museum (2)

“Museums are tombs, and it looks like everything is turning into a museum…every solid is a bit of clogged air or space. Things flatten and fade. The museum spreads its surfaces everywhere, and becomes an untitled collection of generalizations that mobilize the eye.” –Robert Smithson[1]

The word museum originates from the Greek word, mouseion, meaning “the seat of the muses.” [2] These were early temples dedicated to the muses that doubled as houses for the arts as well as schools and libraries; the most famous of these is the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.[3] While these institutions stored dedicatory offerings like sculptures, they are a far cry from the museum as we know it today, and are closer, in their commitment to scholarly pursuit, to the modern day university. The modern museum, which the OED defines as a, “building or institution in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are preserved and exhibited,”[4] had its origins in private collections of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, compiled and maintained by only a few prestigious individuals. An emerging interest in natural history prompted the creation of cabinets or wunderkammern, collections brimming with ethnographic and natural artifacts as well as scientific specimens. These private collections prompted newfound scholarly interest in classification; in response to these cabinets, Samuel von Quiccheberg wrote what is considered one of the earliest treatises on the museum, in which he recommends a detailed classification system for objects in the wunderkammer.[5] Private picture-collectors were also busy compiling collections of art, spurred on by the expansion of the Renaissance and Baroque art markets.[6]

It wasn’t until the end of the eighteenth century that the public museum became an important European establishment, with the opening of the British Museum in 1759, the Museé du Louvre in 1793 and the Musée des monuments français in 1796.[7] The opening of the Louvre as a public museum was instigated by growing notions of French patrimony and nationalism following the revolution—the museum served to retroactively justify and affirm revolutionary ideals by demonstrating their roots in French heritage.[8]

But as the public museum began to flourish, the museum faced its first outspoken criticism. Quatremere de Quincy complained of the displacement of Roman artworks for display in the Louvre; artworks taken away from Rome, abstracted from their original context, “lost their effect in losing their motive.”[9] Thus, early in the history of the museum, critics noted the museum’s role in mediating the art it displayed: the museum did not neutrally house art, but it fundamentally altered the value and effectiveness of the art it showed. Further, the museum could be used as a means of creating both a specific historical narrative, in the context of the French Revolution, and a global one, according to Quiccheberg, via a classification system that organized all the objects of the world.

Museum criticism continues past Quatremere and Quiccheberg, covering a range of topics such as issues of looting, the use of plaster casts, systems of classification, and methods of display. International government has especially scrutinized museums’ protocols for acquisitions, following widespread allegations of looting: both the United States and UNESCO have passed regulations to curb the museum’s acquisition of objects deemed ‘cultural property,’ regulations aimed at preserving cultural heritage by ensuring that objects are not moved from their countries of origin. [10] But these regulations raise further questions about the role of the museum and the status of the objects it acquires. It’s not always easy to attribute objects to a given cultural heritage, particularly if the culture has changed dramatically over time. Is a folded arm figure from the Cyclades, a region of modern day Greece, Greek cultural property even if it was made in Early Cycladic II, before ethnic Greeks arrived in the Cyclades? The same international law protecting cultural canons from global dispersal prevented the evacuation of Buddhist art in Afghanistan, protecting it from foreign looting but ultimately enabling Taliban iconoclasm. It seems, moreover, that some objects are so internationally recognized that they apparently transcend ethnic or national definitions of heritage, belonging more properly to humanity broadly construed.

A less recent topic of museum criticism is the use of plaster cast reproductions, a common feature of the American museum at the turn of the twentieth century. The Chicago Art Institute and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston both displayed formidable collections of casts in an attempt to educate students about the history of art, making otherwise inaccessible foreign works available to the general public. Indeed, this method solves many of the problems associated with the acquisition of original art and artifacts described above. In 1902, Matthew Prichard recommended that the Museum of Fine Arts scrap their collection of casts entirely. The casts were, “not within the scope of the museum of art to exhibit them generally to the public.”[11] Prichard successfully argued that something essential and emotional is lost in the cast that can be found in the original. Current museum pedagogy dictates that objects on display have a certain authenticity, an “aura” that only an original work possesses. [12] While Walter Benjamin uses the word aura to describe works of art, current museums ascribe a similar value to the originality of historical, cultural, and natural objects. In the ethnographic museum, objects on display are expected to belong to a certain time, place and culture, even when placed amidst a legion of dioramas and painted settings. These objects encourage a sort of fantasy of their handling: this booger mask was really worn by a Cherokee man, this was the sword Napoleon actually wielded etc. Of course, some reproductions are shown in museums today. Dinosaur skeletons are too delicate and rare for display, so casts of the original bones are shown instead. In the Getty Museum, a Greek Kouros on display bears the label, “Greek, about 530 B.C.E. or modern forgery,” [13] indicating that even fakes are sometimes displayed in the art museum context. However, most museums show these reproductions alongside original objects, save perhaps the wax museum, an exception that proves the rule.

