Broadly speaking, a museum is a site of cultural practice that stores, preserves, and exhibits objects of cultural significance. An exhaustive definition of the museum, however, is far more difficult to pin down; indeed, an entire discipline has been established in order to examine the museum and its multifarious forms of mediation. Donald Preziosi, a professor in Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles, provides an astute description that will serve as a framework for an understanding of the museum as a dynamic, powerful, and elusive form of media:
“It becomes clear that we are dealing here with an invention, an institution, a technology, indeed an agency of extraordinary power and brilliance. The museum is a theater of anamorphic and autoscopic dramaturgy; a place in which it is not so easy to tell which is the spider and which the web, which the machinery and which the operator. It is a place at the center of our world, our modernity, in the image of which those worlds continue to proliferate.”
With Preziosi’s notion of the museum in mind, one can conceive of the museum as a multi-media and multi-mediating space. It is an institution that mediates ideology; it is a locus of communication; it is an architectural space that visitors can physically occupy and interact with; it is a theatrical space that negotiates the power of spectacle; it acts as a cultural mirror that reflects and or distorts the viewer’s perception of history and knowledge; it is a place where people create knowledge and engage with ideas. In this essay, I will discuss three core ideas that define the museum as medium: first, the idea of the museum as a space that mediates for other media, namely the object, the collection and the senses; second, the museum as a mediator of time, history, and memory; and third, the museum as mediator of space.
Museums are spaces that exhibit objects in relation to one another – in collections – in order to suggest a narrative, history or an idea. Before I proceed, the word “object” needs to be unpacked – what is the difference between an object and a thing? According to Michelle Henning, the thing only becomes an object when it is appropriated by human interaction, “simply put, museums turn things into objects. According to ‘thing theory’, the distinction between things and objects has to do with their relationship to a human subject.” The question that follows, then, is what distinguishes a museum object from other objects one might collect and display. More specifically, what is the key difference between the museum object and its forbearer, the object in a curiosity cabinet or wunderkammer? There is an entire subject under the discipline of museum studies that explores the ideological history and transformation of curiosity cabinets to the museum object of the present. As a point of entry, however, the wunderkammer object is part of an idiosyncratic collection of items that were displayed in the private quarters of bourgeois collectors between the sixteenth century and the nineteenth century. The curiosity cabinet is a private collection of “other” objects, typically featuring “exotic” objects from non-western cultures or objects that are rare and difficult to obtain such as semiprecious stones or mounted animal relics. One may consider the curiosity object as characterized by privilege, exclusivity, and acquisitive imperialist ideology. The present-day museum, on the other hand, concerns itself with an ideology that addresses the needs of the modern sociopolitical environment; the contemporary museum focuses on education and the construction of knowledge, and exhibits its objects for the public accordingly.
Different types of museums mediate their ideologies in ways that serve distinct purposes. For example, museums can function as nation-building apparatuses that represent the identity, power, and wealth of a nation. The art museum utilizes an aesthetic approach to ordering knowledge, utilizing art objects to mediate national pride, sophistication, and elitism. Historically, the natural history and science museum functioned as a platform for showcasing man’s domination over his surroundings through classification, description, and the establishment of hierarchies within nature. Indeed, the natural history museum reinforced the construction of “nature” as that which exists outside the realm of “humanity.” Like the natural history museum, the ethnological museum appropriated non-western cultures as objects for scientific investigation and imperialistic spectacle by establishing narrative hierarchies among different ethnic groups in terms of a progression from “primitive” to “civilized.” Today, museum institutions and museum studies scholars are in the process of critically examining the ideological foundations upon which different museums were founded and theorizing ways in which museums can revise their ideology to address the social, political, and cultural values of contemporary society.
