Beyond institutional critique: Mark Dion’s surrealist wunderkammer at the Manchester Museum

Marion Endt-Jones


Mark Dion’s Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacy, which opened at the Manchester Museum in May 2005, seems to represent a crossover between an old curator’s office, a storage room and a sixteenth century cabinet of curiosities. This essay closely examines two aspects of the installation, its inaccessibility and its concern with ‘alternative’, pre-Enlightenment taxonomy and classification, and explores in which ways they contrast and challenge the Museum’s display strategies. It investigates how the artist, by drawing on the university museum’s wunderkammer legacy and taking a detour via surrealism in the process, manages to undermine the binary logic earlier forms of institutional critique got entrapped in. By engaging in a symbiotic and cooperative, rather than parasitic and aggressive, relationship with the institution, the artist reminds us to focus on the museum’s ‘unique selling propositions’: the object’s historicity and the employees’ specialist expertise. The paper draws on the ideas of André Breton, Roger Caillois and Michel de Certeau to show how Dion proposes a new understanding of what is meant by ‘institutional critique’.

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Copyright (c) 2015 Marion Endt-Jones

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Museum and Society

ISSN 1479-8360