Museums and Museum Displays

Anthony Shelton. Handbook of Material Culture. Editor: Christopher Tilley, Webb Keane, Susanne Küchler, Michael Rowlands, Patricia Spyer. Sage Publications. 2006.

Museums 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: 3-4). They are ‘products and agents of social and political change’ according to Kaplan which a nation can use ‘to represent and reconstitute itself anew in each generation’ (1994: 4-5). 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 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 Valéry 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 coordinated, or jointly managed organizations with shared collecting, exhibition and public service provision.

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: 184-5; 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 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 Narratives

Collecting, 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 (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 transmit knowledge are basic human proclivities traceable to the Palaeolithic. Museums, he speculates, are ‘a reflection of an inherent human propensity towards inquisitiveness and acquisitiveness combined with a wish to communicate to others’ (1984: 7). For Pearce:

It is clear that institutionalised collecting in various modes … is an activity with its communal and psychic roots deep in the prehistory of European society, and can be traced in detail through the centuries of later prehistory in the Iron and Bronze Ages back at least to the Neolithic communities of around 3000 bc … (1992: 90-1)

This long established, and still current view of museums as the product of individual acquisitiveness (cf. Kaplan 1994: 2; Thomson 2002: 29) was celebrated and popularized in The Museum Age (1967: 12), in which Bazin traced the collecting impulse to the Hellenic world and the beginnings of the Chinese empire.

Although chronologies on the origins of collecting and its museum institutionalization differ and necessarily are never more than speculative, genealogical approaches to museum history were until recently widespread. The etymological association which relates the classic Greek mouseion to the activities and attributes of the nine muses, the daughters of Zeus, associated with the arts and sciences, is ubiquitous in most museum histories (Bazin 1967: 16; Mordaunt Crook 1972: 19; Boulton n.d.: 2; Alexander 1979: 6; Lewis 1984: 7). Mordaunt Crook succinctly exemplifies the genealogical view of museum development in the classical world: ‘The Greek mouseion became first a shrine of the muses, then a repository for gifts, then a temple of the arts, and finally a collection of tangible memorials to mankind’s creative genius’ (1972: 19). Pearce completes this unilinear evolutionary view by noting the successive periods—archaic, early modern, classic modern and postmodern—coincided with specific institutionalizations of collections in medieval treasuries, cabinets of curiosities in eighteenth to mid-twentieth-century museums, and contemporary museums (1992: 90).

Concerned with the indiscriminate use to which the term ‘museum’ had long been applied, Alsop proposed a more restricted attribution to refer to ‘a permanently established assemblage of works of art to which the public has a permanent right of entry’. This he exemplified by what he regarded as its first manifestation, the 1471 Museo Capitolino, founded to bring together the dispersed remnants of Rome’s classical sculpture (1982: 163-4). This chronology is also supported by Pearce (1992: 1) and Cannon-Brookes, for whom, like Alsop, museum collections derived their uniqueness from the intellectual environment fostered by Renaissance humanism (1984: 115).

Genealogical history, therefore, legitimates museums by locating their origins within a cluster of activities and institutional exemplars, motivated by the presumed universal human disposition towards collecting, the enjoyment of beauty or rarity, and/or curiosity for knowledge. These are all criteria which have been used to define the uniqueness of humanity and distinguish it from the remainder of the animal kingdom and consequently the transcendental importance with which such proclivities are endowed, through their association with the Greek muses, attribute them divine origin and patronage. Whether collections are exhibited as aesthetic transcendental or as encyclopaedic models patterned on the greatness of nature, the value and worth ascribed their deployments are located in the trans-social domains to which they ultimately refer.

Accepting these presuppositions, broad agreement over the museum’s most singular characteristics has been long established. George Brown Goode, in his Principles of Museum Administration (1895), advised:

A museum is an institution for the preservation of those objects which best illustrate the phenomena of nature and the works of man and the utilisation of them for the increase of knowledge and for the culture and enlightenment of the people. (Cited in Mather et al. 1986: 305)

The essential basis of this definition has been reproduced until recent times. Pearce, for example, opines: ‘Museums are by nature institutions which hold the material evidence, objects and specimens of the human and natural history of our planet’ (1992: 1). For Kaplan museums collect, conserve and display ‘the “things” of culture, belonging to the material world … and specimens or phenomena of the natural world’ (1994: 1). David Wilson concurs with orthodox opinion in his unequivocal assertion that ‘The primary duty of museums … is not didactic’ but related to the conservation, collection and display of material culture. Adding: ‘A museum which does not collect is a dead museum’ (1984: 57), a sentiment he shared with Goode, who, in a slightly different form, had insisted: ‘A finished museum is a dead museum and a dead museum is a useless resource’ (cited in Mather et al. 1986). The three primary functions reiterated by Wilson and Kaplan have been reproduced in almost every institutional definition of museums right up to the last decades of the twentieth century, when they were supplemented, subordinated or replaced by some sort of public service provision. Though it may be argued that museums are essentially ideas rather than buildings and collections (White 1987: 12), and although some of their more assiduous critics might argue collections need to be subordinated to clearer mission statements and managerial resource bases, for the most part the value of their material assets as their most unequivocal distinguishing characteristic is seldom challenged (cf. Thomson 2002: 25).

