Steph Scholten, director of the Hunterian Museum and Gallery, did not always plan for a career in the cultural sector. He had a contract lined up with the company his father worked for, but instead enrolled in a school for gold and silversmiths at seventeen. Before this time, he admits that he’d only visited museums on a couple of occasions, but as well as art history lessons, regular trips to galleries were part of his new curriculum. He pinpoints his visit to the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in 1980—where he first saw Bernard Neumann’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue—as a key moment along the path to his current career. Soon he was studying History of Art, with a focus on modern contemporary art, at the University of Amsterdam. The rest, as they say, is history.
Of course, the last thing we want as museum visitors is for the tangible pieces of history we are encountering to feel entirely relegated to the past. The radical rehang that will put the main gallery of the Hunterian out of commission until the 1st of April seeks to ensure that will never be the case. Scholten likes to think of this endeavour as an ‘experiment’, with the Hunterian’s status as a university museum and gallery making it the perfect ‘laboratory’ to test out new ways to present and engage with the permanent collection. The aim of the rehang is to question the pieces on display, encouraging visitors to ask why these objects are there, and who decides which artworks are important enough to be shown. The Hunterian has approximately 1,000 paintings and 30,000-40,000 prints and drawings, and Scholten and his team intend to offer little-seen works their day in the spotlight. ‘Every object allows you to ask interesting questions, so in the new rehang we will try to mix some of the all-time favourites that people know and love and we will present them in slightly different contexts but also bring in a rotating display of works,’ says Scholten.
One of the artists the new gallery will highlight is Beatrice Whistler, so often overshadowed by her more famous husband, whose work the Hunterian has had for some time, but have rarely shown. Scholten admits that though the museum does host contemporary female artists (such as the current Elizabeth Price UNDERFOOT exhibition), previously it has failed to have more than a handful on display. One can only hope that the redesign will rectify this imbalance, though it has been arguably a long time coming.
Another sector-wide failure that has been under intense scrutiny recently is the lack of art by non-western and non-white artists displayed in British galleries. This, again, is an issue Scholten stresses they seek to redress in the rehang: ‘We’ve thought about ways of how to represent the history of the collection—the composition of the collection—that makes it clear that what you see is actually a small section of what is out there in the world in terms of art.’ This is an aim that runs in tandem with the ‘Curating Discomfort’ scheme the Hunterian has pioneered, intending to address the ‘historic power imbalances within the museum’. An African Art exhibition is planned for later this year, which will foreground pieces that haven’t been displayed for almost 50 years. It is undeniable that museums have upheld hegemonic views of gender, race, and class, and currently, the sector is in the midst of a reckoning. ‘Curating Discomfort’ is a step in the right direction, but alone it is not enough. It brands itself as an ‘intervention’ rather than simply an ‘exhibition’. But aims are not actions, words are not work, and the Hunterian’s dedication to such a message—beyond merely a scheme—remains to be seen.
Scholten certainly acknowledges the difficult times ahead for his sector, stating that fundamental, systematic change is the only option. ‘If museums are able to meaningfully contribute to societal debate, to be places of reflection and in some cases safe spaces, there is a good future for them, but there is a big risk.’ There is a tinge of pessimism in what Scholten says, unsure, perhaps, of the stability of the institutions. It’s a sobering thought that we may lose the museum, but not an altogether surprising one.
The challenge, then, is set for the next generation; those hoping to break into the museum and heritage sector enter not just at a time of great upheaval but also one of limited employment opportunities and relatively low pay. Coming years, says Scholten, may not be kind to those who care only for the aesthetics of art. But all is not without hope. If museums do change, reinvent themselves from the ground upwards to become places that question themselves, scrutinise their history, and challenge and educate their visitors, then they will find continuing relevance.
‘Museums, especially university museums, are instruments par excellence for critical engagement with history, with ecology, with all the big questions of our time.’
This, Scholten believes, is the future of the museum.
By Eve Connor (she/her)