Commissioning artists: community engagement, ethnographic collections and changes in curatorial practices from the 1990s to 2000s in the UK

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Continuing Ashmore’s exploration of the intersections between policy and art practice this journal article tracks changes in curatorial practices from the 1990s to 2000s in the UK. Notably Ashmore has contributed new knowledge on the interaction between government policy and curatorial decision-making in her doctoral studies (2011) and article in the professional journal for Museum Ethnographers (2011). She has focused on art commissions rather than conventional museum collections, a notable departure from the available literature on the subject (Crooke, 2008; Appleton, 2001). Her approach is informed by her perspective as an arts practitioner, which has identified the complexities surrounding art interventions in museums comparable to those of the permanent collections, but are less studied. This body of work is developed further in this article for the Museum History Journal (2015). The article came from a paper given at the Museums and Galleries Histories Group biennial conference Cultures of Curating: Curatorial Practice and the Production of Meaning c.1650-2000, 12-13 July 2012, Lincoln University. The conference delegates consist of museums and galleries professionals as well as academics. This article is part of a special issue of the Museum History Journal developed from papers given at the 2012 conference. The location of Ashmore’s research findings here means that they can contribute to important dialogue that informs curatorial practice. In this article curating is notably considered as a process of meaning making that involves a range of people from both inside and outside of the museum and gallery. Here the curatorial practice of commissioning artists as a form of community engagement is discussed. The display of the ethnographic collections at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery and Manchester Museum are focused upon. They are presented as examples of regional museums in England responding to the authority of the ‘New Labour government’s’ cultural policies, consequently the period attended to begins in 1995, two years prior to New Labour’s term and continues through out it. The commissioning of artists, makers, and communities in creating for temporary and permanent display is addressed. The role these commissioned pieces play is discussed in relation to shifts in curatorial practices; the influence of the cultural diversity agenda on this activity; and the issues surrounding the framing of these museum commissions as ‘authentic’. Ashmore continues to investigate contemporary art practice to illuminate how meaning is constructed and held in material form to reveal local and global political issues. She is part of a collective who has remade Picasso's Guernica as a banner, which has inspired further research into remakings of Pablo Picasso's Guernica world wide, with a focus on those that have been created collaboratively as a form of political activism.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)59-72
Number of pages14
JournalMuseum History Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2015


  • commissioning artists
  • community engagement
  • authenticity
  • ethnographic collections
  • regional museums
  • cultural diversity agenda


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