Displaying photography

It’s done: the last proof has been checked, the ‘send’ button has been pressed, and the panels for the exhibition ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ have gone to press at the superb Echo House production house. I’ve had many moments of worrying about what visitors will think when the show opens at The Collection in Lincoln in November – but there’s no turning back now.

The idea for this exhibition grew out of a British Academy research fellowship that I held in 2015 – so like most exhibitions, it’s been a long time coming, but with a lot of the work inevitably done in a flurry towards the end. But the central idea hasn’t changed, both in terms of what I wanted to explore in the exhibition, and the physical form I wanted it to take. Let me explain a bit about both, since one informs the other.

Most exhibitions of photography display photographic prints mounted in frames and fixed to the walls of a gallery. The prints might themselves be ‘vintage’, that is, printed at or near the time the photographs were taken, and perhaps even made by the credited photographer. The idea of an original photographic print, that is, something developed and printed by a named photographer – Julia Margaret Cameron, or Henri Cartier-Bresson, to take two famous names – owes a lot to a self-conscious positioning of photography as a unique artistic expression. Mounting photographs in frames also encourages us to see them as works of art, much like we would view a painting, engraving, or drawing.

But more often, photography has been a tool, not an art form. From the time of its discovery in the 1830s, using photographic technology as a recording device was the dominant idea – and recording monuments, objects, people, and natural phenomena quickly became the main use of the camera. Added to that, negative-based photographic processes allowed almost endless reproductions of the image, either from the original negative or by re-photographing existing prints, in the days before digital scanning. Negatives were also used to make magic lantern slides to project for entertainment or at public lectures, like the sold-out lectures that Howard Carter gave about his work at the tomb of Tutankhamun.

To my mind, displaying the Tutankhamun photographs in frames and hanging them on a gallery wall would invite viewers to see them only for their aesthetic value – that is, as works of art. Many of the photographs have an aesthetic value, of course. But why were certain photographs taken to look especially appealing or evocative, and what about the aesthetic of ‘objective knowledge’ that many of the photographs adopt instead? Those are the kinds of questions that interest me and inform my research.

Sample panel for blog

Rather than making new prints to display in conventional gallery frames, I came up with the idea of printing digital scans from Harry Burton’s negatives on large panels. These panels also incorporate a short text, a title, and credit information, against a complementary background. Apart from the introductory panel (which you get a glimpse of, in draft form, above), each panel is the same size, and they will hang on the gallery walls at the same height, about equal distance apart. What I hoped was that this format would be flexible, allowing the exhibition to be made smaller – or larger, if we add to it – for different venues, and also allowing the panels to be reused several times, making this a cost-effective way to offer a loan exhibition to smaller museums or other venues.

The panels are made of a material called Dibond, which consists of two thin metal sheets sandwiching a core material for support. It’s often used for museum signage. Instead, for ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’, the signs become the show, asking viewers to experience photography not (or not only) on the visual level, but as a set of practices in the field and in the press, and between people, places, and objects. Photos and photography made archaeology meaningful, yes – but not for the reasons we often assume.

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