The art museum faces a unique range of criticism because it houses objects specifically made for a museum context. As such, the art museum has long produced anxiety amongst artists.   In the beginning of the 19th Century, the painter John Constable feared that the museum, in preserving the work of the Old Masters, would prove to be an obstacle for the success of young artists. [14] Francis Haskell in his article, “Museums and their Enemies” remarks that the new galleries fostered distrust of modernist works. Young artists were faced with the conflicting expectation that they both strive for an ideal that could be found in the Old Masters and produce something innovative that could move French art forward. In his essay, “On the Containment of the Past in Manet and Baudelaire,” Michael Fried suggests that Manet is the way out of this anxiety, allowing art to press forward into Impressionism.[15] However, anxiety over the museum and its role in mediating the art it displays and in dictating the kind of art created, remains an anxiety for artists through the 20th century. Artists involved in what has come to be known as “institutional critique” such as Michael Asher, Daniel Buren, and Robert Smithson created art that critically reflected on the museum’s role as a mediator. Smithson, creating earthworks that challenged boundaries between material and museum, lamented that, “[v]isiting a museum is a matter of going from void to void.”[16]

The OED definition for “museum” hints at several ways of thinking about the museum as a medium. It mentions that the museum is both a building and an institution. While the institution chooses the content, display, arrangement, acquisition, and sale of objects in the museum, the museum building and gallery spaces dictate where objects are placed, how they are viewed, and more generally, how the museum is experienced as a whole. The museum medium is thus comprised of an array of other media, not only because its contents, the objects it displays, are media, but because it combines architecture, wall color, wall text, and specific organizational principles to convey meaning. The placement of artworks in a particular order, or arrangements based on generic classifications, not only mediate the viewer’s experience of these objects, but also conveys a message, whether it is a narrative about the history of fine art or a position on the status of non-Western art.

But while these different aspects, discussed below, are an integral part of the museum’s function as a communication medium, the museum also performs an archival function. Michel Foucault argues that the museum, in the nineteenth century, became a heterotopia of time; it is simultaneously a place that exists in time and a place that withstands time, a place of preservation. The museum is concerned with, “accumulating everything, of establishing a sort of general archive…to enclose in one space all times, all epochs, all forms.”[17] The modern museum attempts to organize “the accumulation of time in an immobile place.”[18] Part of the way in which the museum completes its archival function is through the accumulation and storage of objects, many of which remain relegated to the museum’s massive basement. The museum may choose to store objects for the sake of preservation, as is the case with delicate prints or dinosaur bones. Other objects, while important enough to be archived, contradict or confuse the museum’s intended message, and therefore remain unseen in the basement. The museum’s storage function thus facilitates both its archival role and its role as a communicator.

Museum architecture frames the museum’s contents primes the visitor for a particular experience of the art within. An example of this mediation is the Museé du Pompidou, a Paris museum formed following student protests in 1968. The Pompidou aimed at making contemporary art accessible to the masses at a time when access to art libraries was limited. Its interactive façade, affixed with escalators that visitors can actually use, creates a participatory museum space.[19] In the beginning of the Pompidou’s history, art could be pulled down and touched, so that visitors were no longer mere spectators but participators in a larger spectacle of contemporary art, choosing which pieces they viewed and for how long. The layout permits multiple paths through the museum space, so that visitors choose their own way, rather than moving through a rigidly structured path. The architecture of the building itself reinforces the museum’s goal to make art accessible, and informs the viewer’s relationship to the artworks he sees by allowing for maximum interaction.

The MoMA’s “white cube” [20] aesthetic further demonstrates how the architecture of the gallery space combines with other features of the gallery to convey a particular message. The MoMA’s simple, almost corporate exterior contains white walls paired with minimal wall text, allowing viewers to create their own interpretations of the art within. The MoMA’s display practices, like the abstract art it displays, are stripped-down and purified, conveying the message that art stands on its own, without the support of other media like wall text or decorative molding. In contrast to the MoMA, many museums are heavily multi-medial in their display practices. In the Chicago Field Museum, for instance, paintings of dinosaurs on the walls of the dinosaur room accompany skeletons, fossils, and scientific descriptions. These images combine the physical and textual evidence provided by the other two mediums into a fantasy of dinosaurs in action. The paintings give flesh and skin to the empty skeletons, adding a narrative dimension to the scientific evidence on display below. Placards, music, sceneries, props, and lighting can all work to mediate the viewer’s experience of objects on display.

But the museum’s content is not merely the objects it houses, or even its position on these objects. The museum [and the medium] is the message. Mieke Bal in her article, “Telling, Showing, Showing Off”[21] highlights the ways in which the museum is “metamuseal” in that it displays not only the objects it holds, but also its own history as a medium, using methods of display and installation to tell a particular narrative about its institutional record. She focuses on the American Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side of New York, a museum that geographically and generically opposes the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the more affluent and elite Upper East Side. Bal argues that the museum, particularly of this “size and ambition” is necessarily metamuseal, in that it is necessarily also a “museum of the museum,” preserving its own “ruthlessly dated” project. Bal’s notion extends beyond the ethnographic museum—the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in making display choices that reflect a particular, western-centric view of what counts as important in the history of art, is also a museum of its own history.

