or just too hard to get and display. How to convey those ideas, tell those stories? How, sometimes, to tell the story of that loss, that absence?

Museum curators, educators, and designers have found ways to do this. Some call attention to the absence. Other minimize it. Some recreate objects from information about them. Some reimagine objects.

Displaying absence is not easy. There are pitfalls along the way. Visitors might think that a replica or recreation is real, coming away with misleading ideas both about the object and the museum’s collecting history. Artifactual falsity might undermine the truths the museum is trying to teach. It can be hard to insist on both the certainty of artifacts and reveal the uncertainties of reconstructions at the same time. And on the other hand, sometimes calling attention to artifactual absence can overwhelm the primary story. We can make the object’s museum history the focus, rather than the ideas or story we want to tell with it.

But overall, I think that calling attention to absence is a good thing. It can show, by example, the way that the history of collecting and subsequent museum use shapes the history we can or can’t tell. That’s important, for it reveals museums as shapers of the stories we tell, not simply repeaters of might appear to be an object’s simple truth.


Empty frames at the Gardner Museum. https://www.gardnermuseum.org/about/theft-story#chapter8

The most famous art theft of recent times is the Gardner Museum heist. On March 18, 1990, thieves posing as policemen tied up guards and made off with thirteen works of art by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, and Flinck from the Boston museum. The art remain unaccounted for. “Today,” the Gardner notes on its website, “empty frames remain hanging in the Museum as a placeholder for the missing works and as symbols of hope awaiting their return.”

Sophie Calle, Last Seen, 1991. From https://www.gardnermuseum.org/experience/contemporary-art/artists/calle-sophie
Sophie Calle, What Do You See? (Rembrandt, A Lady and Gentleman in Black), 2013. From https://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/23/on-view-sophie-calle-mounts-an-exhibition-of-missing-art/

Those empty frames are the most famous markers of stolen art, but the Gardner has gone further, asking contemporary artists to imagine the lost art back into the museum. Sophie Calle’s Last Seen (1991) combined recollections of the paintings from guards, conservators, and curators with photograph documenting the empty space. Her 2013 What Do You See? (Rembrandt, A Lady and Gentleman in Black) asked visitors what they saw in those empty frames. The art is gone; memories and images, ideas and fantasies, are projected into the frames that remain.

A more recent installation, Moritz Fehr’s Undertone (2017), evokes Vermeer’s lost Concert using sound: fragments of harpsichord and song remind viewers of the lost painting, while also suggesting, perhaps, what was missing from the painting itself. Sound replaced sight to remind visitors of loss, to suggest both ineffable presence and loss.

Jewish Museum, Berlin. Photo courtesy @laurichka

A 2008 exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Berlin used sound to evoke loss in a different way. Visitors used wireless headphones and sensors. As they walked along a black wall, the sensor triggered an audio description of objects that was stolen or destroyed.

Other museums have been more blunt about simply calling attention to loss, especially loss due the ravages of war, colonialism, or looting. At the Pergamon Museum, a label calls attention to the Soviet Union’s seizure of art and archaeological treasures at the end of the Second World War. “To this day,” it notes, “tens of thousands of objects…remain in storage in Russia as spoils of war and in breach of international law.”

At the Parthenon Museum, plaster casts represent objects taken by Lord Elgin and now at the British Museum. From NPR.org. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113889188

Of course, that history of looting goes back much further. A museum in Turkey notes that artifacts that should be there are at…the Pergamon Museum. The Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo had signs saying that a sculpture that should be there is, instead, at a museum in London… The new Parthenon Museum shows the “missing” Elgin marbles in white plaster.

The Parthenon Museum’s decision to reproduce the missing marbles in plaster clearly distinguishable from the original served both political and pedagogical purposes. It called attention to the Greek government’s ongoing campaign for the return of the originals, as well as letting visitors know that these were copies, not originals. In the same way that conservators of ancient art will fill in missing parts with a dull plaster, the museum’s solution to displaying what is “lost” acknowledges the loss but allows the visitor to imagine the whole, or the original.

