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7AAIAM13 Exhibitions, Identities and Politics: in Museums and other Exhibiting Organisations

Module convenor: Dr Serena Iervolino
Credits: 20

Teaching pattern:                                                                                                           8 x 3-hour sessions (combining lecture and seminar/workshop)
2 x 3-hour structured study visits
2 x 1-hour group projects supervision with a Graduate Teaching Assistant

Module description: 

This module introduces students to debates around the role that museums, galleries and other exhibitionary institutions play in the articulation and negotiation of cultural identities. Whilst engaging with academic debates and scholarly publications, the course also explores how, in practice, exhibitions articulate notions of identities; it also looks at the role that the dynamics of inclusion, exclusion and power play in these articulations. By engaging both with theoretical reflections and processes of exhibition-making and their outputs, the module will provide students with an understanding of how exhibitions are being shaped by theoretical reflections, societal debates and policy developments and vice versa. How is this cross-fertilization between theory, societal concerns, and practice informing they ways in which particular ideas of identities and cultures are presented in exhibitions? To this end, a number of ‘case studies’ will be discussed throughout the module. Students will be invited to critically engage - individually and as a group, during a planned study visit and in an assessed group work - with several, both historical and contemporary, examples of exhibitions. The focus will be primarily on exhibitions that either take cultural identity as their main theme or address other subjects, whilst being intrinsically entangled in the definition of national and other identities (e.g. national pavilions at Expos or some Biennales).

Module aims

The module focuses on exhibitions and explores how these multimodal, cultural ‘artefacts’ of particular societies are involved in the definition and negotiation of specific ideas of identities and cultures. The module aims to:   

  • Introduce students to theoretical debates about issues of identity formations and the role of exhibitions in constructing and negotiating particular notions of identity
  • Explore how these ideas are charged with political meanings, being typically constructed on the basis of dominant value systems, and are therefore unavoidably embroiled in power relationships
  • Encourage students to critically examine how articulations of identities proposed in exhibitions reflect societal beliefs, priorities and concerns, whilst also seeking to often challenge its assumptions, ideologies and definitions
  • Offer an insight into how identities - and their articulation in exhibitions and other cultural products - are never static, whilst shifting over time, space and geographies
  • Explore the often-differing roles that museums and other cultural institutions and exhibitionary spaces play in processes of identity formation, both locally and internationally, through these audience-facing cultural products
  • Discuss how audiences are implicated in processes of meaning-making and in the interpretation of exhibitions and their proposed notions of identities

Students will acquire the capacity to critically look at, and deconstruct, exhibitions.

Learning outcomes

At the end of this module, students will be able to display:

Knowledge and understanding of:

1) Academic debates on identity formation and how group identities have been categorized and analysed;

2) The role of museums, galleries and other cultural institutions and exhibiting spaces in constructing, validating or excluding certain identities through their exhibitions;

3) How and why minority identities have been progressively included in mainstream cultural spaces, particularly in the west, and how this might differ in other parts of the world;

A range of subject specific intellectual skills:

1) The role that curators, exhibition-makers, designers and other professionals and their ideologies and value systems, as well as societal beliefs and policy priorities, play in ‘encoding’ certain ideas about identities;

2) The extent to which audiences are implicated in processes of meaning-making and ‘decode’ messages about identities, and how this may influence their sense of selves and their understanding of what is acceptable;

3) How the politics of minority groups, as well as the application of collaborative approaches to exhibition-making, have contributed to diversify the landscape of identities that are represented, included and validated in (mainstream) cultural institutions.

Critical skills: Students will acquire the capacity to critically ‘read off’ (analyse), and analyse, exhibitions developed by museums and other exhibitionary institutions, thus acquiring the knowledge, skills and critical approach to act as critical analysts of exhibitions and other cultural products, as well as responsible cultural producers.

A range of transferable/general (key) skills:

1) Pursue knowledge in an in-depth, critical and engaged manner;

2) Learn to critically analyse and evaluate - drawing on scholarly sources - a multimodal cultural product identifying its strengths and weaknesses, whilst proposing ways to enhance it;

3) Understand the reciprocal relationship existing between theory and practice, and how this shapes cultural products including exhibitions;

4) Appreciate how societal beliefs, identity politics and cultural policies inform cultural products;

5) Propose ideas in a coherent, critical and sustained fashion through written critique using appropriate evidence;

6) Enhance their capacity to work in group and collaborate with colleagues as part of developing and delivering a group proposal and presentation.

Core reading

  • Butler, S. R. and Lehrer, E. (2016) (eds.) Curatorial Dreams: Critics Imagine Exhibitions. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
  • Greenberg, R., Ferguson, B. W. and Nairne, S. (1996) (eds.) Thinking about exhibitions. London: Routledge.
  • Golding, V. and Modest, W (2018) (eds) Museums and Communities: Curators, Collections and Collaboration. London: Bloomsbury Academic
  • Iervolino, S. (2018). ‘Museums, Trans Youth and Institutional Change: Transforming Heritage Institutions through Collaborative Practice’. In S. Watson, A. Barnes, and K. Bunning (eds.) Heritage and Interpretation. Leicester Readers in Museum Studies. Routledge: London and New York.
  • Knell, S. J., Aronsson, P. Bugge Amundsen, A. et al. (2010) (eds) National Museums. New Studies from Around the World. London: Routledge.
  • Macdonald, S. & Basu, P. (2007) Exhibition experiments. Malden, Mass.; Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Sandell, R., (2017). Museums, moralities and human rights. London: Routledge.


GROUP WORK: in groups of 4/5, students will be asked to collaboratively develop a presentation/pitch and proposal for an exhibition addressing issues of identity in a London-based museum, gallery or cultural institution.

  • 1 x 15-minute (group) presentation / exhibition pitch (formative assessment) 
  • 1 x 2,000-word (group) exhibition proposal: Students will be required to write an exhibition proposal (including a portfolio of evidence of collaboration work/research). (35%)


  • 1 x 2,500-word (individual) critical essay - students will be asked to write a critical assessment of an exhibition on display in London (or elsewhere) which addresses issues of identity. (65%)

Students are reassessed in the failed elements of assessment and by the same methods as the first attempt.

Additional course costs

It is anticipated that all compulsory off-site sessions will be held in London. Students may need to consider the cost of transport to the venues and the time needed to reach them. Please note that, as part of this module, students might wish to visit particular ticketed temporary exhibitions.

Additional Information

Students who find this module of interest may also wish to consider the complementary module 7AAIAM11: Collecting Cultures: Managing Collections in Museums and Collecting Organisations. The two modules are particular suitable to students interested in developing a career in museums, galleries and other exhibiting / collecting institutions.

 The modules run in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand so there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary depending between years.

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