Exhibiting Absence

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

“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/


Empty frames at the Gardner Museum. https://www.gardnermuseum.org/about/theft-story#chapter8
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/
Jewish Museum, Berlin. Photo courtesy @laurichka
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
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

Returned or removed.

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

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/
Lisa Rosowsky’s “Ghost Portraits” at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Royal Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Photo from @SpoonsOnTrays
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
“America on the Move”, National Museum of American History, 2004
Fred Wilson, “Mining the Museum,” Maryland Historical Society, 1992–1993


Mark Dion, The Jenks Museum, 2014. Courtesy The Jenks Society for Lost Museums. Photograph by Jodie Mim Goodnough.
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/)
Franklin House project, designed by Robert Venturi, William Rauch, and Denise Scott Brown.
Mann-Simons Outdoor Museum https://www.flickr.com/photos/historiccolumbiafoundation/10277787583/

Not available, or just not important…

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

Lost, or Censored…

Vlatka Horvat http://www.vlatkahorvat.com/projects/
From the San Fernando Valley Sun. http://www.sanfernandosun.com/news/article_7fceabf6-517a-11e7-a99f-73f7489bab5f.html
Courtesy Dr James Lattin



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Steven Lubar

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