Exhibiting Absence

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

Steven Lubar
Dec 2, 2018 · 15 min read
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“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/

Stolen!

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Empty frames at the Gardner Museum. https://www.gardnermuseum.org/about/theft-story#chapter8
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Sophie Calle, Last Seen, 1991. From https://www.gardnermuseum.org/experience/contemporary-art/artists/calle-sophie
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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/
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Jewish Museum, Berlin. Photo courtesy @laurichka
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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
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The original Montezuma headdress, now at the Weltmuseum Wien. https://www.weltmuseumwien.at/en/highlights/
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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.

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

Displaying lost people

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

Destroyed!

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

Not available, or just not important…

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

Lost, or Censored…

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

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