Institutional recognition of a change in emphasis, from a scientific to a social role, in the way museums are defined was first raised in the 1974 ICOM declaration which saw them as a;

non-profitmaking, permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits, for purposes of study, education, and enjoyment, material evidence of man and his environment. (In Alexander 1983: 3)

This shift later influenced changes in definitions adopted by national professional associations. The Museums Association, for example, abandoned its earlier adage that ‘A museum is an institution which collects, documents, preserves, exhibits, and interprets material evidence and associated information for the public benefit’ (Museums Association 1991: 13) towards the end of the 1990s to replace its once considered ‘disinterested’ purpose with its explicit use value:

Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society. (UK Museums Association 1999)

This more pragmatic view has perhaps most eminently been argued by Keith Thomson, who emphasizes the importance of mutuality between museums and users over their function rather than their subordination to the utopian pretensions of their collections (2002: 106). Museums for Thomson ‘act as brokers and suppliers in the world of information’ (2002: 3). Their rationalization and narrative legitimation have therefore shifted, in Lyotard’s terms, from a Humboldtian or philosophical (rationalist) narrative to a narrative of emancipation (1984: 31).

With diversification of the museum’s purpose, the increasing difficulty of capturing, never mind rationalizing, its proliferating functions is saliently attested in the adoption of functional criteria in the literary structure of recent monographs describing them (cf. Alexander 1979; Weill 1983; MacDonald and Alsford 1989). Most works, however, while acknowledging contradictions endemic to museums’ burgeoning agendas, seldom discuss their resolution. Contradictions between contending museum functions are profligate; in their designation as repositories of heritage and their incorporation within modernising discourses (Garcia Canclini 1995: 107); in their aspiration to be both educational and entertaining (MacDonald and Alsford 1989: 58); in their split identities as lofty temples for disinterested contemplation and their general educational provisions (Hooper-Greenhill 1989: 63, 1994: 133; Thomson 2002: 64); between their focus on a common public addressee, and their role in differentiating populations (Bourdieu and Darbel 1991: 107; Bennett 1995: 104); in the division between restrictive practices intended to conserve objects and the requirements of public display and use (Clavir 2002: 35); between their professed universality and the interdictions of local knowledge systems (Holm and Pokotylo 1997: 34; Ames 2003: 175; Clavir 2002: 139; Clifford 1997: 144-5), and the dependence of collecting on the free market, which it inevitably restricts and progressively exhausts (Thomson 2002: 41). Paradox, therefore, appears to be an essential characteristic of much contemporary museum organization and work.

Current doubts over the purposes and natures of museums are made more complicated still because of their sometime involution of form over content. In recent decades, with museums themselves re-entering the arena of prestigious architectural competitions, new buildings like Piano and Rogers’s Centre Pompidou, Meier’s High Museum, Geary’s Gulbenkian or Eisenman’s Wexner Centre have become avante-garde objects in themselves, showcases for the virtuosity of new design and materials, which invite artists to interact with them. Content easily becomes secondary to their foil, with architecture regarded as a ‘catalyst’ for the event-centred ‘activities’ that museums increasingly sponsor (Ritchie 1994: 12), or alternatively ‘a membrane through which aesthetic and commercial values osmotically exchange’ (Luke 1992: 230), a situation reminiscent of the buildings that housed nineteenth-century international exhibitions (Hamon 1992: 92). If the ambiguities existent within formal definitions, and changing simulacra, were not confusing enough, a comparison of the mission statements of say the British Museum with the more interventionist Museum of the American Indian, New York, or the Tyne and Wear Museums Service quickly dispels presumptions of similarity and reveals the poverty of generalist approaches which have long troubled museum studies. Museums, as Wilson (1984: 54) cautioned, with their diverse ‘forms, functions, philosophy and policies’, preclude useful comparison and consistently evade definition and classification.

Museums as Sites of Memory

Museums again call on classic mythology through the figure of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, the mother of the nine muses, the ‘Remembrances’. Once genealogical narratives ignore specific chronological history and memory and collected objects are explained by attributing the activity of collecting to a common, archetypal, psychological complex, museums appear to de- and retemporalize objects and exhibitions in accordance with modern-period meta-narratives. Moreover, because material culture is usually embodied with meaning retrospectively, and reanimated through its role within particular exhibitions, displays are often infused with the ‘air’ of an ‘other’, expired, time. It is surprising how little attention has been focused on the way museums manage and construct different relations between history, or for that matter any rationalized disciplinary formation, personal memory, and different constitutive gradations between articulated and unconscious cognitive structures. Halbwachs (1980) noted long ago how in pre-modern societies, historical events are structured by familial and community memory, while Nora (1995: 635) has argued that it is only after the relation between personal memory and the past is broken, as in modern Western societies, that history emerges to fix the past in a uniform manner to produce stereotypical fictions that it sometimes tries to conflate with remembrance.