The original Montezuma headdress, now at the Weltmuseum Wien. https://www.weltmuseumwien.at/en/highlights/
The replica headdress displayed at Mexico’s Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia. THOMAS LEDL/ CC BY-SA 4.0 From https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/moctezuma-headdress-mexico-austria

But sometimes, it seems, only a replica will do. A headdress, believed to be Montezuma II’s, has been in Europe since the sixteenth century. Mexico, of course, would like it back. So far, its requests have been denied. And so the headdress is represented by a replica at Mexico CIty’s Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia. The replica was made in 1940 and has been on display ever since. One can imagine the discussions of the pros and cons of keeping this on display. On the one hand, it vividly shows the splendor of the real thing — in some ways, it’s more vivid than the 500-year old original — and it is certainly much easier to display in a dramatic fashion than the original would be. On the other hand, it’s not the real thing. People might be fooled. It might lessen the pressure to have the real one repatriated. Replicas in museums are a complicated issue. More on that in another essay.

These absences and artworks, descriptions and reproductions, stand in for the real thing, and call attention to their loss at the same time. There’s an art to representing absence, a balance between story-telling and authenticity that needs to be determined for each display.

Returned or removed.

The examples above offer techniques for dealing with objects the museum is unable to obtain. But more and more, the story the museum wants to tell is about objects that the museum has willingly returned to the proper owners.

American museums have returned some 1.7 million objects covered by the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act to tribes from whom they should never have been taken. Other objects have been returned because they were acquired illegally, or because ethical standards have changed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art returned material that was never legally allowed to leave Italy. The MFA

How best to show this absence?

NAGPRA labels. Denver Museum of Nature and Science (from Erin L. Thompson, left); the Field Museum (courtesy https://sites.northwestern.edu/teachx2017/2017/04/26/field-trips-creating-meaningful-engagement-in-distance-learning/); from the “Questions in Culture” exhibit by University of Colorado museums studies class taught by Jen Shannon, from https://jenshannonanthro.weebly.com/publications-presentations--exhibits.html

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is blunt in its description of objects returned in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. “This headdress has been repatriated to the Apache people,” reads the headline on a label. The hooks where it once hung are left in place. The museum is not hiding its loss; it’s forthrightly noting the object’s return. (One might quibble, though, with those passive constructions: “was separated” and “is returned.”)

Empty case where the Nesmin, the RISD Museum mummy “used to be.” (He’s back now, but in his coffin.)

Changing ethical standards mean that some objects no longer seems suitable for display. Egyptian mummies have been staples of Western museums for centuries, but recently some museums have questioned that display of bodies. The RISD Museum took its popular mummy off display for a while, and then put it back — but not wrapped in cloth, as previously, but inside his coffin, where he presumably had more privacy. “I don’t think Nesmin would have wanted to be disturbed,” curator Gina Borromeo told a reporter. “We are responding to the question as to whether human remains should be kept on display. Like most of us, this is not something we would wish on our loved ones.”

Museum scholar Janet Marstine, in an essay on “The contingent nature of the new museum ethics,” calls for radical transparency on issues including provenance and display. “A transparent wall text might tell us that an artifact is of unknown provenance; a radically transparent wall text would additionally engage the ethical issues of exhibiting works of unknown provenance.” These labels, then, might go further, asking further questions and providing not only the story of the artifacts’ absence from the museum, but also the rest of the story: how it got to the museum, the negotiations that led to its removal, and what has happened to it since leaving, and why.

Displaying lost people

Unveiled a portrait of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a member of the Wampanoag tribe, and the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, in 1665. Portrait by artist Stephen Coit. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/12/native-american-honored/

Harvard University, like most universities, has long displayed portraits of significant individuals in its history. But what significant means changes over time, and you can’t display portraits that were never painted. Or can you? To acknowledge the importance of the Indian School, a significant part of Harvard’s early history, in 2010 the university asked a portrait artist to create a portrait of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first American Indian to graduate from Harvard, in 1665, as a way “to represent Harvard’s Native American roots.”

Lisa Rosowsky’s “Ghost Portraits” at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Portraits like these — and many universities have taken on similar projects of retrospective portraiture — help tell a story of what was, and what is lost because it didn’t seem worth remembering, at the time. In 2017 the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health commissioned a series of portraits to ask the question: what might public health look like if slavery and the oppression of Blacks and Native Americans had not occurred? Artist Lisa Rosowsky answered with her Ghost Portraits installation, eight black and white photographs of notable African Americans and Native Americans in public health. Printed in grey on on translucent fabric, their ghostly presence is intended “to create a dialogue with the portraits of the School’s deans and founders — all white men — that decorate the space.”

Royal Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Photo from @SpoonsOnTrays

Other museums have created portraits in a less literal way. The Royal Maritime Museum, Greenwich, noted its new Pacific gallery that there are no existing portraits of Tupaia, Cook’s Polynesian navigator. But his drawings and maps survive, and the museum used them, and a silhouette of a Polynesian artist, Lyall Hakoraia, “to give Tupaia a presence in this gallery.”

