Thematic displays are now less contested that a decade ago. When the old power station at Bankside opened as Tate Modern in 2000 and hung its collection of modern and contemporary art thematically, it sparked a controversial debate about the curatorial choices and implications of the display. The traditional-minded Burlington Magazine heavily criticised the ‘lack of continuity’ (1) at the opening and five years later still complained about the ‘abrupt changes in looking, mood and information’ that prevented ‘the emergence of any sustained impression or cumulative knowledge’(2). With Tate Modern’s curators Blazwick and Nittwe campaigning against the ‘evolutionary’ aspect of chronology and the ‘authoritarian’ and ‘monolithic’ Modernist curatorship; and other international museums such as the MoMA and the Centre Pompidou equally arranging their hang thematically, it seemed that the aversion to chronology was spreading widely and rapidly like an epidemic.(3)

Thirteen years later, Tate Modern has re-hung its permanent collection twice, continuing to stick to theme rather than time. The reasons underlying this choice will be reviewed below by examining the implications, opportunities and pitfalls of this curatorial approach.

Time versus Theme

Chronology seeks to put order in an array of movements following the action-reaction pattern and has traditionally been the favoured option to present art to the public. The narrative created by this approach is that of a seamless development of art, with one period neatly following the next, and one artist responding or reacting to the past while also informing the future.(4) This approach may often be a useful start to get your head around pre 19th Century art, but when it comes to art from the mid 19th Century up to the present, the sheer multiplicity of artistic practices not only in the West but also across the world simply cannot be embraced by a chronological narrative. In contrast, the themed approach is flexible from the outset and allows the viewer to draw connections between artists that otherwise would not be associated. A thematic display groups works according to their ability to reflect, illustrate or contest a particular subject.

Tate Modern’s curators chose theme over chronology for the former’s ability to open up different readings without imposing a single view about the development of art.(5) A crucial aspect often overlooked that also impacted the choice was the actual layout and sheer size of the gallery space, demanding a less systematic approach.(6) The permanent collection is hence displayed in four wings, each of them functioning as an autonomous unit and covering the themes: ‘Poetry and Dream’, ‘Transformed Visions’, ‘Energy and Process’, and ‘Structure and Clarity’. These terms are rather abstract and provide little guidance for what is there to be seen, except perhaps for ‘Poetry and Dream’ that, as its name vaguely suggests, covers Surrealism and beyond.

The concept behind this at first glance disjointed structure is similar to that of a temporary exhibition: each wing offers a closed narrative of a particular subject, so the visitor gets four different experiences of 20th century art.(7) To create some coherence, each wing starts with a pairing of two works from different times. This juxtaposition is meant to set the tone for what follows, which is a mixture of rooms dedicated either to a specific theme or to a single artist. Once in the galleries, and particularly when looking at Rothko’s Seagram Murals in its own dimly lit suite, the overarching themes, regardless of how bemusing, gradually become irrelevant as the joy of looking at art overshadows any historiographical issues.

Who Needs Context?

Any display of art engages to a certain extent with current art historical questions and debates. Articulating these considerations in a way that is accessible to a wide range of audiences is a challenge. Although there is always the Learning and Interpretation Department to help with the educational aspect, curators are nevertheless the crucial intermediaries between the collection and the public, and a practical understanding of the diverse audiences is therefore just as important as any scholarly knowledge. Tate Modern’s approach although at times serendipitous (Waterlilies hangs comfortably next to works by American Expressionists) does also risk being inaccessible by not providing enough visual and textual information about the actual context in which a work of art is created.

Art can cross the boundaries of time and geography but is nevertheless the product of specific circumstances. These ought to be outlined clearly by any institution concerned with enhancing the understanding of art. In the case of Tate Modern, the lack of contextual information can lead to frustration, particularly when faced with highly conceptual works of art, such as the Arte Povera works included in the ‘Energy and Process’ wing. Although primarily interested in exploring different materials and found objects, Arte Povera constantly referred to Italy’s classical past as well as social and political issues from the 1960s. None of these aspects are really addressed in the wing, where Penone’s 12 Meter Trees look like lonely toothpicks amidst an array of often contextually disconnected and visually jarring works.

In addition, the themed display creates a very punctual experience of art; thereby emphasizing a series of particular moments in time and not the bigger picture: it is not possible to get a sense of the collection’s highlights, because the works are scattered throughout the four suites, unrelated to one another.

Thinking of What and How

Any display, whether chronological or thematic, is not the product of some invisible and objective curatorial hand at work but a mediated text responding to a particular set of art historical ideas and values. It is the result of a carefully thought out selection process by the curator, the meaning of which the visitor constructs individually depending on his or her cultural baggage. The curator’s mediation is usually less apparent in a chronological structure; while in the case of Tate Modern the curatorial decisions are visible to anyone who cares to think about not only what is shown but how it is shown.(8) They are there to be criticized or admired, but perhaps most importantly to encourage thinking about art.(9) This emphasis on reflection is an integral part of Tate Modern’s commitment to experimentation and is further underlined by the fact that the displays are revisited and reviewed on a regular basis.(10)

A visit to Tate Modern’s permanent collection is not an easy ride. Through the thematic displays the eye and mind are constantly challenged and asked to look and think again. Although themed structures are less contested now than a decade ago, Tate Modern’s experimental approach to displaying works of art remains an important point of reference. It is here that the visitor is inevitably faced with the fact that there is no longer one history of art but a multiplicity of stories, there to be discovered and explored.


1. Editorial, ‘The Tates: Structures and Themes’, Burlington Magazine, August 2000, p. 480.

2. Editorial, ‘Tate Modern Five Years On’, Burlington Magazine, July 2005, p. 449.

3. The Art Newspaper, ‘The work of art as time traveller’, no. 103 (May 2000), pp. 42-44; see also Iwona Blazwick, Simon Wilson (eds.), Tate Modern: the Handbook, London: Tate Publishing, 2000, pp. 30-35.

4. For further reading about the art historiographical implications of a chronological display, see Frances Morris (ed.), Tate Modern: the handbook, London: Tate Publishing, 2006, pp. 24-25.

5. Frances Morris (ed.), Tate Modern: the Handbook,London: Tate Publishing, 2010, pp. 25-26.

6. Iwona Blazwick, Simon Wilson (eds.), Tate Modern: the Handbook, London: Tate Publishing, 2000, pp. 33-35.

7. Hans Ulrich Obrist, A Brief History of Curating, Zurich, Dijon: JRP Ringier & Les Presses du Réel, 2008, p. 7.

8. The Art Newspaper, ‘The work of art as time traveller’, no. 103 (May 2000), pp. 42-44; Matthew Gale (ed.), Tate Modern: the Handbook, London: Tate Publishing, 2012, p. 29.

9. Matthew Gale (ed.), Tate Modern: the Handbook, London: Tate Publishing, 2012, p. 29.

10. The inaugural hang of 2000 was revised in 2006 headed by Frances Morris. The most recent re-hang took place in 2012 led by Matthew Gale: ‘Transformed Visions’ replaced the theme ‘Material Gestures’ and the theme ‘Structure and Clarity’ was introduced while the’ States of Flux’ display of 2006 was scrapped.

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Cover Image: "Tate Modern" Image courtesy the author copyright 2013