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The Museum in Perspective (Part I)

The Museum in Perspective (Part I)

“Museums never exist just on their own, but stand in reciprocal relationship to surrounding society and culture.”[1]

Museums are integral to modern society. In fact, their ubiquity may generate the impression that as a universal institution grounded in an unyielding value system, they have been around forever. This assumption is grossly inaccurate. The museum as an institution emerged in Europe under specific historical circumstances, and its values and functions are certainly not immutable. The subject is vast, with a dense body of literature that addresses numerous aspects of its complex history. At least a rudimentary knowledge of that history and its impact on society is fundamental to the education of students of art and culture. This essay sheds brief light on a few of the issues central to the origin of the museum and its changing role as a powerful cultural enterprise. But before turning attention to the art museum, it is particularly important to first consider the museum as a repository of a wide variety of objects. Not only can such an approach provide a better understanding of the broader circumstances of the rise of this institution, but it can then also efficiently illuminate the issues specific to the art museum. In tracing this history, the primary aim of this essay is to expose some of the trappings and myths that often obscure the historically defined role of the museum.  

From Collection to the Museum

While museums are almost always made from collections, a collection does not necessarily make a museum. To put it simply, a museum is usually made up of one or more collections organized and displayed in certain ways to produce specific narratives. The habit of collecting is common to many cultures, but it was in Europe where many personal collections eventually morphed into the first museums. The most prominent type of such collections was the Wunderkammer or ‘cabinet of curiosities’, which belonged to wealthy individuals during the Renaissance and later. The acquisition and display of the disparate natural and cultural objects that populated the cabinets were based entirely on each owner’s tastes and preferences. One man could own multiple such curio cabinets, which he would proudly present to his guests. The idiosyncrasies of these collections were precisely what often made them markers of identities of the owners and their families.

“Musei Wormiani Historia”, the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Ole Worm’s cabinet of curiosities.

The seventeenth century in Europe is known as the age of monarchy. It was an unstable period of relentless power struggle, which eventually led to the decline of feudalism by the end of the following century. It was clear by the mid-eighteenth century that western European societies were undergoing radical changes in nearly every sphere of life. The conceptual foundations of this period of Enlightenment had already been laid in the seventeenth century by thinkers like the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (1596-1650), whose focus on the individual mind and rationality was a challenge to religion’s age-old control over people’s lives.

New scientific inventions and discoveries, such as the English physicist Isaac Newton’s (1643-1727) seminal contributions to mechanics and optics raised uncomfortable questions for the feudal power structure empowered by the church.

Science-based understanding of the physical world led to the prodigious phenomenon of the Industrial Revolution, which lasted until the mid-nineteenth century and ushered in modern capitalism. Politically, such radical thinkers as François-Marie Arouet (aka Voltaire; 1694-1778) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) directly challenged the hegemony of the monarchy and the church, paving the way first for the American Revolution of 1776, and then the French Revolution of 1789, both of which were committed to building secular, democratic civil societies that prized reason and individual liberty. In short, by the dawn of the nineteenth century, much of the Western world had begun to move toward what is generically known today as ‘modernity’.

This decisive transition to modernity was guided by a new norm of thinking based on what was considered empirical and objective information, a convention that became the dominant mode of European worldview in the nineteenth century. To make sense of the world seen through this secular lens labeled “scientific”, everything already known and worth knowing, including the natural world, had to be documented and reclassified within the matrix of rationalism. This drive to reorganize knowledge of the world was far from a seamless process, but it dominated the intellectual discourse of the time. Universities, libraries, and archives were eventually restructured to represent a supposedly more efficient order of things. The new taxonomy of nature began with the Latin naming of all known species of plants and animals, a practice invented by the Swedish naturalist Carl Von Linné (1707-1778) that is still in vogue. What is more, the notion of history as an organizer of reality’s passage through time became a powerful outcome of Enlightenment.

Humanist scholars of the Renaissance, like Florentine Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444), had been well aware of the potential of history as a means of understanding the past, where continuity could be asserted through chronological sequencing of events; Bruni himself authored History of the Florentine People, 12 Books, in which he traced the links between contemporary Florentines and their ancestral past. Enlightenment’s discourse of knowledge, however, reshaped that early awareness of history not only as a learning tool, but as an academic discipline by its own right. Chronological continuity based on empirical evidence was now the yardstick of legitimacy of everything, from objects and natural specimens to human collectives. Against this epistemic backdrop, the museum emerged as a product of the combined power of rationalist categorization and historical narrativization of the world. 

