Interpretation and interpretation-based presentation and display, although in various forms, have always been part of museological and curatorial work. The interpretive turn within social sciences has established new, complex, critical, self-reflective, and intersubjective methodologies as well as the praxis of interpretation. The concept of interpretation, the different approaches within social sciences and artistic-curatorial practices, as well as the critical and research methodology based on theoretical concepts, emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. This approach appeared primarily in Anglo-Saxon cultural anthropology and ethnography, and in European ethnology, shaping the whole spectrum of cultural-artistic representation and methodology. [1] The path along which the meaning of interpretation has expanded was, on one hand, related to the methodological crisis that occurred in the positivist human and social sciences of the 1960s. On the other hand, the change in the concept of interpretation was also related to the textual understanding of culture, cultural phenomena, and artworks—which cannot be considered apart from the "linguistic turn" of cultural studies. "Culture as text" is a metaphor of the "interpretive turn." [2] At the same time, this approach also foregrounds the role of the reader, who constructs works through interpretation (~discursivity ~participation ~new museology).

The "interpretive turn" within the social sciences did not mean the "end" of one theory and the "beginning" of another—in this sense, it cannot be considered a new scientific paradigm, as it only criticized the working methodologies (i.e. fieldwork) of anthropology, and not the science as such. Through this critical approach, a scientific praxis (empirical social sciences), considered previously to be only practical, “turned into” an intellectual activity. American anthropologist Clifford Geertz [3] was the key figure of interpretive cultural anthropology, who, among others, worked on describing the field (anthropological field), the relations of knowledge- and signifying systems, the reflective analysis of one “own’s” practice, as well as on questions pertaining to authorship and interpretation. The three best-known protagonists of symbolic anthropology (Clifford Geertz, Paul Rabinow, and David Murray Schneider) arrived at the correlations—through the self-reflexive articulation of the author’s relation to interpretation and the affirmation of culture’s symbolic meaning—which now form the methodological components of "cultural turns." [4] The key notions of this turn included editing, the use of concepts, rhetoric, dialogue, and translation, as well as the author and the reader. In this sense, this new anthropological praxis connected with other fields—such as literature, film, theatre and the museum—which had always been closely related to representation, interpretation, textuality, and semiotics. Underlined by interpretation (through exhibitions and the works of social scientists and artists), cultural representations and contexts were, from then on, undoubtedly infiltrated with the pursuit of various viewpoints, multiple voices, transparency, intuition, and the critical practice of (Bourdieuian) distinctions.

Museums of socio-anthropology and art began to integrate the concerns of these methodological changes into their exhibition praxes, with the discursive presentation of creators, authors, and concepts, through which these became apparent visually (~exhibition display ~discursivity). Concomitantly, display and “exhibited cultures” (~exhibiting cultures) themselves became the object and subject of analysis within critical and curatorial work. [5] This practice can also be connected to institutional critique emerging in the 1960s within the art field. These changes are most evident in the chosen thematics, in the complexity and reflexivity of display as well as in the (trans)formation of discourses based on the normativity of canons and meta-narratives—which, hence, not only affected exhibition making and art works, but also the work with the collections (~new museology).  

These methodological concerns came into view differently in the art and in the social-anthropological museums. What they had in common were the critical accounts of questions and doubts related to the socially constructed character of representation, and to the role of the object, the field/context, and the museum/exhibition within the representational economy. This facilitated curatorial and artistic work to show the objects’ change of contexts, to generate debate, and expand the framework of an exhibition (~discursivity, ~performativity~new museology). The display of social phenomena, the constructed character of meaning, the subjective elements of interpretation as a method for the production of meaning were all gaining ground within the exhibition. The two correlated concepts of “writing culture” and “exhibiting culture” (~exhibiting cultures) were popularized by the titles of two seminal anthologies of anthropology. [6] The cross-reference of these two concepts opened up a new space within exhibition making and the discourses around them, as well as in the positioning of representation and the narrative within the museum/exhibition.

Interpretation and (self-)reflectiveness can also be considered central elements in the emergence of conceptual-critical art practices and the curatorial role  in the 1960s. On the one hand, artists began to deploy more conceptual, reflective and critical strategies, underscoring the socially constructed character of representation and the autonomy of the artwork and the gallery space (~exhibition display ~white cube). On the other hand, the curator began to operate on a more visible level, acting as a defining figure within the exhibition, especially that of the group exhibition. The elevated visibility and importance of the curator can be seen as corollary to the "demystification" [7] of art and its institutions—that is, the endeavor to denaturalize the supposed autonomy of artistic production and exhibition-making, by accentuating all the elements—the curator being one of them—which affect art and exhibition processes [8] (~exhibition display ~exhibiting cultures). Consequently, the curatorial-interpretive function started to become conceptual (~curatorial ~discusrivity), rather than solely practical, coming to the fore in the 1960s predominantly in relation to the contextualization and mediation of artworks.

