Institution and Intervention: Artists’ Projects in Object-Based Museums
by Danny Birchall

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This dissertation (full abstract below) is an attempt to grapple with what is going on both institutionally and artistically when non-art museums invite artists to ‘intervene’ in their exhibition and collection space. It first sketches a brief history of the idea of the intervention, then uses two museums as case studies to examine the implications of interventions in practice.



This dissertation argues that while artists’ interventions in museums are increasingly common, understanding of them is still dominated by the idea of the museum as a rigid and generic institution awaiting the enlivening touch of an artist. Against this it posits the idea of museums as both fertile and particular, possessed of institutional and intellectual agendas that shape interventions through collaboration.

It traces the history of interventions from institutional critique to historically and culturally engaged practice, and looks at other influential artistic currents. It examines the work of Mark Dion to observe these influences, and then looks at some UK-based exhibitions since the 1980s to show how interventions have become a collaborative practice whose critical content varies.

A case study of the Freud Museum shows how the museum’s need to attract new visitors and maintain Freud’s relevance have produced work that, despite its critical and ambivalent attitude to both the museum and Freud, has succeeded in serving both goals. A case study of the Science Museum shows how artists’ work has been used in the context of changing institutional priorities around contemporary and historical science, and how art at the Science Museum has also become a catalyst for the participation of audiences.

This dissertation concludes that the Freud Museum and the Science Museum have each developed a distinct body of artists’ work related to their collections and priorities. Collaborative practice in these rich and rewarding environments expresses the voices of the museums as much as the voices of artists.


Length: 15,000 words

This work received a distinction grade


Hannah Redler at the Science Museum, Carol Seigel and Marion Stone at the Freud Museum and Erica Davies at the Ragged School Museum all contributed to the original research in this dissertation.  Grateful thanks are due to my supervisor Suzannah Biernoff, and to Ken Arnold, Nathan Charlton, Kate Forde, Rita Fennell, Ruth Gidley, Martha Henson, Rachel Souhami, Rosie Stanbury, and Laura Williams who read and commented on drafts.