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The Museum in Perspective (Part II)

The Museum in Perspective (Part II)

Capitalism and the Museum

One of the most fascinating aspects of the history of the museum is its relationship with capitalism, which, like the museum itself, had its origin in Enlightenment. The two primary objectives of the museum in the nineteenth century were to approach knowledge as encyclopedic, and to moralize and uplift the public. Chantal Georgel discusses the proliferation of printed periodicals in France with the mention of the term “museum” in their titles.[10] These publications aspired to emulate both objectives of the museum. Each periodical or journal was committed to a subject or trade: art, nature, gardening, tailoring, cooking or hunting. It promised its subscribers exhaustive education on the subject, thus enriching their lives with knowledge and pleasure. By the mid-nineteenth century, the French word “magasin” (from which the English word “magazine” is derived), meaning store or shop, became a popular term in reference to this type of printed press.

What is more, the same two objectives of the museum were also relevant to the department store, a major consumer outlet that emerged around mid-century. While a celebrated edifice of knowledge and an enterprise selling commodities for profit might apparently seem polar opposites, the two, in fact, have surprising parallels. A department store, like a museum, offers a wide variety of articles, claiming to ultimately better the lives of its customers. It is as committed as a museum to classifying merchandize in a rational order compatible with the specific society. The vitrine, a table cased with glass that is a common museum furniture, was also a familiar component of early department stores for showcasing products.

A stroll through the numerous sections of a large department store—each addressing a facet of a consumer’s life—can be reminiscent of moving through the diverse galleries in a museum. Though unlike the contents of a museum, that of a department store are meant to be acquired through purchase, the museum store, with its replicas and reproductions, provides a vicarious means of “possessing” the originals. Even a museum catalog and a store catalog are analogous in exposing the inventories offered for consumption at both venues. “The press, the museum, and the department store can thus be understood to have played complementary roles within a single ideological system”, writes Chantal Georgel. “….all born during the century of industry, [they] were each in their own way and in complementary fashion ‘machines’ of capitalism.”[11] No matter the dismay some hardcore museum enthusiasts might feel at such parallels between the museum and capitalist commerce, the traits that connect them illuminate the structure and function of the museum as part of a larger socioeconomic context conditioned by history.

Colonialism and the Museum

If the museum has a kinship with the department store via their umbilical ties to capitalism, it also had a symbiotic relationship with another enterprise born of capitalism’s expansive appetite: colonialism. It is, in fact, impossible to discuss the institutional history of the museum without addressing its links to Europe’s colonialist past. There are three overlapping sides to the role of the museum in the colonization project: the museum became a symbol of European racial and cultural superiority and a tool for exoticization of colonized cultures; the colonial exploits immensely enriched the European museums with items for their collections; museums were founded in some of the colonies under strict supervision as an important part of Europe’s civilizing mission. Because the complexity of each of these demands an essay of its own, it is only possible here to make a few observations about the first aspect.

Inside the British Museum

Europe’s ideology of cultural and racial hegemony emerged primarily from its economic interests beyond its borders, first as a justification of slave trade that began in the sixteenth century; and later, to rationalize colonization. As the Louvre project demonstrates, collections in art museums were chronologically arranged by schools and masters to instill into the public a sense of pride in nationhood. This was combined with the projection of cultural superiority, in which the new discipline of art history, aided by the imposing architecture of the early art museums, played a vital role. The master narrative of art history underscored Egypt, Greece and the Italian Renaissance as the “three great moments” of the history of art (with the fourth “moment”—France—offered at French museums like the Louvre). In other words, Civilization (with an upper case “C”) only signified Europe.[12] A museum’s rotunda or vestibule would often have prolific allegorical representations celebrating those “moments”, and the collections were organized to lead visitors through those historical phases that emphatically declared the superiority of Europe. Thus, a European museum during the colonial era became a space for citizens to forge personal notions of national identity secured by a strong a sense of superiority over the colonized Other. Needless to say, arts from non-Western cultures were non-existent at these venues.

During the heyday of colonial expansion in the nineteenth-century, obsession with empiricism led to the birth of ethnography. In its claim to dispassionately understand non-Western cultures through observation and objectively gathered data, the new discipline of anthropology virtually became an academic tool of colonialism. Once collections of diverse artifacts from colonized cultures took shape out of ethnographic expeditions and other forms of intrusions, they were displayed in natural history museums, rather than in art museums, where they represented an earlier, pre-civilized phase of humanity. Even into the twentieth century, after many of the same artifacts were accorded the status of high art by Picasso’s generation of European modernists, non-Western objects, especially those from Africa, Oceania and the native cultures of North America, still remained outliers in the overall layout of the art museum. Occupying wings of the building labeled “Primitive Art” (a term that is itself little more than an invention of colonial fantasy), the objects continued to signify elementary phases in the history of human societies vis-à-vis that of Europe.

Night view of the whale skeleton, nicknamed Hope, on display in the Hintze Hall at the Natural History Museum in London. By Murgatroyd49 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

As both the art and natural history museums grew wealthy from colonial spoils, they became increasingly powerful arbiters of culture. Under the spurious gesture of universality, the racially and civilizationally superior position of Europe remained self-evident, while the colonized cultures merely served as necessary contrasts to that glory, illuminating the “three great moments” that constituted the foundation of an art museum’s pride. This strategy was entrenched in Western art museums, including those in the United States, Canada and Australia until the mid-twentieth century.

