What is an exhibition? Cultures, concepts, cognition & curation

Klaus Speidel
Fine Arts and Media Art, TransArts
2021W, scientific seminar (SEW), 4.0 ECTS, 2.0 semester hours, course number S04063


Starting with a definition of exhibitions that Klaus Speidel recently submitted to a forum of philosophers specialized in aesthetics – as well as the ensuing critical discussion –, this seminar tries to come to grasp with the question of what constitutes a (curated) exhibition and what an answer implies. Focusing on how exhibitions constitute meaning, this seminar will explore strategies to question the authority of curatorial choices. It will also explore how exhibitions can comment on commercial spaces, which most contemporary audiences are more comfortable with. The hypothesis that will be investigated is that the shop can be space which allows to interestingly reflect on the exhibition and vice-versa.

Theoretically, this seminar will investigate three fundamental questions and their implications, namely

  • What makes an exhibition an exhibition?
  • What constitutes the identity of an exhibition (making it this exhibition rather than a different one)?
  • What makes people visit an exhibition and engage with it, what holds them back?

To answer the first question, we will first distinguish exhibitions from other forms of public display, namely (at least) showings and arrangements. In public displays which I have tentatively called showings, objects are put on display without the intention of conveying meaning through their constellation, like when a blanket with objects is unrolled at a flea market and no conscious choice is made as to where and how they are displayed. In public displays which I have tentatively called arrangements, objects are put in a spatio-temporal constellation that is intended to be meaningful, but there is no discursive or narrative contextualization or elucidation. As opposed to these forms I here (and perhaps only here) define exhibitions in the strong sense as

the public display of objects and performances of actions in a spatio-temporal constellation that is intended to be meaningful with an overarching narrative or discourse*

The seminar will operate under the initial hypothesis that fragility, instability and multiperspectivity are qualities in exhibitions, where the opposites, namely solidity, stability and a unique perspective (which are still the default in most exhibitions) are potentially downsides, because of the respective politics they involve and the mindsets they convey. Thus, the latter seem to be prone to naturalizing ideas of one-sided power- relations, claims that truth is simple and unique, and generally to reduce the tolerance for ambiguity, thereby jeopardizing the possibility of radical engagement and dialogue with the Other. A radical consequence of this claim is that a successful exhibition is a self-critical exhibition, offering the tools to criticize it.

   1. Based on the observation that exhibitions are public displays and performances, we will investigate

(a) ways in which to publicize exhibitions beyond the exhibition venue, e.g. by taking to the street

(b) ways in which to increase the publicity and the public engagement of exhibitions, e.g. by investigating

why contemporary art has lost certain publics and never spoken to others, consciously working towards involving new publics and thinking about other forms of display, such as those in shops, which seem to be more engaging and less intimidating to contemporary audiences

   2. Based on the observation that exhibitions implicate objects and actions in a spatio-temporal constellation, we will investigate

(a)  ways in which artists & curators can activate the time-course of an exhibition with different events, e.g. discursive (re-)contextualization and examinations, some of which should critically reflect on the exhibition

(b)  ways in which artists & curators can activate the time-course of the visit of an exhibition by the audience, e.g. by thinking of a visit as an experience that unfolds over time and developing (multiple) scenarios for it

(c)  ways in which artists & curators can activate the exhibition space as a historical and ontological space, e.g. through site-specific investigations

(d) ways in which artists & curators can activate the exhibition space as an experiential space, e.g. through offering multiple ways of circulating in the space to offer alternative readings of the works on display

   3. Based on the observation that exhibitions create constellations intended to be meaningful, we will investigate

(a)  ways in which constellations create meaning before discursive and narrative framings, e.g. by experimenting different constellations with non-expert audiences

(b)  ways in which combinations of objects with other objects, actions with other actions and objects and actions combined make meaning, e.g. by experimenting with models and maps

(c)  ways in which different objects and actions inform each other’s meanings, e.g. by investigating how different combinations make salient the meaning potentials of individual works

   4. Based on the observation that exhibitions are based on overarching narrative or discursive frames, we will investigate

(a)  ways in which narratives or discourses inform the perception and meaning of objects, e.g. by offering competing narratives or framings and by potentially presenting art with a non-artistic frame

(b)  ways in which varying narrators lead to varying exhibitions and how exhibitions could bring in alternative narrators, e.g. citizens

(c)  ways in which narrative or discursive frames can generate or multiply exhibitions even beyond

exhibition venues, e.g. following the model of objet trouvé, we might ask if there could be an exposition trouvée in public space

The second part of the seminar will consist in applying the insights to an exhibition currently planned for January 2022, where the process of developing the exhibition might be self-critically documented in a video and texts.

Required previous knowledge: None.

Aims: The students will learn to critically reflect existing exhibitions as audience member as well as self-consciously conceiving future projects and think about the appeal of different spaces of display, including commercial retail spaces.

Methods: Discussion of current and past exhibitions as well as shops with an acute sense for possible alternative interpretations than the one offered by the curatorial narrative/discourse. Experimenting with displays and ambiguous spaces.


Martinon, Jean-Paul (ed.): The Curatorial: A Philosophy of Curating. London. 2013.

Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein, Sabine Priglinger (eds.): The Curator As ... Wien. 2018.

Maura Reilly: Curatorial Activism. Towards an Ethics of Curating. London. 2018

Arian George: Curator’s Handbook: Museums, Commercial Galleries, Independent Spaces. London. 2015

Alessandra Wood, Designed to Sell: The Evolution of Modern Merchandising and Display, London, 2020

Thomas Bauer: Die Vereindeutigung der Welt. Über den Verlust an Mehrdeutigkeit und Vielfalt, Leipzig 2018

The Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (ed.): Learning each other’s historical narrative. Jerusalem. 2003.

Hayden White: Die Bedeutung der Form. Erzählstrukturen in der Geschichtsschreibung. Frankfurt am Main. 1990.

Examination Modalities


1. Preparation of a discussion on one of the themes listed under a, b, c... among the above-mentioned four subject domains with historical and contemporary examples, introducing a set of new or canonical strategies or tactics.

2. Textual or other contribution for the exhibition in January.



If there are more inscriptions than there are spots, a selection will be made in accordance with the commissioning department.

Key Words

curating, exhibiting, shops, displays, narrative, retail, exhibitions, curation, ambiguity


11 October 2021, 10:00–14:00 Seminar Room 20 , "(or Zoom)"
25 October 2021, 10:00–14:00 Seminar Room 20 , "(or Zoom)"
08 November 2021, 10:00–14:00 Seminar Room 20 , "(or Zoom)"
29 November 2021, 10:00–14:00 Seminar Room 20 , "(or Zoom)"
06 December 2021, 10:00–14:00 Seminar Room 20 , "(or Zoom)"
13 December 2021, 10:00–14:00 Seminar Room 20 , "(or Zoom)"
10 January 2022, 10:00–14:00 Seminar Room 20 , "(or Zoom)"

Course Enrolment

From 01 August 2021, 00:00 to 15 September 2021, 12:47
Via online registration

co-registration: possible

TransArts - Transdisciplinary Arts (Bachelor): Theoretical foundations: Theoretical foundations

Fine Arts (2. Section): Artistic and Research Practice: Free Electives out of Artistic and Research Practice

Individual courses: possible