The way in which the medium mediates our experience of art, conveying a message through both archival and display practices, is generally an unconscious part of the museum visit. Artists involved in the aforementioned practice of institutional critique draw this process into the visitor’s consciousness. Marcel Duchamp, for instance, designed the installation of the exhibit, “First Papers of Surrealism” at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion in 1942. Duchamp used twine to wrap the elaborate rooms and entrances in complex mazes of webbing, overlapping paintings that hung on partitions. The twine impeded movement in the gallery space, though it did not completely obscure the objects on display.[22] In Elena Filipovic’s article on the installation entitled, “A Museum That is Not” she writes that the piece was, “a rethinking of viewing in a typical space of exhibition and of the body’s implication in that experience as much as the ‘art’ itself.” Creating a barrier between the viewer and the art, making the museum space a source of frustration, Duchamp drew attention to the museum medium and its impact on the viewing experience.

Michael Asher similarly has created installations and art pieces that draw attention to conditions under which viewers perceive the art on display in the museum. In an exhibit at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Asher used aluminum studs to outline all the previous walls used for exhibition in the museum since 1998. The walls draw attention to factors in the perception of artworks that are often unseen or ignored. Asher has done many site-specific pieces, which question the logic of the museum space. Thus, while the museum medium often only operates on a subconscious level, mediating the viewer’s perception of the objects it displays and conveying a sometimes metamuseal message of its own without the viewer realizing it, the artist’s work can bring these factors to the level of consciousness, revealing the museum’s status as a medium.

— Miranda Means

[1] Robert Smithson, “Some Void Thoughts on the Museum.” Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings [Berkeley; University of California Press, 1996]

[2] “Museum.” The Oxford English Dictionary. Last updated March 2003.

[3] Edward J Watts, City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria [University of California Press, 2008]

[4] “Museum” Def. 2-B The Oxford English Dictionary.

[5] Susan Pearce, The Collector’s Voice: Critical Readings in the Practice of Collecting. [Ashgate Publishing, 2000]

[6] Francis Haskell, “Museums and their Enemies.” Journal of Aesthetic Education [1985]

[7] Geoffery Lewis, “The History of Museums.” The Encyclopedia Britannica.

[8] Francoise Choay, The Invention of the Historic Monument [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001]

[9] Quatremere de Quincy, Moral Considerations on the Destination of Works of Art [1819] 55-56

[10] Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Whose Culture Is It?” from Whose Culture?: The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities. Ed. James Cuno.

[11] Matthew Prichard, Communications to the Trustees Regarding the New Building: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston [Boston; Privately Printed, 1904] pp.

[12] See Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” from Illuminations. [New York; Shockden Books, 1968] for more on ‘aura.’

[13] J. Paul Getty Museum, “Statue of a Kouros” [2014].

[14] Haskell, 1985

[15] Michael Fried, “On the Containment of the Past in Manet and Baudelaire.” Critical Inquiry Vol. 10, No. 3 pp 510-542 [The University of Chicago Press, 1984]

[16] Smithson, 1996

[17] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias.” Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité [October, 1984] pp. 7

[18] Foucault, 7

[19] Rebecca de Roo, “Institutionalizing ’68: The Pompidou Center,” The Museum Establishment and Contemporary Art: The Politics of Artistic Display in France after 1968 [Cambridge, 2006]

[20] Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space [Berkeley and Los Angeles; University of California Press, 1999]

[21] Mieke Bal, “Telling, Showing, Showing Off” Critical Inquiry Vol. 18, No. 3, [Spring, 1992] pp. 556-594

[22] Elena Filipovic, “A Museum That is Not” e-flux.com [New York, 2009]

Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony, “Whose Culture Is It?” from Whose Culture?: The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities. Ed. James Cuno.

Bal, Mieke. “Telling, Showing, Showing Off.” Critical Inquiry. Vol. 18, No. 3, 556-594. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Illuminations. Shockden Books, 1968. Print.

De Roo, Rebecca. “Institutionalizing ’68: The Pompidou Center.” The Museum Establishment and Contemporary Art: The Politics of Artistic Display in France after 1968. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Print.

Filipovic, Elena. “A Museum That is Not” e-flux.com. New York, 2009. Online.

Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias.” Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité. Trans. Jay Miskowiec, October 1984. Web.

Fried, Michael, “On the Containment of the Past in Manet and Baudelaire.” Critical Inquiry. Vol. 10, No. 3 pp 510-542, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984. Print.

Haskell, Francis. “Museums and their Enemies” Journal of Aesthetic Education. Vol. 19, No. 2. University of Illinois Press, 1985. Print.

“Museum.” The Oxford English Dictionary, Last Updated March 2003

O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Berkeley and Los Angeles; University of California Press, 1999. Print.

Pearce, Susan. The Collector’s Voice: Critical Readings in the Practice of Collecting. Ashgate Publishing, 2000.

Prichard, Matthew. Communications to the Trustees Regarding the New Building: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Privately Printed by Building Committee, 1904.

Smithson, Robert. “Some Void Thoughts on the Museum.” Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings. Berkeley; University of California Press, 1996. Print.

Watts, Edward J. City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria. University of California Press, 2008. Print.