Another powerful capitalist-colonialist enterprise directly linked to the philosophical foundation of the museum was the colonial exposition, which is itself a complex subject with an extensive literature.[13] Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, immense fairs were organized every few years—each time hosted by a different Western nation—to demonstrate not only the industrial achievements of the capitalist powers, but their colonial assets that made those accomplishments possible. Each exposition was a massive and expensive extravaganza.

A replica of the Cambodian temple at Angkor Wat, Exposition coloniale internationale, Paris, 1931

Pavilions built on an enormous fairground representing the participating nations became venues for elaborate exhibitions of technological progress and national treasures, both objects and people. With subject people imported from the colonies, hyperreal installations of their habitats were constructed, where they supposedly carried on with their daily lives through the duration of the fair while feeding the voyeuristic demands of visitors. In its proud claim as a cosmos of the modern world and a blatant display of European and American capitalist prosperity through exploitation and objectification of colonial subjects, the exposition in many ways unequivocally paralleled the structure and function of the museum.

The Museum in Contemporary Culture

The second half of the twentieth century saw the impact of a revisionist tide in almost every sphere of Western culture, including the museum. Beginning in the 1960s, the museum’s unquestioned authority and the master narrative of art history that underscored its agendas have been frequently contested. Acknowledgement of the role of power in the construction of knowledge has engendered a practice in the last half century of decoding museum exhibitions to expose their ideological underpinnings. Exhibitions involving minorities and non-Western cultures continue to cause high-profile controversies, even lawsuits. Demands of repatriation of items in Western museums that were taken from colonized cultures, often by questionable means, periodically resurface to generate heated debates. Simply put, the museum’s identity as an intellectual cosmos dedicated to disseminating universal, encyclopedic knowledge is no longer tenable in today’s heterogeneous world. Stripped of that disguise, the institution is exposed for what it is: a historically conditioned, deeply politicized space. Compared to those in Europe, museum practice in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have proven to be relatively more adaptive to these changes, at least partly due to the renegotiations of the relationships between the white power structure and the indigenous and non-white immigrant populations in these former European settler colonies.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this dismantling of the museum’s traditional persona is its new role in contemporary art. Many artists from the 1960s onward have repeatedly decoded the myth of neutrality of museums as exhibition spaces to make statements about society, culture, and more importantly, about the normative structure of the institution itself. [14] The most notable of such projects, such as those of the German-born Hans Haacke (b. 1936), and the American conceptual artists Andrea Fraser (b. 1965) and Fred Wilson (b. 1954), involve sharp critiques of the power structure behind the operation of museums. This mode of art practice, where the museum itself becomes an object of critique, has contributed no less to the self-reflexivity that largely characterizes museum culture today than to the rich inventory of contemporary art.

It would be hasty to assume, however, that the revisionist thinking of the recent decades has eradicated all ethnocentric and other biases in museum practice. In fact, the master narrative of art history, long marginalized in most of Western academe, still largely guides display strategies in many of the older museums in Europe and North America, and even new ones occasionally slip backward in history. The Musée Quai Branly (MQB) in Paris, which opened in 2006, is such a curious case. In her scathing criticism of this grand project featuring indigenous cultures from several regions of the world, Sally Price forcefully argues how the project abandoned its initial progressive plan of exhibiting non-Western cultures within an adequate historical framework, opting instead for ahistorical, offensive stereotyping reminiscent of the colonial era while downplaying the colonial context itself [15].

View of the African Exhibit Hall, Musée du quai Branly, Paris, France

No longer the sole arbiter of culture in a pluralistic society, the museum nonetheless remains a powerful public educational institution. It is encouraging, therefore, that while a project like MQB veers from its original goal, many other museums, particularly recent ones exhibiting modern and contemporary cultures, are committed to cultivating newer avenues of self-reflexivity in their architectural program as well as in practice to become the flexible, rich discursive spaces that they are destined to be. It is only through such critical evaluation of itself by questioning the hegemonic part of its legacy that the museum can simultaneously educate and enlighten today’s society and leave open infinite potential for its own growth.    

See Also

Read The Museum in Perspective (Part I) .     

[10] Georgel, Chantal, “The Museum as Metaphor”, pp. 113. 

[11] Georgel, Chantal, op cit. p. 119.

[12] Duncan, Carol, “Museum and Citizenship”, pp. 95-6. Egypt is a unique case in this context. Even though it is in North Africa, Egypt was recognized early in the European discourse of knowledge as a pioneer of Western civilization, since it was clear that the Greeks had widely borrowed from Egypt. This, however, did not translate into acknowledgment of the contribution of the non-Western world in the history of human civilization, as Egypt was effectively stripped of its non-Western identity and co-opted as part of the Western heritage. 

[13] For a comprehensive analysis of one such exposition, see: Morton, Patricia A., Hybrid Modernities: Architecture and Representation at the 1931 Colonial Exposition, Paris. The Cambridge, Mass. & London, England: The MIT Press, 2000.

[14] See: Putnam, James, Art and Artifact: The Museum as Medium. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009.

[15] See: Price, Sally, “The Enduring Power of Primitivism: Showcasing the ‘Other’ in Twenty-First-Century France”. In Salami, Gitti & Monica B. Visonà eds., A Companion to Modern African Art. Malden, Mass: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2013, pp. 447-465.               

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