An often-cited yet frequently criticized site where these methodological changes were made visible and exhibited on an (art) institutional level was the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. From the 1980s, the critical understanding of cultural anthropology and that of aesthetics emerged jointly in the exhibitions of MoMA. An early and pivotal example was “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern; which nevertheless drew heavy criticisms from post-colonial perspectives for, among others, making the distinction between (“Western/modern”) “art” and (“tribal”) “artifact” from a Westernized and foremost decontextualizing aesthetic-formalistic point of view. [9] In addition to the convergence of anthropology and art, as well as reflexivity, it is also worth noting here the shift in the importance of site within artistic and curatorial practices. Contemporary art’s increased engagement since the 1960s with site-specificity, location, different cultural contexts, and, hence, with different communities, necessitated also an engagement with anthropological/fieldwork methodologies (~white cube ~collaboration ~participation). This “quasi-anthropological” paradigm within art practices —when “art thus passed into the expanded field of culture that anthropology is thought to survey”—, as it was first outlined by Hal Foster,[10] however, also raised the ever present issues of locality, globalization, as well as cultural translation and (re)presentation. These questions are all pertaining to another type of artistic-curatorial practice that surged during the formative years of globalization post-1989: the biennial-type exhibition.

Critical interpretation, emerging in the 1960s, and then forming from the 1970s as a comprehensive methodology, hardly influenced the practices of museums, researches, and initiators in Hungary. State socialism did not facilitate undermining the authoritarian attitude of state institutions, and the showcasing of critical or relative standpoints. This seclusion has only loosened up after the political change in 1989; however, not so much in the mainstream, but rather within the alternative and independent scene. [11] This can clearly be attributed to the closed and controlled political structures, and to the lack of social as well as institutional mobility that was still prevalent in Hungary in the 1980s. After 1989, the contemporary art scene (artists, curators, institutions) responded to the changes more promptly than, for instance, the social-anthropological museums (~performativity ~curatorial ~discursivity). Social-athropological museums in Hungary, as well as the major collections built on the 19th century concept of “nation,” are still indebted to a critical, and self-reflexive re-reading of the past (including their own past)—nonetheless, there have sporadically been examples for this kind of re-assessment within temporary exhibitions (~new museology). Contemporary art works that relate critically to society which surrounds them, and in which they are shown, are an important indicator, or even catalysts for the changes in exhibition display. In the case of socio-anthropological museums, this critical voice can be formed by the interpretive approach of a researcher or a curator, which may also become visible for the public. If the autonomous voice of the author (both that of the artist and the curator), becomes part of and define the exhibition, then this may not only expand the scope of the work (the exhibition), but also that of reception and mediation: interpretation leads, methodologically, to the author, and also to collaboration, and engagement.  (~collaboration ~participation ~educational turn).


Zsófia Frazon – Eszter Szakács



References and Further Readings


Bachmann-Medick, Doris
1992 ’Writing Culture’ – ein diskurs zwischen Ethnologie und Literaturwissenschaft. Kea. Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaft, 4(1992), 1-20

Bachmann-Medick, Doris. Hrsg.
1997 Übersetzung als Repräsentation fremder Kulturen. Berlin, Schmidt Verlag
1998 Kultur als Text. Die anthropologische Wende in der Literaturwissenschaft. Frankfurt am Main, Fischer

Bachmann-Medick, Doris
2009 Cultural Turns. Neuorientierungen in den Kulturwissenschaften. Hamburg, Rowohlts

Bouquet, Mary
1999 Academic Anthropology and the Museum: Back to the Future. An Introduction. Focaal 34 (1999): 7-20
2000 Thinking and Doing Otherwise: Anthropological Theory in Exhibitionary Practice. Ethnos, 2000/2: 217-236

Clifford, James, George E Marcus. Ed.
1986 Writing Culture. The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press

Foster, Hal
1996 The Artist as Ethnographer. In Hal Foster: The Return of the Real. Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 302-309

Fuchs, Martin, Eberhard Berg
1993 Phänomenologie der Differenz. Reflexionsstufen etnographischer Repräsentation. In Eberhard Berg, Martin Fuchs Hrsg. Kultur, soziale Praxis, Text. Die Krise des etnographischen Repräsentation. Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 11-108

Gell, Alfred
1999/2000 The Art of Anthropology—Essays and Diagrams. Ed. Eric Hirsch. London, Athlone Press

Gottowik, Volker
1997 Konstruktionen des Anderen: Clifford Geertz und die Kriese der ethnographischen Repräsentation. Berlin, Reimer

György Péter
2009 Kalinyingrád-paragidma. Múzeumföldrajz. Budapest, Magvető

Herzfeld, Michael
1983 Looking both Ways: The Ethnographer in the Text. Semiotica 46. 2/4. (1983): 151-166

