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Contemporary interventions and heritage: The theoretical and methodological challenges of ‘Knowing Engagement’

Contemporary interventions and heritage: The theoretical and methodological challenges of ‘Knowing Engagement’
Joanne Williams

2017

School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UNITED KINGDOM.

ABSTRACT

Contemporary art is increasingly present in museum and heritage programming as a mode of interpretation and a method of exploring and understanding particular places, histories or concepts, with the intention of increasing visitor 'engagement'. While this form of programming is becoming commonplace, little research exists in relation to visitor experiences of these works. Undertaken in the context of Arts Council England's agenda of 'demonstrating' the value of cultural engagement through 'robust credible research', this thesis explores the possibilities of 'knowing engagement' with these artwork and the ways in which they might achieve their complex and conjunctive aims of being both an ‘intervention’ and acting as ‘interpretation’.

Working through a case study of artworks at the Imperial War Museum North (IWMN), which employs contemporary art as 'an affective alternative to a text-based, didactic explanation' in order to generate a 'critical historical consciousness' in visitors, this thesis challenges an epistemic deficit evident in current evaluation methodologies that depend on policy driven proxy measures of 'engagement' and neglect the complex ontological nature of visitors' encounters with these artworks in the museum space. Drawing on Rodney Harrison's notion of heritage as a 'collaborative, dialogical and material- discursive process', engagement with contemporary art interventions is considered with respect to instrumentalised cultural policy, affective encounters with the materiality of the case study artworks and notions of intervention and site specificity in aesthetic and institutional discourse.

Considering the artworks as heterogeneous entities in relation to artists, the Museum, visitors, cultural policy and aesthetic discourse, this thesis suggests that prior to producing 'demonstrable' evidence of engagement, it is first necessary to understand the complexity of these artworks and the relationships through which they exist as cultural objects.