Freie Universität Berlin

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Rebecca Uchill, MIT, Art & Architectural History

From Atmospheres to Transactions: Art, Experience and Alexander Dorner’s Audience, 1920-1960

Whether defined by their environmental designs, interpersonal transactions or embodied psychological effects, the exhibition spaces envisioned by art historian and museum director Alexander Dorner (1893-1957) were intended to be active spaces for immersive intersubjective encounters. My dissertation traces Dorner’s career in conversation with wider contemporaneous art historical developments: moving from a questioning of cultural material stewardship, in his early museum career as a significant museum leader in Weimar Republic Hannover, to a curatorial cultivation of viewer experiences, developed in his written and exhibition work in post-war New England university museums and classrooms.


How does the museum function as a civic institute? In the inter- and postwar United States, Dorner confronted this question in alignment with two philosophical agendas that he first formulated in Hannover: one dedicated to understanding the ontology of material objects in a world of devastation and ruins and one invested in appealing to and unifying audiences marked by heterogeneous subjectivities. From his emigration onwards, Dorner understood the stakes of producing the ideal civic museum as nothing short of securing a democratic society. Beginning with Dorner’s early-career critiques of original artworks and restorations – presented, for example, in published debates with Erwin Panofsky, Kurt Karl Eberlein and Max Sauerlandt, among other key figures of the late 1920s German art historiate – my project will also attend to his later endeavors (in conversation with artists such as Herbert Bayer) to assimilate American Pragmatist philosophy, and other theorizations of mass subjectivity, into a curatorial program -- with attendant claims to cultivating democracy and good citizenry.