Exhibitions, the clearest expression to the public of a museum’s identity (Hughes 1997: 157), structure objects spatially to reactivate or create memory anew. Paraphrasing Stewart (1993) and Donato (1979), Silverstone is mindful that ‘An object is nothing unless it is part of a collection. A collection is nothing unless it can successfully lay claim to a logic of classification which removes it from the arbitrary or the occasional’ (1994: 165). Exhibitions, as temporary classifications, incorporate both spatial and temporal structures, which clearly disclose the museum’s role in the construction and reconstruction of temporal orders (Durrans 1988: 145-6), or what Bakhtin calls ‘chronotopes’ (cf. Levell 2001a: 154). All exhibition involves the ‘disorganisation of an order and the organisation of a disorder’ (Borinsky 1977: 89). They ‘pull together an unstable combination of fragmentary mythologies, polyvocal meanings, and diverse values’ whose understanding is arbitrated by interaction between curators and diverse audiences (Luke 1992: 228-9). Once decontextualized and allowed to return to their ruinous state these fragmentary material ciphers of diverse histories and geographies readily induce melancholia (Boone 1991: 256; Shelton 2003: 187). Burgin describes art museums as ‘machines for the suppression of history’ (1986: 159); Adorno as ‘family sepulchres of works of art’ (1967: 175) and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, more humorously, as ‘tombs with a view’ (1998: 57). Clifford notes museums save objects ‘out of time’ (1988: 231), while for Crane museums ‘freeze time’ to precipitate a state that lies beyond it (2000: 93). More melancholic still, Shelton has described them as ‘vaults hewn of interstitial melancholia’ (1995b: 13), while Harbison locates them between graveyards and department stores, concerned either with the entombment or the commodification of objects (1977).

Nor is this melancholic attitude confined to academics. Merriman’s 1987 survey of visiting patterns found that the most common comparison of museums made by less frequent or non-visitor groups, were with monuments to the dead, although this changed among frequent and regular visitors, who more commonly made a connection with libraries. Surprisingly, only 8-14 per cent of his samples made a connection with the temple or church, and hardly any to department stores, despite the oft quoted similarities between them and their shared genealogical origins, evident in some museological literature (e.g. Harbison 1977; Harris 1990; Hamon 1992 (Merriman 1987: 156). Deathly associations, far from literary or prejudiced, are frequently embodied in the design and decoration of older buildings (Harbison 1977: 144; Shelton 1995b: 13-14; Duncan 1995: 83). In some cases, the museum and the tomb of its founder are combined, as at the Dulwich Picture Gallery; others, like Berlin’s National Gallery, were built as personal monuments and became transformed into museums to commemorate their former patrons. Funereal associations sometimes accrue to privately sponsored galleries, museums or house museums after their benefactors have deceased; the Barnes Foundation, Merion; the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford; the Musée Fragonard d’Alfort and Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris, or the Kahlo House in Mexico. Here, by fusing historical narratives with personal recollections, representation and commemoration are combined, and sometimes catalysed by architecture, to establish potent emotional sites like the Hall of Testimony of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles; or the Washington and Berlin Holocaust museums and the Terezín Museum in Prague. Neither should the spectral association of natural history, anatomical and medical museums be forgotten, most of which inculcate their objective lessons from piles of carefully classified, preserved and mounted dead animals, skeletons and human organs. Small wonder that Harbison opines that a museum’s life is ‘naturally ghost life, meant for those more comfortable with ghosts, frightened by waking life but not by the past’ (1977: 140).

To refer to museums as detemporalizing, ahistorical or static organizations, while greatly oversimplifying their temporal dimensions, also points to their often forgotten temporal complexity. Lumley’s (1988: 6) designation of museums as ‘time machines’ is both apt and precise, though Nora’s focus on their double self-referentiality in which simulation is achieved through them acting as a ‘site of excess closed upon itself, concentrated in its own name, but also forever open to the full range of its possible significations’ (Nora 1995: 641) opens richer and still hardly acknowledged research opportunities.

Museums stage temporalization of buildings and galleries through spatializing knowledge. Different architectural styles both functionally and symbolically frame and determine the dispensation of objects and collections. Spatial relations between galleries, corridors, floors and staircases structure the circulation and sequence of visits, provide breaks and continuities between one area and another, and regulate fields of perception by establishing beginnings and closures of knowledge (cf. Harbison 1977: 142; Bal 1992: 561; Boyer 1994: 133; Bouquet 1996: 10-13). ‘The museum converts rooms into paths, into spaces leading from and to somewhere’ (Bennett 1995: 44); site museums assign different epistemic knowledges to different areas (Handler and Gable 1997: 15). If the Renaissance memory palace organized memory by creating mnemonic associations between classes of objects separated and associated with specific mental or real topoi, in the nineteenth century memory received material expression in modern museums (Dias 1994: 166; Boyer 1994: 133). Anderson already recognized the classificatory totalizing grid which provided the warp and weft, constituted by the effect of serial replication in which the singular stood for the series in a surveyed ‘landscape of perfect visibility’, with limitless ability to absorb anything that enters the state’s jurisdiction, and its pernicious determination of official, subaltern or even alternative identities (1991: 184-5; cf. Shelton 1994: 190). In a similar vein, Ernst acknowledges the changing functions of museums in arranging texts and objects to inscribe private or publicly valued memories seeing them, like Ernst, as ‘“occupying a position in the discursive field somewhere between biblio-theca, thesaurus, studio, galleria, and theatrum” possessed of their own museology more concerned with “the disposition of things, the structural relationship that governs their placement, than to the positivity of collections as such”’ (2000: 18).