The realization that objects of a common type or from a common source could be arranged in certain logical sequences to construct specific narratives held immense promise for all existing and future collections. Displays of objects could now disseminate messages with far more serious agendas than to simply showcase eccentricities of wealthy individuals, as had been the case with the curio cabinets. The museum soon emerged not only as an intellectual cosmos and a sanctuary of encyclopedic knowledge, but also as a strong symbol of regional and national identities. The growing field of archaeology, with its deep faith in its ability to reconstruct realities of past cultures and eras from excavated fragments, played a vital role in the formation of the early museums. By the early nineteenth century, museums of various sizes and scopes sprung up around Europe, the most intriguing cases of which were in France.

The French Revolution. Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848 by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux

Through much of the nineteenth century, France went through a series of revolutions, each of which asserted its own agendas about political and cultural identities. One of the ramifications of this ongoing identity politics, as Chantal Georgel describes, was the pride that French cities and towns took in having a museum in whatever form. “Not a single city in France, however small, was willing to do without a museum it could call its own”, Georgel reports. “In La Couture-Boussey, for example, the museum consisted of a single case of local relics displayed in the chambers of the town council.”[2]

Such instances amply demonstrate how seriously the question of collective identity was tied to the communal ownership of a museum in nineteenth-century France. 

The Art Museum

Considering the prominent cultural role of museums in general, it is not difficult to understand the elite status of the art museum as a symbol of much greater prestige than other kinds of museum. In the intellectual climate of the eighteenth century, aesthetic evaluation gradually emerged as the primary determinant of the distinction between art and other types of collectible items destined for museums. Carol Duncan points out that works of thinkers like the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (17245-1804) contributed to a growing trend of critique of art grounded in notions of beauty, which then caused a notable shift in the reception of art and expedited the birth of the art museum.[3] By the mid-eighteenth century, art collections of royalties and aristocracies were being reorganized; art that had been accessible only to the privileged few was now to be open to public view. Andrew McClellan rigorously unpacks the making of the Louvre, which, though not the first of its kind, was certainly the most notable project of that era [4]

After opening the Luxembourg Gallery to the public in mid-century, the French monarchy planned to remodel the Grand Gallery of the Louvre Palace into the first art museum of Europe. Halted in 1779, the project was completed by the Revolutionary government in 1793. The arrangement of pictures at the Luxembourg used an eclectic approach, where a variety of artists from the Italian, Northern (German and Dutch, for example) and French schools were displayed side by side to demonstrate contrasts in style, subject, and genre. The plan at the Louvre, on the other hand, was to adopt an art-historical perspective, with a chronological arrangement of the different schools. McClellan explains the reason for this shift: 

…the same spirit of empirical inquiry and scientific analysis that was transforming man’s understanding of the material world had also affected the study of art; by the late eighteenth century, there was a growing tendency in enlightened circles to view art as a cultural and historical phenomenon and to think that paintings and sculptures, like shells or flora, were susceptible of rational classification.[5]     

The application of scientific categorization to historical (read: rational) display of art was a logical step in the climate of Enlightenment.[6] If the French monarchy, which would soon be deposed as a decadent force, also favored that logic, then it is not hard to assume that there would be a more aggressive push for that strategy in the post-Revolution years.

Following the Revolution of 1789, the Louvre project became a highly politicized affair. For the Jacobins (members of the Jacobin Club that headed the Revolution), the museum was meant to be a crucial marker of the Republican values upheld by the Revolution, though the task was far from smooth. As McClellan notes, the Museum Commission –the government body responsible for making museum displays public– initially wanted to follow the eclectic display strategy of the Luxembourg Gallery, arguing that it provided a better learning opportunity for young painters. But another Jacobin faction sharply opposed this approach. Led by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), the most influential painter of the Revolution, this group was determined to apply the chronological method (which had been planned by the Bourbon royalty for the Louvre before the Revolution). Prevailing over the Museum Commission, David’s group arranged the collection chronologically by schools to make it an instructional tool for artists as well as the public of post-Revolution France. In short, responding to the spirit of the time, they prized history over eclecticism.

Napoleon courtyard of Musée du Louvre at night time, with Ieoh Ming Pei’s pyramid in the middle.

One of the principal objectives in this task was to sever ties with the Wunderkammer tradition and turn the museum into a space where reason and order would reign supreme. Not only were objects and paintings that bore traces of the monarchy excluded, but images of religious and other subjects deemed antithetical to the Revolutionary values, even if not blatantly pro-monarchy, were carefully neutralized by their strategic placements in the gallery. The process, in fact, proved so open-ended and complicated that even though the Louvre initially opened in 1793, debates over aspects of the display continued through the remainder of the decade, before the Grand Gallery could finally be made public in 1801.           

The politics surrounding the founding of the Louvre unequivocally points to two facts about the museum as an institution. First, far from being a monolithic enterprise where exhibits represent eternal values and an absolute truth, a museum is a discursive space, the contents of which can be exhibited in numerous ways, each version offering a different narrative. More crucially, each of those narratives would be a construct through and through, always subject to change. Second, despite its seemingly neutral appearance, a museum is always integral to the culture where it exists, often serving as a powerful tool for contentious political propaganda. The Louvre saga, then, decisively demonstrates that more than a mere aggregate of universally accepted and objectively verifiable facts, history is a construct that can be approached in multiple ways. This in turn undermines the strong connotation of singularity of the term “History”. 

