19th October 2014

The aim of this presentation was to describe and analyse a museum object, exploring how different approaches to its interpretation could be mounted in a museum and what effects these approaches would produce.

I based my argument on Susan Pearce’s statement that ‘one object may have many lives’ (1992: 17). I wanted to suggest that rather than ‘having many lives’, van Gogh’s painting Two Crabs could be given new lives through its interpretation in a museum. The work of such a famous artist comes with many ready-made preconceptions, and so I wanted suggest some new ways of seeing.

Firstly, I analysed and compared the effects offered by the National Gallery’s permanent display and its 2014 exhibition Making Colour. My research found that different narratives created by the museum encourage the viewer to see the object in different ways, providing previously ignored or unconsidered “lives” for the painting.

While the Making Colour exhibition drew my attention to the materiality of the painting and its place within the technological and scientific development of paint, the museum’s permanent collection places the painting within coherent socio-historical framework; that is to say, next to the work of other artistic giants of post-impressionism.

I argued that the former display offered an innovative “new life” for the painting, by drawing the viewer’s attention to the theory behind its aesthetic, through the means of scientific analysis. The latter mode of display, whilst offering more traditional epistemological processes through an encyclopaedic display, threatened to undermine the individual work by placing it within such a broad historical framework and mounting it next to more internationally famous works, such as the artist’s own Sunflowers. I came to the conclusion that the narrative of both displays, while having their issues, offered credibility and authenticity to the work. I proposed that the Making Colour exhibition, in particular, offered an innovative new life for the painting by placing it within a very different context to that of the museum’s usual narrative.

I continued by debating the advantages and disadvantages of a purely aesthetic approach to display, which could be used in the future in an attempt to engage the viewer in an emotional encounter with the painting. While Steven Conn states that museum objects often ‘need help’ (2010: 26), with regard to their display in a museum, I contested that it is perhaps the viewer who needs help when connecting with a work of art and when realising, interpreting or imagining new lives for an object. In this sense, an aesthetic display – a display consisting of just the ‘real thing’ (Pearce, – 1992: 15-35) is limited in its approach to bring an object to life.

Finally I suggested some new modes of display which a curator might employ when interpreting the object for exhibition. In doing so I recommended a look into semiotics, particularly with regard to symbolism. If an object, in Leach’s terms, is a symbol when it is associated with elements outside of its intrinsic history (in Pearce, 1992: 15-35), then it might be illuminating for an audience unfamiliar with the painting to see it beside the works of art from outside Europe that influenced and informed 19th century Western artistic ideals. We too often create a divide between East and West in museum display. It is perhaps well known that Orientalist painting had its heyday during the very century in which van Gogh worked, but would we have ever thought to group van Gogh’s work with that of the Orientalists? The National Gallery’s website states that the painting was perhaps inspired by Hokusai’s Japanese print, Crabs, demonstrating that van Gogh’s work drew influences from outside Europe.

I also suggested that van Gogh’s work be used in a museum as a sign for a particular period in the artist’s biography, to trace back the artist’s creative output to that of his character – art is often inseparable from that of its creator and it might be of academic interest to use the object as a sign of the real person. We could, for example, display the painting next to its counterpart, Crab on its Back, and explain alongside the works that van Gogh painted them as a means to familiarize himself with painting after being released from the asylum at Saint-Rémy and that one year later, it’s believed that he shot himself.

The conclusion of my presentation was that in the case of this particular painting, creating a narrative, or offering the means for the viewer to create a narrative, is favourable to a purely aesthetic mode of display. I also suggested that, paradoxically, an aesthetic approach might not be the most aesthetic way to display the painting, as a narrative can draw our attention to its formal, material and aesthetic beauty.

Due to the short nature of the presentation I was unable to go deeper into my research and so suggested further points for consideration of the topic, including but not limited to the use of a frame (both the physical object and the metaphorical frame of the museum), notions of accessibility, and further debates around aesthetic and historical display.


Pearce, Susan, (1992). ‘Objects Inside and Outside Museums’ in Pearce, Susan, Museums, Objects and Collections: A Cultural Study. Leicester: Leicester University Press.

Conn, Steven, (2010) Do Museums Still Need Objects? Philadelphia: University of Penn Press.