Silverstone makes a distinction between the dominant temporal orientation a museum may avow and the way it consciously uses time through the exhibits and services it provides. Temporal orientation is a kind of museal patina formed over time that frames representations and organization of activities while what Silverstone refers to as ‘clocking’ concerns a shorter and more limited time perspective based on the visitor experience of sequence, frequency, duration and pace, that has been deliberately incorporated into an exhibition’s staging (1994: 170). Thus different temporal order and apparent contradictions between the old and new can often be found uneasily or complementarily juxtaposed together, and may even provide criteria for a classification of museums. Museums like the Fragonard, Moreau, the national military museums in Lisbon and Brussels, the old evolutionary galleries of the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, or its sister institution in Toulouse, are characterized by past temporal orientation and slow clocking and exert strong feelings of nostalgia for the past; museums, including the new gallery of the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle and the Musée d’Orsey, Paris, possess a past temporal orientations, but disclose inside an accelerated clocking which exerts a contemporary orientation. Other museums with present temporal orientation and accelerated clocking, like Le Veillet, the Centre Georges Pompidou or the thirteen museums opened in Frankfurt at the end of the twentieth century, appear to disclose a future temporal orientation. These latter sites, like the Tate Modern, achieve far higher visitor figures than sites belonging to other temporal categories.

However, these are rather tidy, rationalized classificatory approaches to museums which hide their complex epistemologies, the different formations between narratives structured historically or by nationally consecrated memories, and the multiplicity of potential meanings they are capable of generating, discussed by authors like Handler and Gable in their study of Colonial Williamsburg (1997: 62); Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s (1998: 194-5) work on Plimoth Plantation, and Holo’s description of the contemporary Spanish museumscape (2000: 15). Museums, like all sites of memory:

are mixed, hybrid, mutant, bound intimately with life and death, with time and eternity; enveloped in a Möbius strip of the collective and the individual, the sacred and the profane, the immutable and the mobile whose purpose is to stop time, to block the work of forgetting, to establish a state of things, to immortalise death, to materialise the immaterial. (Nora 1995: 639)

Lowenthal (1996: 161) rightly insist commemoration is ‘profoundly anti-historic’, and along with Nora (1995: 635-6) and Handler and Gable (1997: 35), views museums, monuments, cemeteries, archives, libraries and dictionaries as les lieux de mémoire, dislocated fragmentary sites of memory, which history continues to rework and transform in its attempts to subject experience of the intimately lived past to contemporary rationalizing narratives harnessed to the interests of an emergent democratic, mass future. Societies that assured the transmission and preservation of collectively held values, that valued the preservation of specific objects that enshrined collective memory, and those ideologies that ensured a smooth transition from the past to the future, have all declined, necessitating ‘lieux de mémoire, sites of memory, because there are no longer milieux de mémoire, real environments of memory’ (Nora 1995: 632). Such sites not only unavoidably restructure memory into narrative configurations, but narratives themselves can be politically manipulated to re-imagine the nation. In her study of post-democratic Spanish museums Holo describes the political motives behind the construction of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid towards encouraging a more international public vision of art denied during the dictatorship to affirm the vitality of contemporary Spanish culture, and to demonstrate the viability and adoption to the corporate model of museum institutions. Older institutions, long identified with a fossilized and closed image repertoire of the nation, like the Prado, were long ignored, as older memorialized orders of values were constructed to encourage new, modern and democratic genealogies (2000: 197). At the same time, while Madrid’s museums sought to re-establish the vitality and moral reformation of the nation state, new provincial museums, established by regional governments to rescue local histories on which their distinct identities have been rationalized for narrative expression, proliferated, creating a structure which acknowledged and sometimes attempted to incorporate national and local structures of memorialization (2000: 116-17).

Nora’s view of memory and its intertwinement with historical narratives and less articulated and unconscious knowledge formations complicates, and even undermines, existent theories on the reception of curatorial interpretation in museums. While the relationship between museum narratives and ideology is a subject of frequent disquisition, little attention has been paid to how such narratives are structured to trigger memory, or how group memories mediate the process of interpretation, which has been frequently reduced to formal semiotic terms. The most coherent theoretical presentation of their view is given by Taborsky (1990) in her discussion of Peircean semiotics to the understanding of museums, though again while acknowledging the interplay of different denominations of signs in shaping perception, and the relativity of object meaning, depending on the community interpreting it, she nevertheless equates the interpretant with the community from which s/he is a member, and reduces memory, unconscious association, or ‘anti-structure’, to knowledge formations. For Taborsky ‘the observer is always “grounded” in a specific society, which provides him with a conceptual base which he uses for developing meaning. There is no such thing as a free or cognitively unattached observer’ (1990: 70). This position has been pervasive and is represented in the works of Pearce, Hooper-Greenhill and Jordanova among others. These authors not withstanding memory cannot simply be treated as homogeneous or reducible to articulate structures for incorporation into semiotic analysis (cf. Burgin 1986: 183; Zolberg 1996: 80).