Silhouettes of Sally Hemings and her children are featured in an evocative new exhibition at Monticello. From https://www.monticello.org/sallyhemings/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIkfHHvvDw3gIVxB6tBh3KhwYuEAAYASAAEgLNGPD_BwE

The new Sally Hemings exhibit at Monticello also use silhouettes of Hemings and her children. No portraits survive; the silhouettes, combined with evocative sound and animations, and the writings of her son Madison Hemings, create a sense of personhood that would otherwise be unavailable.

What are the ethics of making up a portrait? These creative re-imaginings of the past create new artifacts that the museum wishes had existed. They’re certain more attention-getting, and more educational, than simply providing a label saying that there is no portrait. They are objects that would have, in a better world, exited; to will them into existence is an act of retrospective justice. Silhouettes, or portraits in grey scale, are an appealing half-way step toward the full-scale recreation of Harvard’s portraits. They can both bring a forgotten person into the light of the present day, but also remind the viewer that for too long that person was only a shadow, unrepresented.

“America on the Move”, National Museum of American History, 2004

Museum face similar problems when they want to display people in their exhibits. Many use “white figures” — ghost mannequins — to display the people who once used the machines and tools and lived in the houses on display. People are an essential part of history, but of course they’re uncollectable. You need to creatively reimagine, and represent them. Curators and designers debate the proper level of verisimilitude in these figures. Should they be painted in lifelike colors, to make the scene more realistic? Grey, to suggest that they are ghosts? New technology — holograms!! — might make figures like these more real. But grey, or faded color, seems best to me: visitors know they’re not real, and the grey figure, or silhouette, is a reminder, not a distraction.

Fred Wilson, “Mining the Museum,” Maryland Historical Society, 1992–1993

There is another way to call attention to the lacunae of past collecting practices and to the people whose stories didn’t seem worthy of collecting. And that is literally to display the absence. That was Fred Wilson’s technique in his 1992–1993 Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society. Three empty pedestals bear silent witness to the missing busts of important African American Marylanders, their absence highlighted by the busts of three white men not from Maryland. Elsewhere in the exhibit, Wilson projected the names of “enslaved persons who rebelled,” for whom no artifacts existed, on top of paintings and artifacts of white abolitionists.

To display absence, or to fill that absence with re-creations, or with shadows and silhouettes, or with words and and images? It depends on your point, on which aspect of history you want to emphasize. The best exhibitions strike the balance between calling the absent into being, and noting the reasons for the absence, at the same time.


Mark Dion, The Jenks Museum, 2014. Courtesy The Jenks Society for Lost Museums. Photograph by Jodie Mim Goodnough.

Artist Mark Dion features silhouettes of a different kind in his reimagining of lost museum and uncollected collections. In his 2014 reconstruction of the Jenks Museum of Brown University, Dion had artists recreate long-lost collections as white figures from paper mâché. In his Clark Expedition, at the Explorers Club in New York (2012), Dion displayed “the sun-bleached bones of expeditions past” — paper mâché copies of the provisions and equipment that the explorers took with them.

An empty case at the Field Museum (courtesy Dr. Shirley T. Wajda); and recreated ancient artifacts by Michael Rakowitz, “May The Obdurate Foe Not Be In Good Health” ( from https://hyperallergic.com/467148/a-void-601-artspace/)

Consider two examples of projects designed to call attention to the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq. The Field Museum displayed an empty case: “Imagine if all of our display cases — like this one — were empty.” Artist Michael Rakowitz’s sculpture series May the Obdurate Foe Not Be in Good Health (2017–18 goes the other way: he uses “Middle Eastern newspapers and packaging to craft evocative but deliberately implausible replicas of objects looted from Iraq’s National Museum in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.” Both make museum visitors stop and think: What are these things? what is missing? Why?

Franklin House project, designed by Robert Venturi, William Rauch, and Denise Scott Brown.

Historic preservationists have long debated the proper way to show buildings that no longer exist, or that have changed greatly over the course of their existence. Reconstruction has its place — Colonial Williamsburg! — but the line between reconstruction and fake can be thin. Philadelphia architects Robert Venturi, William Rauch, and Denise Scott Brown took surviving information about the dimensions of Benjamin Franklin’s long-lost house and created steel-framed “ghost structures” on the site where it had once stood. The effect is remarkable: the frame serves as an interpretive tool, a structure on which to hang stories of Franklin and his family.