One might also consider the museum object a sign. Like the arbitrary quality of Saussure’s conception of the sign, the museum object establishes its meaning through convention, or more specifically, through its relationships with other objects, people, and the way it is situated within the museum environment. As Monica Risnicoff de Gorgas remarks,
The object per se has no intrinsic value. When objects are displayed in exhibitions, they are transformed and attributed to new categories. In terms of the meaning of the object as symbol, they oscillate between two worlds, namely the world from which they come and the world created by the display.”
Because the museum object’s meaning can be manipulated based upon the way in which it is exhibited, one can recognize trappings of power associated with the object, namely its propensity for evincing the museum’s political orientation, a construction of power relations – an ideology. Furthermore, one can think about the museum as a relative of the archive, a medium which also functions in a collections-based capacity, and whose objects designate the archive as a “seat of power.” Indeed, in museum exhibitions, as Roger Silverstone notes, the object becomes fetishized by virtue of its “exaggerated attention, frozen in time and space” and signifies the “claims of mastery that are inscribed within the very fabric of the museum.” Museum collections, in this sense, inherently set up relationships between self and other, or more specifically, the domination of the other via knowledge. In this context, domination via knowledge corresponds to the power to name, classify, and define the discourse attached to the object.
Museum exhibitions mediate time by compressing the exhibition narrative or discourse in a way that conforms to the physical limitations of the exhibition space as well as the amount of time a visitor typically spends in an exhibit. In this way, the museum has the power to “re-present” history – viewers are confronted (but more often lured into) claims of truth and authenticity. Museum exhibitions can also distort time by proposing premediated objects and technologies that do not exist in the present but may exist in the future. One must also consider objects that are not explicitly the subject of an exhibition but support the subject’s mediation. These supplementary objects are what Silverstone calls “non-objects.” Non-objects include but are not limited to items such as text panels, labels, interactive features, lighting, audio-visual systems. In some museums, tech-based non-objects manipulate the viewer’s sense of time and space by bringing technological immediacy into the museum experience. What is at stake when the museum institution mediates time is that it affects the viewer’s perception of historical memory, thereby making the museum an ideal site of propaganda.
Though presentations and recollections of history are usually restricted by physical and temporal limits, the museum medium is particularly unique and affective due to its nature as an absorptive, sensory environment. Elements such as sound, lighting, and interactive displays mediate between museum and the visitor to create an immersive environment that one perceives through the senses. Though the power of the senses to create understanding is a hotly debated question in philosophy, one cannot deny that sense perception is a fundamental way in which people engage with their surroundings and begin to know the objects around them. Indeed, as McLuhan describes in “Understanding Media,” media/media technology can be understood as extensions of our senses into our environment and social relationships. In this way, one can think of the museum experience as a reciprocal relationship in which visitors’ senses reach out and are reached-out-to by exhibition media. The difference between media relationships in the museum and that of the real world is that the media in a museum function as part of a highly constructed, ideological environment.
Many museum spaces have adopted the visual language of architectural styles specific to palaces, monuments, and temples. Indeed, the word museum traces its etymology back to the ancient Greek concept of the Muse. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a museum in the context of ancient history is “a building connected or dedicated to the muses or the arts inspired by them.” The ceremonial history of the museum, then, is evident in its typically monumental, palatial appearance. The ideological underpinnings of the museum became clear as one explores the mediation of time, sensory experience, and knowledge in the museum. If one considers the museum building as an object, one will recognize that the building architecture itself also embodies ideological information. The imposing, high-ceilinged, dramatic architecture of most world-class museums, which are similar to spaces of religious worship or monarchical veneration, code visitor behavior such that the visitor approaches the museum as a secular temple of culture or history. As Carol Duncan argues, the museum visit – the way visitors behave and move around in museum spaces – can be characterized by ritual. One can think of a ritual as a social practice and a performative act that is limited by time and space. These notions of performance and spatial/temporal limitation draw parallels between ritual and theatre. Theatre ties together the various forms of mediation that triangulate between the visitor (body), the museum space, and the objects of the museum. As a place that houses exhibitions of collections, the museum provides a framework for understanding; it “stages” history and knowledge and codes our access to this knowledge through the architectural theatre spaces of the museum.