Semiotic approaches also frequently ignore the political dimension of exhibitions, which as Macdonald (1997, 2001), Macdonald and Silverstone (1991) and Luke (1992) have convincingly shown, play a determinative role in structuring, organizing and the interpretation and timing of exhibitions. On the other hand, Stafford (1994: 263), Handler and Gable (1997: 7) and Shelton (2000: 162-3) have focused attention on the simultaneous coexistence of different interpretative projects within the same institution; curiosities and classified and standardized specimens in the mid-eighteenth-century royal Cabinet d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, commercial and antiquarian interests in the nineteenth-century India Museum, London, or celebratory and New Social History displays in Colonial Williamsburg. The continual applicability of semiotic models needs to be comprehensively evaluated in relation to complications added to interpretive readings as a result of the factors discussed above.

Semiotic reductionism holds further serious implications for better understanding some of the root causes of conflicts of interpretation within museum environments. It is the differences between group memories or a group’s spatial-temporal articulations that combine memory with other forms of temporal ordering, and the narrative approaches of museums, that have provoked many of the more dramatic confrontations between them and their publics over interpretation (cf. Zolberg 1996: 70). Documented examples of such conflicts can readilly be drawn from both the Canadian and US museological literature.

In the United States, the controversy surrounding the Smithsonian’s proposed 1995 Enola Gay exhibition in which military and veteran lobbyists forced the focus away from the historical circumstances that resulted in the use of the atomic bomb and its effects on Hiroshima to a focus on the personal reminiscences of the plane’s designers, makers, restorers and crew, although clearly part of a depoliticizing strategy, was also very personally motivated by the protagonists’ own memories (Harwitt 1996: 427; Zolberg 1996: 70; Lubar 1997: 17). ‘The West as America’ (National Museum of American Art, 1991), an account of America’s westward expansion, challenged a decade of dominant self-images underlying the nation’s foundation narratives, origins, values and political destiny which had been repeatedly reiterated during the Reagan-Bush years in exhibitions like ‘Frederic Remmington: the Masterworks’ (St Louis Art Museum, 1988), ‘George Caleb Bingham’ (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1990), ‘The West Explored: the Gerald Peters Collection of Western Art’ (Roanoke Museum of Fine Art, 1990) and others, which ignited the so-called culture wars between conservative and critical supporters. The proposed Enola Gay exhibition, through its historicist interpretation, and ‘The West as America’, by acknowledging the relativist meaning of art works, both confronted and threatened the normative representation of the nation’s imaginary narratives of continuity (Truettner 1997: 44). By threatening the neat border around a domain of accepted history, by disrupting established narratives, historiography ran contrary to nationally reproduced and accepted narratives (Nora 1995: 641; Handler and Gable 1997: 24). At another level, however, the controversy that both these exhibitions fell into, as well as some of the few other documented postmodernist shows in the late twentieth century, were also disputes between older institutionalized narratives concerning the foundation and nature of the nation, deconstructvist rereadings of such narratives, and the collision between this latter historiography with dominant or subaltern memories, which may have been influenced by the older historiography. These have been documented in Harwitt’s (1996) and Zolberg’s (1996: 79) reading of the Enola Gay affair, or, in the case of another much disputed exhibition, ‘Out of Africa’ (Royal Ontario Museum, 1989-90), Butler’s (1999) equally revealing description and interpretation of the role played by Canada in British colonial history. It seems probable that to a large extent, the difficulties experienced by modern museum exhibitions primarily stem from the uneasy coexistence of original intention and its rearticulation and representation within memory; ‘all lieux de mémoire are objects mises en abîme’ (Nora 1995: 640).

Memorialization in museums is always selective and necessarily accompanied by amnesia. By ignoring colonial history Mexican museums not only focused more precisely on their pre-Hispanic past but were excused from explaining the relationship between it and the contemporary living Indian populations. After the Second World War, West German museums adopted aesthetic approaches to elude the militarism and totalitarianism, even though in the east, the ideological pretensions of such aestheticization were dismissed by the occupying regime in favour of confronting the lessons of historical materialism. Spanish museums, according to Holo (2000: 199-200), in the latter quarter of the twentieth century were successively employed to reformulate and represent an open, tolerant and modern nation state while ackowledging the plurality of previously repressed regional historical realities that constituted it. Bennett’s study of Beamish open-air industrial museum finds all mention or effects of class, the trade union or co-operative movements, or women’s suffrage or feminism, eluded in a narrative without ruptures and conflicts that favours continuity and the naturalization of people’s relation to land and to each other (1988: 67-9). Even Colonial Williamsburg, which for thirty years has attempted to embrace constructivist history and give much greater visibility to the ‘other half, still according to Handler and Gable falls back into objectivism and reaffirmation of America’s national mythologies. Luke’s discussion of exhibitions during the Reagan-Bush presidencies, treating the theme of America’s conceptualization of its western expansion, draws attention to parallel imaginaries dominating political, military and business discourses. These reaffirm and renew themselves historically through rerunning exhibitions on iconic heroic views of the nation’s history represented by Bingham and Remmington; alternatively they may be used to materially brand a region with lifestyle values independent of its real condition (the use of O’Keeffe); or substitute symbolic acknowledgement of minority cultures for programmes for the amelioration of their marginalized condition (‘Hispanic Art in the United States: Thirty Contemporary Painters and Sculptors’ (Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, CA, 1988). Examination of other contested exhibitions (MacDonald 1997, 2001; MacDonald and Silverstone 1992; Bouquet 1997; Clifford 1997; Levell 2001a; Butler 1999; Riegel 1996; Zolberg 1996; Harwitt 1996; Luke 1992) illustrates the usual elusion of some part of history necessary to affirm the preferred institutional interpretation.

