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Handbook of Material CultureMuseums and Museum Displays

Contributors: Christopher Tilley & Webb Keane & Susanne Kchler & Michael Rowlands & Patricia Spyer Print Pub. Date: 2006 Online Pub. Date: June 22, 2009 Print ISBN: 9781412900393 Online ISBN: 9781848607972 DOI: 10.4135/9781848607972 Print pages: 480-500 This PDF has been generated from SAGE Knowledge. Please note that the pagination of the online version will vary from the pagination of the print book.

Univ British Columbia-vancouve Copyright 2012

SAGE Publications, Inc.

10.4135/9781848607972 [p. 480 ]

Chapter 30: Museums and Museum DisplaysMuseums and displays, together with the associated panoply of galleries, international exhibitions, theme parks, panoramas, arcades and department stores, have been closely connected since the nineteenth century by related and sometimes mutually reinforcing disciplinary power relations (Lumley 1988: 2; Hamon 1992: 73; Georgel 1994: 119; Bennett 1995: 59; Silverstone 1994: 161). Together, such institutions form what Bennett calls an exhibitionary complex, which, in its modernist manifestation, consist of: linked sites for the development and circulation of new disciplines (history, biology, art history, anthropology) and their discursive formations (the past, evolution, aesthetics, man) as well as for the development of new technologies of vision which might be productively analysed as particular articulations of power and knowledge (1995: 59) Every exhibitionary complex involves ways of organizing and institutionalizing visual experience; specific conjunctions of technologies of representation, conventions and codes of understanding, associated ocular regimes, and their own particular exhibitionary narratives. Complexes are both dependent and supportive of markets, and through their unequal institutional engagements and relationships with audiences, classes, guilds or professions are complicit in the reproduction of social structures. Museums and their related institutions are not only technologies of representation but are proactive in the construction of social realities (Kaplan 1994: 4; Macdonald 1996: 13; Porto 1999: 34). They are products and agents of social and political changePage 2 of 47 Handbook of Material Culture: Museums and Museum Displays SAGE knowledge

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according to Kaplan which a nation can use to represent and reconstitute itself anew in each generation (1994: 45). Exhibitionary complexes are not coterminous with political ideologies, though that part of them sponsored by the state and considered part of a national or local patrimony may bear evidence of their imprint. In societies with high illiteracy rates, state-sponsored visual organizations of knowledge frequently reinforce the educational system by providing the scenography and motivation behind the mobilization of celebrations, festivals, expositions, and visits to mythic places. What Garcia Canclini describes as an entire system of rituals in which the naturalness of the demarcation establishing the original and legitimate patrimony is periodically ordered, remembered and secured (1995: 112). Even in literate cultures the role of museums and galleries in sponsoring exhibitions that reiterate the symbolic constituents underlying national hegemonic mythologies is crucial for their periodic renewal and reassertion (cf. Duncan 1991: 90; Luke 1992: 38). Museums disseminate public culture and through their architecture, decoration, arrangements, articulation with other institutions and sponsored rituals frequently disclose, as Duncan (1995: 8), Handler and Gable (1997: 221), Porto (1999: 133) and others have clearly demonstrated, as much about the societies of which they form part as the supposedly objectivist disciplines they institutionalize. Although the meanings museums attribute their collections are historically specific, variations and differences are always found within any one period. Museums, according to Lumley (1988: 2) map out geographies of taste and values to articulate, as Bourdieu (1993: 121) or Garcia Canclini (1995: 136) would have [p. 481 ] it, particular hierarchical organizations and valorizations of symbolic goods. In late modern period metropolises, to assist their ideological functions, museums are nearly always incorporated into wider institutional fields and relationships; in ceremonial processionways or malls connected with the display of governmental power, where they become necessary ornaments of the modern state (McClellan 1996: 29), or what Paul Valry called the geodesic signals of order (in Hamon 1992: 43); as systems of nodal institutions within an international deployment of similar organizations for the transference, reception and communication of global and local cultures; or increasingly as co-ordinated, or jointly managed organizations with shared collecting, exhibition and public service provision.3 2 1

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Handbook of Material Culture: Museums and Museum Displays SAGE knowledge

Univ British Columbia-vancouve Copyright 2012

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Acknowledging these mutual and changing disciplinary, organizational, functional and performative linkages historically, the role of former colonial museums has been linked with map making, census inventories and archives as technologies of classification and serialization, which were intended to visibly materialize the totality of a domain over which governmental power strove to assert mastery (Anderson 1991: 1845; Richards 1993: 6). This fascination with totalization and transparency, the production of a seamless narrative of local, national or universal history, whether through the display of history and antiquities themselves, or ethnography, art or nature, continues to remain at the heart of most national and large regional museums. The diverse visual and political regimes of which museums form part require them not only to be studied as singular integral institutions, as has been the tendency in the past, but also as part of specific historically determined exhibitionary complexes; what Garcia Canclini (1995: 137) calls patrimonies'or, more narrowly, what Bouquet (2001: 79) refers to as museumscapes. As a field, critical museology still remains an extraordinarily underdeveloped subject of study. Baring the pioneering work of Marcus (1990), Macdonald (1997, 2001), Macdonald and Silverstone (1992) and Handler and Gable (1997) it is deficient in both emic and etic ethnographic case studies. It requires enormous foci on such issues as the interrelation between front stage and backstage activities and modes of communication descriptive and interpretative understanding of what happens inside museums; proper analysis of the different foundation narratives underlying the diversity of disciplinary and national institutions; greater focus on the politics and not only the poetics of representations the relations between business, politics and museum interpretation and the ensuing culture wars being fought in institutions not only in the United States, but in Europe and elsewhere too; reassessment of the epistemological adequacy of semiotic interpretations of museum meanings; more attention to the role of memory, its integration with other structures of events, and the mechanisms responsible for its ideological inflections. Differences in the institutionalization of material culture from one country to another need to be acknowledged, described and interpreted, and systems of material classification, and changes in the wider contemporary and historical fields of which museums form part, need to be better appreciated. There is great urgency for a theory of genres, so museum exhibitions can be subject to better critical scrutiny. Closer study of the different administrative and organizational models

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Handbook of Material Culture: Museums and Museum Displays SAGE knowledge

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of museums, the distribution of power and authority they imply and actualize, and their relationship to the control and deployment of knowledges, with few exceptions (Krug et al. 1999), also require close study. Critical museology remains an open discipline which, although in the process of defining its central problematics, has hardly began to theoreticize its object, and even less to begin to distinguish interconnected fields, or develop a comparative perspectives that this chapter would like to encourage.

Genealogies and Foundation NarrativesCollecting, together with the requisite conservation, classification, interpretation and display or storage of the assemblages it engenders, has until recently provided not only the foundation, but the universalist justification behind museums. While the museum, according to Elsner is a kind of entombment, a display of once lived activity collecting is the process of the museum's creation, the living act that the museum embalms (1994: 155). This common perspective relies on a genealogical view of history in which museums have been naturalized, through an essentializing legitimatory discourse based on a sometimes applauded or vilified common mental proclivity, traceable to our earliest human origins. For Pierre Cabanne The origins of collecting are as remote and mysterious as those of art and coincide with the recognition of beauty [p. 482 ] (1963: vii), while Jospeh Alsop, basing his argument on cave deposits, traces this primordial drive to the Palaeolithic (1982: 71). The genealogical viewpoint has been incorporated into manuals and managerial and technical works published by museums and their related professional associations. In The Manual of Curatorship (1984), Lewis concurs that acquisitiveness and the desire to record and tran