The pictures in the background: History, memory and photography in the museum

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


History and photography came of age together in nineteenth-century Europe, during the same era that witnessed the creation of the modern museum. These developments were not coincidental, which encourages the question: how did the inclusion of photographs in museums shape the way that diverse audiences, from curators to scholars to the visiting public, interacted with the visual presence of the past? It is important to understand how photographs first appeared in European and American museums, and to what purposes, in order to investigate how both memory and history were served by the presentation of this new visual media in the most popular cultural venue for instruction, the museum. Photographs in museums have served two distinct purposes: as art objects on display and as documentary evidence. As documents, however, it is important to realize that photographs have also served as pictures in the background, establishing historical context for other objects or staging a visual argument. How then has the presentation of photographs in the background shaped collective memories about themes and objects presented in museums, and about museums themselves? Was there a particular role to be played in creating a context of authenticity, legitimacy or historicity that photographs uniquely could fulfil? Inquiring into the supplemental use of photographs in museums illuminates their distinctive dual roles as elements of museum display design. Photographs create contexts for collective memories - those memories shared by museum visitors prior to their visit, as well as those derived from viewing museum displays in the past as well as the present. In museum displays, photographs both illustrate the pasts they represent, like any other artefact, and, working in the background, offer a highly flexible platform from which to launch interpretations. To pursue the interlaced histories of photographs and museum display, I turn first to the evolution of exhibit design. For more than 150 years, photographs’ distinctive capacity to illustrate historical context has made them ideally suited to museum display enhancement. But their presence was never merely decorative; ‘background’ implies design choices that enhance the intentions of the designers. ‘Background’ also implies ‘backdrop’, where a wall of photographs may offer evidentiary ballast. Photographs have shaped the memories of museum visitors for generations, as well as challenged visitors who resisted the implications of the photographic arguments being staged in exhibition. The more photographic background display became common in the twentieth century, the more fraught the public response became as collective memories, particularly of World War II and the Holocaust, confronted the visual archive. The second part of the chapter elaborates on photographs from that visual archive in historical exhibition at American and German museums, and the repercussions of staging arguments through photographs, where the images are presented less as inherently worthy of museum display and more as pedagogical tools for reinterpretation of the past. The twentieth century witnessed dynamic developments in the use of photographs in museums. Inquiry into the dramatic responses generated by ‘the pictures in the background’ can illuminate how memory and history are dynamically and simultaneously engaged through photographs in museum display.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationMemory and History
Subtitle of host publicationUnderstanding Memory as Source and Subject
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9781135905361
ISBN (Print)9780415677110
StatePublished - Jan 1 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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