The End of Grand Foundation Narratives

If the still largely unexamined literature discussed in the introduction to this chapter, along with its associated publications (histories, descriptions and inventories of museum collections, catalogues, exhibition reviews, marketing literature, professional guidelines, reports, etc.), once provided the successive bases for the practical organization and operation of museums, by the last quarter of the twentieth century it had began to lose much of its former legitimatory conviction. In 1970 the annual general meeting of the American Association of Museums was repeatedly disrupted by protesters demanding that museums should abandon their traditional prerogatives by breaking their ties with the ‘establishment’ and redirecting their resources to eliminate social injustice, war and repression. Although no coherent critique or reform programme in the early 1970s had been formulated, at least four diverse dissenting currents have since then radically changed assumptions regarding the purposes and functions of museums, the demarcation of their institutional boundaries, and the suitability of subjects that form the focus of exhibitionary presentation (cf. Macdonald 1996: 1). André Malraux, a precursor to the sustained criticism which was to follow, challenged the presuppositions underlying Bazin’s The Museum Age (1967) by contrasting the freedom and inclusivity of the personal recollections of works we carry in our mind, his ‘museums without walls’, with the overdetermined, selective and partial works displayed in galleries (Malraux, 1976: 133). More important, when seen in relation to his earlier work, The Voices of Silence first published in 1953, there is a clear implication that the personal museum without walls could be materialized through print. The rise of ‘print capitalism’, which made possible the reproduction, serialization and dissemination of geographical domains, from the mid-nineteenth century changed the form and function of the museum’s construction of the imaginary (Anderson 1991: 163-4), leading not only to its literary imitators (Georgel 1994: 114), but complementary technologies to perfect its hegemony (cf. Müller 2002). Malraux presented not a confirmation of the art museum’s authority but a deeply subjective and individually more meaningful alternative whose implications museums continue to experience with the development and adoption of digital and other technologies (Levell and Shelton 1998; Müller 2002).

A more explicit front of criticism, crystallizing around Riviere in the 1980s, and clearly forming the first of the national critiques to be discussed here, became variously known as ‘active museology’, ‘experimental museology’, ‘popular museology’ and ‘anthropological’ or ‘ethnographic museology’. The ‘French new museology’ called for the rethinking of the museum’s social purpose and provided the impetus and justification for rural and urban eco-museums, community, special-interest, industrial and national park museums. It radically questioned the institutional boundaries between museum and non-museum spaces; the nature and relevance of the connection between museums and collections; and even the location of expertise (Mayrand 1985: 200; Poulot 1994: 67). Hoyau’s observation in particular that ‘once the notion of “heritage” has been cut free from its attachment to beauty, anything can be part of it … so long as it is historical evidence’ (1988: 29-30) anticipated the application of new cultural technologies to substantially extend the museum’s competence to include landscapes and cityscapes, industrial and community complexes, archaeological sites and theme parks. Furthermore, the adoption of new technologies has radically changed the media, what Haraway (1984-85: 30) calls ‘technologies of enforced meaning’, by which collections are interpreted. No longer are collections only deployed to stage a metonymic representation of an aspect of the external world. Increasingly, they are undergoing a secondary capture and recontextualization through electronic media, which in science museums may supersede the physical integrity of objects (Silverstone 1994: 172). The adoption of new media is partly subsuming established oppositions between material culture and interpretation with virtual simulation, which while substituting the ‘aura’ of the authentic and unique work with extended levels of information opens a new epistemological field of representative practices (Boyer 1994: 66; Stafford 1997: 23; Müller 2002), hitherto ignored by most museologists. Simulations are increasingly exploited by museums—Bologna’s Nuovo Museo Elettronico has no physical integrity but exists only as a simulated three-dimensional environment, which enables the city’s history to become accessible, while the Dutch Identity Factory South-east (Identiteitsfabriek zuidoost), includes multiple narratives, collated from different cultural sites (museums, landscapes, monuments, etc.), to provide a heterodox inventory pertaining to Kempenland’s cultural identity. Projects like these are not only establishing new ontological bases from which to understand reality, but are determining some of the most significant transformation of Western ocular regimes since the nineteenth century. According to one of the bleakest evaluations of such tendencies, ‘We live among the interminable reproduction of ideals, phantasies, images and dreams which are now behind us, yet which we must continue to reproduce in a sort of inescapable indifference’ (Baudrillard 1993: 4).

