Jointly developed by M HKA and the KU Leuven, this long-term, interdisciplinary research project focuses on a specific, yet complex body of work; multifaceted and variably installable, unfinished and open-ended: Ship of Fools / The Dockers' Museum (2010-2013) by artist and theorist Allan Sekula (1951-2013). Informed by the research of the team members, the project continues to evolve in a succession of research outputs, such as this digital platform.


Allan Sekula's Labor of Giants


A Museum of Potentialities

During lectures, conversations, and interviews given in the context of the Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum project, Allan Sekula repeatedly insisted on the importance of Marcel Broodthaers’s Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles (1968–1972) as a principal source of inspiration. In Vancouver, he specified that he was fascinated by its division into “mock museologic categories,” as he called its various “sections.” Yet in a short text dated 1 October 2010 and entitled ‘The Dockers’ Museum, Reflections,’ which is published for the first time in this book, he emphasized that he also wanted to distinguish his own project from such historical examples, including Claes Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum (1965–1977).11 He later clarified that in his view Broodthaers was using these “categories” as a “deductive precondition,” which subsequently allowed him to select the empirical objects that fitted into them. Sekula repeatedly stated that he had no such predetermined categorizations in mind, beyond the overarching motif of the seafarer and the docker. He decided therefore to work in what he described as a more inductive way of proceeding and marvelled publicly to his Vancouver audience: “what if we imagined a museum where the abstract framing categories, these sort of archival systems for sorting out which objects went where, were checked by the immediacy of the objects?”

The Dockers’ Museum, which Sekula was able to build in a close and interesting negotiation with a real museum, the M HKA in Antwerp, became an experiment to that end. It had to become a full-fledged alternative museum, taking on the paradoxical function of being a counter-museum within the institution itself. Sekula was sharply critical of the increasingly neoliberal stronghold on the museum sector world-wide. While selecting for the most part objects that had little to no value at all on the art market, he also actively sought to undermine the currently predominant copyright model: he hoped to be able to exhibit these objects and publish their reproductions in books without having to pay fees to copyright holders. He came to understand the traditional, widely established conception that the artist “uploads” objects with subjective, iconic meanings as both an outdated and no longer desirable way of marking one’s authorship. Sekula therefore decided, as a collector-curator, to place his artistic authorship of the Ship of Fools photographs on the same level as that of often anonymous others, whose objects he decided to include in his “museum:” from amateur artists [TDM 5, 57–58] to the invisible workers in remote factories, in China or other low-wage countries, who made the various kitsch objects [e.g. TDM 35]. That is also why he pays tribute to the artisans of Antwerp who cut and polished diamonds [TDM 74], to the workers fabricating medallions [TDM 36] or badges for supporting seafarers’ and dockers’ unions [TDM 85–87], ship models [TDM 82], dock-worker figurines (including Goofy) [TDM 83–84, 88], and much more [e.g. TDM 43].

During the seven public installments that he oversaw,  Sekula continued to add and change between the objects and images that he selected. He loosely defined clusters of objects within The Dockers’ Museum that could go together, should the local context and circumstances permit. Just as he always insisted on working in open sequences of photographs instead of closed off series, he emphasized that these clusters—or “sections,” as he sometimes called them—should at all times remain flexible and variable.

– Hilde Van Gelder

11. Cf. p. 112.

Exerpt from Allan Sekula. Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum, edited by Hilde Van Gelder, 2015, Leuven University Press, pp. 84-86.