And yet, if one attempts to understand the discursive function of the museum, most art museums of the Western world built until the early twentieth century reveal a stark paradox. A multitude of influential trappings are carefully incorporated into the early museum architecture to symbolize civilizational glory. Embellished with components from the architecture of prestigious chapters of Europe’s history, these buildings have a grand appearance, with the gravity of sacred edifices. Elements from Greek and Roman temples, such as pediments, columns, arches, and domes are recycled as part of a Neoclassical trend that became widely popular in civic buildings during Enlightenment. These exterior features are combined with interiors that draw on Renaissance palaces: tall doors and windows, high ceilings, broad stairways, and hallways.

Escalier Mollien in the New Louvre

Carol Duncan argues that while such architectural elements of the early museums symbolize the secular values of Enlightenment as a framework for the public’s exposure to art, they “also brought with them the spaces of public rituals—corridors scaled for processions, halls implying large, communal gatherings, and interior sanctuaries designed for awesome and potent effigies.”[7] And this is precisely where the contradiction occurs. “According to this tradition,….secular truth”, Duncan also observes, “has the status of objective or universal knowledge and functions in our society as higher, authoritative truth.”[8] In other words, the celebrated architectural motifs at a museum that are meant to underscore Enlightenment’s ideals of objective knowledge and rational thinking instead persuade visitors to accept the knowledge offered by the displays as the singular version of truth. The museum thus paradoxically assumes a quasi-sacred persona, where the art exhibited in the galleries as well as the specific display methods represent, for many visitors, evidence of certain absolute values of art and culture, effectively disguising the indeterminate nature of a museum’s narratives that the unfolding of the Louvre project represents. In sum, the reverence that the physical space of such an art museum demands from its visitors and the authority it exerts contradict its function as an open-ended, discursive space.

See Also

In fact, this contradiction is so integral to the museums in question that even major shifts in display strategies do not infringe the aura of gravity and authority that visitors experience. For instance, when many art museums were reoriented around the early twentieth century to underscore aesthetics as their primary focus, triggering the emergence of “aesthetic museums”,[9] the earlier emphasis on chronology pursued by David’s faction at the Louvre was combined with spatial adjustments. One can today adequately focus on individual works of art that are distanced from one another and hung on walls painted for visual compatibility. While such a radical alteration of display is yet another solid evidence of the artifice of all museum exhibitions, that understanding is, again, efficiently disguised by the somber ambience that rules the museum atmosphere, seeking validation from the past. It was not until the mid-twentieth century, when newer, more hybrid and playful museum architecture came into vogue, that visitors could experience the fluidity and open-endedness of a museum’s function while traversing its galleries. New York’s Guggenheim Museum is one such example. 

Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA

[1] Drengwitz, Beatrice, Benjamin Elbers, Lisa Debora Jahn and Irmela Wrogemann, “Nation and National Museums, a Contested Relationship: An Analysis of U.S. National Museums in the Twenty-First Century”, Curator: The Museum Journal, 57(1), p. 97. 

[2] Georgel, Chantal, “The Museum as Metaphor in Nineteenth-Century France”. In Daniel J. Sherman & Irit Rogoff eds., Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994, p. 113. 

[3] Duncan, Carol, “The Art Museum as Ritual”. In Donald Preziosi ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 479-80.

[4] McClellan, Andrew L., “The Musée du Louvre as Revolutionary Metaphor During the Terror”. In Janis Tomlinson ed., Readings in Nineteenth-Century Art. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996, pp. 1-24. 

[5] McClellan, op cit., p. 14.

[6] As Sheila K Hoffman shows, this strategy took a particularly interesting form in the growth of early museums in the United States, where Puritan ideals strongly favored useful knowledge of science to the rather abstract –thus questionable– role of art in society. Art exhibits in a museum, therefore, were commonly secondary to scientific displays. See: Sheila K Hoffman, “The Origins of Puritan Politics in US Museums: Nation Building and “The Arts” from 1776 to 1806”, ICOFOM Study Series [online]: The Politics and Poetics of Museology, (46), 2018, pp. 131-45.

[7] Duncan, Carol, “The Art Museum as Ritual”, p. 475.

[8] Duncan, Carol, “Museum and Citizenship”. In Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Ivan Karp & Steven D. Levine eds., Washington, D.C. & London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991, p. 90. 

[9] Duncan, Carol, op cit., 482.

Stay tuned for the second part of this article where we will get to know about the impact of capitalism on museums and much more.

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