In North America a second series of critiques developed among others by Weill (1983, 1990), Sturtevant (1969), MacDonald (1992), Ames (1992) and Haas (1996) challenged the museum’s continual social and, in some cases, academic relevance, its functional crises, and called for new directions in museology. Vine Deloria Jr and Clavir noted the limited relevance Western museums have for First Nation peoples and the clashes over the interpretation, relevance and use to which such collections should be put. Studies highlighted how different ethnic groups memorialize events and the different significance and interpretations they bestow on objects: Abrams (1994), Saunders (1995), Merrill and Ahlborn (1997), Wilson (2000) and Clavir (2002), on First Nation Americans, and Hall (1995) and Coombes (1994) on Africa. Similar concerns, in countries like Nigeria, where colonial museums had not been rearticulated in the service of new nation states, have preoccupied curators there (Eyo 1988; Nkanta and Arinze n.d.; Munjeri 1991), though Yaro Gella’s new cultural policies in which culture became an integral part in the nation’s political and economic development to ‘give meaning and order to life’ once promised notable changes in the continent’s ‘largest and most extensive museum system’ (Kaplan 1994: 45). In South Africa, the voice of interpretation is being reclaimed by artists working with indigenous populations to replace older racist displays and dioramas by more open, interogative and critical exhibitions (Scotnes 2002). Similar changes are occurring elsewhere. In the Pacific (Anderson and Reeves 1994; Kaeppler 1994; Moser 1995; Clavir 2002) and Asia (Prösler 1996; Appadurai and Breckenridge 1992; Ghose 1992; Taylor 1995).

While Malraux focused on limitations museums placed on personal experience of works of art, Sturtevant, Ames, MacDonald and Haas concerned themselves with the technological, academic and institutional realignments which were beginning to erode their established justification and legitimacy, others have challenged whether the move from a rationalist to an emancipatory meta-narrative has been sufficient to preserve the intellectual basis underlying them. Sola (1992: 102) accused museums of adhering to nineteenth-century models and ignoring crises concerning their institutional identities and sense of purpose. A third series of critiques originated in Britain, where Vergo (1989) questioned the aims and effectivity of exhibitions, which soon widened to discussion of the history and limitations of an essentially methodological and practical non-reflexive museology and its insularity and lack of theoretical concern with museum’s relationships to the wider society. At nearly the same time, Shelton published a series of articles (1990, 1992a, b, 1997, 2000, 2001c and d) intended to provide an extensive critique of operational museology, and advocated its replacement by what he termed ‘critical museology’. British critical tendencies were accompanied also by a anti-intellectual movement, promoted by Hooper-Greenhill, that blamed the insularity of museums from their publics largely on historical curatorial attitudes and practices (cf. Hooper-Greenhill 1988). Despite Hooper-Greenhill and many of her students’ support for a client-focused museology, the public reception of exhibitions is often more complex than most educationalists and lobbyists would admit. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argues that the museum’s scopic regime is used by visitors to also view urban landscapes, and forms a split representational category through which the self can reflexively re-examine itself (1998: 48). This museological conditioning has also been commented on by the artist Sonia Boyce after being confronted by a museum collection of ethnological objects from her native Guyana (1995: 4), and is also evidenced in the demand for faux colonial-style real estate development encouraged by the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg (Handler and Gable 1997: 42-3). Riegel suggests that, under certain circumstances the public can actually value their distance from exhibitions, and that while supporting educational programmes, they do not want displays so realistic that they revoke painful past memories (1996: 87). Scattered references like these suggest the complexity of the linkages between different level simulacra in the perception of an increasingly problematicized social ‘reality’ that require much more attention than has so far been given them.

A fourth, explicitly postcolonial critique emerged among artists and theoreticians like Rasheed Aarans, Sarat Maharaj, Paul Gilroy Hommi Bhaba and others associated with the journal Third Text. These opposed the objectification, essentialization and marginalization of non-European cultural expressions and their exclusion from art history and the world’s major museums and galleries (Deliss 1990: 5). The different critiques came together in settler nations where professional organizations and legal provision sought to promote new relationships between museums and originating communities from which their collections had been ceded. NAGPRA legislation in the United States, introduced in 1991, required most museums to make available comprehensive inventories of Native American holdings as a necessary prerequisite for future restitution claims; the Joint Task Force Report on Museums and First Peoples prepared by the Assembly of First Nations and the Canadian Museums Association in 1992 recommended the involvement of native peoples in curating and interpreting heritage, a position similarly adopted by the Australian Council of Museums Associations the following year. With new ethical and juridical concerns affecting the opinions of the professional associations in these countries, different concerns and newly emerging work practices began to divide European museums from those elsewhere in the world.

Although, seven years after the publication of his initial critique, Vergo saw little change in the unreflexive way exhibitions continued to be curated (1994: 149), changes in mainstream professional attitudes became evident from at least 1989, when the Museums Association conference ‘Museums 2000’ departed from its normally staid insularity by acknowledging the pervasive crises in which museums were embroiled. The crises, already articulated by younger curators, often ignored by the profession, became palpable in presentation after presentation which treated issues like political engagement (San Roman 1992: 26), the need for museums to be proactive in the generation of new cultures rather than passively representing the old (Ghose 1992: 88), demands for reinstitutionalization and new configurations of subject specialisms (Horn 1992: 66), the failure of traditional museology (Sola 1992: 101), crises in curatorship (Cossons 1992: 125; Sola 1992: 105), and problems of future funding (Moody 1992: 44; Perrot 1992: 154; Verbaas 1992: 170). Even the direction and definition of what museums were or were thought to be becoming was contested, with Sola for one proposing an almost unlimited expansion of the concept to include ‘any creative effort of cybernetic action upon the basis of [the] complex experience of heritage’ (1992: 108). Although then unorthodox, the proposition has nevertheless proved to be consistent with later Information Age perspectives, like those of Ernst (2000) and Müller (2002), as well as certain political initiatives such as the plans underlying France’s Commission on the Ethnological Heritage, established in 1978 (Hoyau 1988: 28) and, more recently, the definition adopted by the 2001 European Meeting of Experts on cultural heritage in Antwerp (Capenberghs et al. 2003: 96).