James, Allison, Jenny Hockey, Andrew Dawson. eds.
1997 After Writing Culture. Epistemology and Praxis in Contemporary Anthropology. London, New York, Routledge

Kálmán, Rita, Katarina Šević et al. szerk.
2010 Nem kacsák vagyunk egy tavon, hanem hajók a tengeren – Független művészeti helyek Budapesten 1989–2009. Budapest, Impex – Kortárs Művészeti Szolgáltató Alapítvány

Karp, Ivan - Steven D. Lavine Eds.
1991 Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. London, Washington D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press

Kwon, Miwon
2004 One Place after Another: Site-specific Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge MA, The MIT Press

Lumley, Robert. Ed.
1988  The Museum Time-Machine. Putting Cultures on Display. London, New York, Routledge

Macdonald, Sharon – Gordon Fyfe eds.
1996 Theorizing Museums. Representing Identity and Diversity in a Changing World. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing (The Sociological Review)

Mangano, Marc
Textual Play, Power, and Cultural Critique: An Orientation to Modernist Anthropology. In Marc Mangano Ed. Modernist Anthropology. From Fieldwork to Text. New Jersey, NY, Princeton University Press, 3-47

O’Neill, Paul – Claire Doherty eds.
2011 Locating the Producers – Durational Approaches to Public Art. Amszterdam, Valiz

O’Neill, Paul
2012 The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s). Cambridge MA, The MIT Press

Rabinow, Paul – William M. Sullivan
1979 The Interpretive Turn. In Paul Rabinow, William M. Sullivan eds. Interpretive Social Science—A Reader. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press

Shelton, Anthony
1999 Unsettling the Meaning: Critical Museology, Art, and Anthropological Discourse. Focaal 34 (1999):143-162.

Vogel, Susan ed.
1988 Art/Artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections. New York, Munich, The Center for African Art-Prestel-Verlag

[1] Paul Rabinow, William M. Sullivan, ‘The Interpretive Turn’. Paul Rabinow, William M. Sullivan (eds.) Interpretive Social Science – A Reader. University of California Press. 1979.

[2] Doris Bachmann-Medick (ed.), Übersetzung als Repräsentation fremder Kulturen. Schmidt Verlag. 1997. As well as Doris Bachmann-Medick  (ed.) Kultur als Text. Die anthropologische Wende in der Literaturwissenschaft. Fischer,1998.

[3] Geertz, Clifford. 1973 The Interpretation of Culture. New York, NY: Basic Books; Gottowik, Volker 1997 Konstruktionen des Anderen: Clifford Geertz und die Kriese der ethnographischen Repräsentation. Berlin, Reimer,; James, Allison, Jenny Hockey, Andrew Dawson. 1997 Eds.After Writing Culture. Epistemology and Praxis in Contemporary Anthropology. London- New York, Routledge.

[4] See Doris Bachmann-Medick, Cultural Turns. Neuorientierungenin den Kulturwissenschaften. Rowohlts. 2009.

[5]I van Karp, Steven D. Lavine. Eds. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display .London-Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991; and Allison James, Jenny Hockey, Andrew Dawson. Eds. After Writing Culture. Epistemology       and Praxis in Contemporary Anthropology. London- New York: Routledge, 1997.

[6] James Clifford, George E Marcus. Ed. Writing Culture. The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berekley, Los Angeles-London: University of California Press, 1986.; and Ivan Karp, Steven D. Lavine. Eds. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display .London-Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

[7]The word ‘demystify” can be connected to Seth Siegelaub. See Paul O’Neill 2006 Action Man: Interview with Seth Siegelaub.” The Internationaler, 1, 5-7.

[8] Paul O’Neill 012 The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s). Cambridge MA, The MIT Press

[9] For the critical legacy of “Primitivism” in terms of the art-artifact debate, see also, among others: the Art/Artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections exhibition and catalogue (Susan Vogel. Ed. Art/Artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections. New York-Munich: The Center for African Art-Prestel-Verlag, 1988.) and its criticism by Alfred Gell in The Art of Anthropology (Alfred Gell: The Art of Anthropology—Essays and Diagrams. Ed. Eric Hirsch. London: Athlone Press 1999/2006.), as well as their cross-references in Hungarian by Péter György in A Kalinyingrád Paradigma, Budapest: Magvető, 2009.

[10] Hal Foster. The Artist As Ethnographer?” In Return of the Real. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1996:171-203. See also Miwon Kwon. One Place after Another: Site-specific Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2004, and Paul O’Neill-Claire Doherty eds. Locating the Producers—Durational Approaches to Public Art. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2011.

[11] Rita Kálmán, Katarina Šević et al. Eds. We Are Not Ducks on a Pond – Independent Art Initiatives, Budapest 1989–2009. Budapest:  Impex – Kortárs Művészeti Szolgáltató Alapítvány, 2010.