Mann-Simons Outdoor Museum https://www.flickr.com/photos/historiccolumbiafoundation/10277787583/

In Columbia, South Carolina, the Mann-Simons Outdoor Museum uses a similar technique. Five “ghost structures” reveal the buildings that once stood on the site, including a former lunch counter, grocery store, outhouse and residences. The buildings are gone, but the recreations show a once thriving free Black community.

Not available, or just not important…

Curators make lists of the perfect objects for their shows. They see what’s available in the storeroom, of course, but they can dream big. What if we could borrow that Leonardo?

But what if they can’t? Is a copy good enough? Art museums adhere, for the most part, to the cult of the original. If there’s a painting that can’t be acquired for loan that’s essential for the argument they want to make, they might show it as a small-scale copy, maybe even in black and white. Almost never would they display a copy that might be mistaken for an original.

Leonardo paintings on display, Not. In the “Da Vinci — The Genius exhibition, in Manchester. Courtesy Visit Manchester

Other types of museums have fewer qualms about using copies.The Boston Museum of Science’s “Da Vinci — The Genius” exhibition explored Leonardo’s art as part of an exhibit on science, and felt free to use reproductions that looked, at least from a distance, like the real thing. The art journal Hyperallergic found it creepy. Whether visitors were fooled, or if they cared…who knows?

History museums use copies of art because they’re interested in the image, not the artistry. While no one expects a small copy of a painting on a text panel to be real, a full-size, full-scale of a painting shown in a frame should be clearly labeled as a reproduction. Sometimes the line is blurry. Museum people sometimes too easily assume that the public understands what is real and what isn’t.

Historic house museums have their own challenges. The home of Claude Monet in Giverny is a historic house museum. To recreate it as it was when Monet was painting there, curators needed to show paintings that had long since found their way to museums. And so they used replicas. Another historic house museum, the Edsel and Elenor Ford House, declares itself “an authentic witness” to the past, but much of the art on the walls are replicas of works donated by the Fords to the Detroit Institute of Art, or sold to endow the house’s preservation. At Henry and Clara Ford’s Fairlane estate, curators decided to reproduce all of the furniture that had been sold off. Reproductions mean that visitors can handle objects, even sit in the chairs.

Sometimes, replicas are better than originals — and the loss or unavailability of the originals opens up new possibilities! It’s when the rules being followed aren’t clear that visitors might be confused.

Lost, or Censored…

There’s a final category of absence in museums; absence caused by the museum itself. Museums lose things. They break artifacts. They censor art. They allow thieves to make off with art. Some museums have made these absences public.

Museums Sheffield commissioned artist Vlatka Horvat to create three projects based on museum absences. “No Contextual Information,” “What Can be Seen,” and “Card Index,” work done with Tim Etchells, looked behind the scenes to show not only the orderliness of the museum’s storage and registration, but also its glitches: “missing 1968,” “unprovenanced,” “no object found in this box” and more.

From the San Fernando Valley Sun. http://www.sanfernandosun.com/news/article_7fceabf6-517a-11e7-a99f-73f7489bab5f.html

Museums have also noted their own processes of censorship. When the director of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes decided to censor one artist’s work from ¡Mírame!: Expressions of Queer Latinx Art, the museum incorporated the censorship into the exhibit. An article in LA Downtown News described the new exhibit: Two walls that would have held Dorian Wood’s work were dedicated instead to the idea of exclusion and censorship. Other artists put up creative responses to the issue. There was a space for visitors to explore the power dynamic. “It’s kind of a comment wall now, where people can discuss instances where they felt their needs and interests had not been respected,” museum CEO John Echeveste said. “We’re welcoming the opportunity for people to express that.”

And to end on a note of warning: Vermont’s Museum of Everyday Life acknowledges theft from the museum with a warning: “DON’T DO IT!”


My thanks to the many people on Twitter who answered my query about the display of absence, including:



























My thanks to Diane O’Donoghue, whose invitation to talk with her class led to this line of inquiry, and to the class, for their interest; and to Menachem Wecker, a reporter on museums, whose questions helped me think through the role of reproductions in museums.

For more on absence in the museum history, see an essay I did based on a presentation to the class two years ago: Museums are Places to Forget.

And for more on the decisions curators make, see my book: Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present.



Steven Lubar

Professor of American Studies at Brown University. Author of Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present.