Some of the issues raised by these different critical sources, from the 1970s, became institutionally articulated by the International Committee of Museums (ICOM). Vergo’s and other critical works of the period coincided with ICOM’s 1985 Declaration of Quebec affirming a new social mission for museums. This focused on community development, a commitment to embed museological actions in the wider cultural and physical environment, and an undertaking to promote a more interdisciplinary, active, communicative and man-agerially oriented museology in order to better engage visitors (Mayrand 1985: 201). Though it may not have directly influenced the intellectual critiques emerging in 1980s Britain, the declaration was heavily influenced by French critical tendencies, and became instrumental in providing a foundation for a postcolonial museology both among immigrant populations in Europe and among internally colonized peoples in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico and the United States.

Independently developed French, British North American and postcolonial critiques not only coincided and sometimes merged with the reforms being supported by ICOM, but converged intellectually with the overlapping analyses and arguments of Bourdieu (1993), Burgin (1986), Becker (1982), Carrier (1987) and, more recently, Marcus and Myers (1995), Luke (1992) and Corbey (2000) on the market, politics and class relationships endemic to museums. Theirs, together with critical work over the more general crisis of representation elaborated over approximately the same period by Debord (1990, 1994), Baudrillard (1983, 1993) and Stafford (1994, 1996), bear deep-seated implications for museums, not least of which might suggest the incipient beginning of a new exhibitionary complex in which visual experience is becoming reorganized to reassume the primacy it once had over textual exegesis. For Debord this new complex is characterized by increasing autonomy and elaboration of form over content, while for Baudrillard it is the proliferation of signs and their autonomy over significations in what he calls a viral simulacra that is the cause for most alarm. For Stafford, on the contrary, such a revitalization of visual culture is welcome for its ability to encode information and experience more richly.

New discursive tendencies reinforce the widespread and fundamental reconfiguration of museal and non-museal spaces imputed and effected by the French new museology. Together they imply a consequent reorganization of visual regimes, intellectual paradigms and even perhaps the beginning of a new exhibitionary complex based on the reconstruction of history to create a live heritage, in which the past interfaces and shapes, while becoming itself shaped by, the present. Instead of the past being removed and isolated from the present in museums, new building, architectural and planning technologies are aimed at transposing it and knitting it back together with contemporaneous communities. This has not everywhere received positive acclamation. As early as 1987 New Society included a special section on ‘the museum mentality’ which mildly bemoaned the abandonment and transformation of industry into touristic spectacle (White 1987: 10). Lumley notes the irony of Labour councils turning depleted industrial landscapes, like those of the lower Don valley, the Black Country or Tyne and Wear into nostalgic evocations of working-class pasts, while cities become the host to architecturally innovative, new media museums sponsored by successful entrepreneurs (1988: 17). Both processes are part of wider developments and need to be studied as aspects of a new museum simulacrum which is increasingly substituting the ‘traditional’ curator’s play with metonymy and metaphor for the market manager’s indulgences towards the staging of the hyperreal (Lumley 1988: 15, cf. Eco 1986: 1-58). Similar transformations have proliferated elsewhere; in the United States (Luke 1992: 57; Handler and Gable 1997; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998: 131-200; Chappell 2002); throughout Asia (Hendry 2000; Errington 1998; Treib 2002; Stanley 2002), Australasia (Bennett 1995: 128-62) and Africa (Hall 1995). This new exhibitionary complex which includes theme parks, as well as designated buildings and whole cityscapes classified as world heritage sites, implies a radically different relationship between museums and their publics, as well as the publics from which objects have been collected and those where they are being exhibited. Together these new tendencies can be expected to redefine expert subject positions and the kind of knowledges from which exhibitions and spectacles, and multimedia events, will increasingly be based. This still emerging exhibitionary paradigm has been called ‘the society of the spectacle’ (Debord 1994), or the ‘paradigmatic postmodern visual condition’ (Stafford 1996) and complements what Phillips has called ‘the second Museum Age’ (Phillips 2005).

Such diverse critical tendencies are suggestive of a pervasive and global redirection of museum functions away from pure scholarship towards fostering social and political awareness (Mayrand 1985: 201), and correspondingly it might be added, increased disingenuous symbolic engineering. More than the simple ‘contact zones’ proposed by Clifford (1997: 192), museums, have become essentially threshold institutions constructed between major intellectual, historical and social fault zones, at the intersections and between the interstices of conflicting, contradictory and paradoxical, pluricultural cross-currents in an increasingly globalized cultural and political economy, that still awaits serious theoreticization and concerted empirical study.