Collections are Museums’ Self- Portraits: “Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts” Curator Discussion

Who gets in? Who decides? In recent years, questions about accessibility, representation, and inclusion have become central to an ongoing reexamination of the collecting practices and power structures of museums and the art world. Artists, curators, writers, and activists have emphasized the narrow framework of Western art history—a discipline dominated by white Euro-American institutions and specialists—while attempting to uncover previously marginalized artists. In this online tour Block Museum curators Essi Rönkkö and Kate Hadley Toftness discuss artworks that critique historical traditions and museum collections.

This online tour is part of WHO SAYS, WHO SHOWS, WHAT COUNTS: Thinking about History with The Block’s Collection, a 2021 exhibition that explores how art, artists, and museums engage with narratives of the past.


Institutions Critiqued

Exhibition curators discuss two works in The Block Museum collection: Tseng Kwong Chi Posing with Mannequins, from the series Costumes at the Met (1980) and Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? (1989-9). Explore these works and others in the exhibition that connect to the subject “Institutions Critiqued” in our highlights package below


Curators Essi Rönkkö and Kate Hadley Toftness

From the Discussion

“The artists in the section of the exhibition challenge us to think not only about what is exhibited in the museums, but also to consider who is welcome and in such spaces and who is left out, museums and galleries can be perceived as elitist and off putting spaces with their echoing clean white walls and security staff, and these kinds of structural barriers are something we have to think about when we work on exhibition design and display of objects, and it is for example, very important to us that there is no admission fee to the Block museum of art and that we are open to all visitors, we are the academic museum of Northwestern University and our main function is to support teaching and research, but we aspire to also serve as a gathering space for community and campus to meet.

To quote artists, Andrea Carlson, who spoke at last night’s keynote conversation, these kinds of collection exhibitions, like “Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts” are kind of self-portraits for museums, in this case, the portrait is an idealized one, it is quite intentionally aspirational, setting a direction for the future for our collection.”

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