Furthermore, non-object media technologies used in the museum tie together and complicate the notion of museum time and space. As technology distorts the perception of historical and narrative time, it also expands the museum outside its physical space through digital video or a website. Indeed, new media experimentation challenge and destabilize the power inherent in the museum’s physical manipulation of space by dematerializing the museum altogether. Andre Malraux, in his work Museum Without Walls (1935), proposes a museum that functions more as a network of reproductions, in which the reproduced museum object may be observed in spaces that would otherwise be physically impossible. Though the most influential museum institutions do not have all of their collections accessible online, the majority of these museums have moved some of their museum programming into a web-based format, which allow people to participate in museum experiences through streaming video and digital images.
The museum is a true medium in the sense that it, as WJT Mitchell claims in his “Ten Theses on Media,” is both a system and an environment. In the discussion above, I established the museum as a negotiating body (its architecture) as well as a negotiating or mediating space. The museum also fits Mitchell’s claim that “all media are mixed media.” Just as “there are no pure media,” there is no pure museum form — all of the forms of media in the museum (object, non-object, space, time etc) mediate one another in order to constitute the museum. Most importantly, the museum is a medium of communication that not only exchanges and imparts ideological histories and discourses, but also requires the participation of the museum visitor to complete the transmission of its message.
“Museum,” Def. 2a, OED Online. June 2010. Oxford UP, October 25, 2010.
Donald Preziosi, “Brain of the Earth’s Body,” Museum Studies: a Critical Anthology, ed. Bettina Messias Carbonell (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007) 82.
Michelle Henning, Museums, Media, and Cultural Theory (Buckingham: Open UP, 2005) 7.
Stephen Greenblatt, “Resonance and Wonder,” Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts ed. Bettina Messias Carbonell (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007) 551.
Bettina Messias Carbonell, “Introduction to Part III, The Status of Nations and the Museum,” Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts ed. Bettina Messias Carbonell (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007) 221.
Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, “Changing Values in the Art Museum: Rethinking Communication and Learning,” Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts ed. Bettina Messias Carbonell (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007) 557.
Christopher Lobby, “The Constitution of Nature: Taxonomy as Politics in Jefferson, Peale, and Bartram,” Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts ed. Bettina Messias Carbonell (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007) 143-144.
Bettina Messias Carbonell, “Introduction to Part II, States of ‘Nature’ in the Museum: Natural History, Anthropology, Ethnology,” Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts ed. Bettina Messias Carbonell (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007) 125.
Ferdinand de Saussure, “General Principles,” Course in General Linguistics (New York:McGraw-Hill, 1965) 67.
Monica Risnicoff de Gorgas, “Reality as Illusion,” Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts ed. Bettina Messias Carbonell (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007) 360-361.
Daniel Kieckhefer, “Archive” Theories of Media: Keywords Glossary October 25, 2010, http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/archive.htm.
Roger Silverstone,“The Medium is the Museum,” Towards the Museum of the Future: New European Perspectives. ed. Roger Miles and Lauro Zavala (London: Routledge, 1994) 164
Gaby Porter, “Seeing Through Solidity: A Feminist Perspective on Museums,” Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts ed. Bettina Messias Carbonell (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publising, 2007) 106.
Silverstone, p. 165
Caroline Jones, “Senses” Critical Terms for Media Studies ed. WJT Mitchell and Mark BN Hanson. (Chicago: U Chicago P, 2010) 88-89. Caroline Jones gives an exposition of the problem of sense perception and knowledge in western philosophy.
Carol Duncan, “The Art Museum as Ritual” Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. (New York: Routledge, 1995) 7-10.
Hal Foster, “The Archive Without Museums” October Volume 77, Summer (1996): 99.
WJT Mitchell, “Addressing Media,” What do Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: U Chicago P, 2005) 213.