Thursday, November 11, 2010

Museums/Institutions and Cultural Representation

Modernity saw the public push for public institutions organized by the government.   Museums, galleries and other public institutions are public spaces (see: Michel Foucault) which organize knowledge and construct individuals and by extension, identities.  This organization of knowledge is made possible using ideological apparatuses, such as catalogues, didactic panels and manners of display, all of which serve to create a cultural identity.  In a museum or gallery, the object does not stand alone.  Rather, it acts as a signifier in conjunction with the didactic texts that are placed alongside it.

As Carol Duncan mentions in the introduction to "Art Museums and the Ritual of Citizenship", the Louvre became the first modern art museum when it was transformed from a old royal palace into a public museum of the French Republic.  The museum, in many ways, stood for the same wealth, power and political authority that had once been attributable to the Church.  It is important to note the differences between how France and England saw the public museum.  Whilst France saw the museum, first and foremost, as equality for the masses, England saw the museum primarily as an educational museum - no different from a correctional facility.

Carol Duncan sees the museum as a public, secular ritual.  Museums, through its grand architecture - often evocative of classical Greek temples and churches - and opulent display becomes a secular ritual site.  One is overwhelmed when entering a museum and almost instantly, one's body language changes.  In a museum, objects become separated from everyday life.  This removal of objects from their original context and the natural environment in which they were created invariably means they have to be recontextualized within the pristine walls of the museum.  In museums, the focus is on visual display.

The more art becomes abstract, the more museums simplify their architecture.  Hence the neo-classical temple has over the years evolved into the pristine "white box".  Take for example the National Gallery of London (top image) and the White Cube Gallery located in East London (bottom image):

Annie E. Coombe's article, "Museums and the Formation of National and Cultural Identities" deals with the problematic issues surrounding the display of ethographic collections in museums and the attempts made at revising the current methods.  There appears to be a dichotomy between western high art and ethnographic art - the latter more often seen as artifacts, not art.  Colonial order was supported by the development of capitalism, festishization of objects.  Objects are removed from their natural reality and thus knowledge about these objects given by museums is decontextualized.  Gayarti Spivak suggests that we need to renegotiate and reorganize the categories by which ethnographic collections are displayed in museums - often in sections of their own, thus only further reinforcing the sense of otherness and exoticness.

Exposition Universelle Paris, 1889
-organized at the height of French colonization efforts
Timothy Mitchell.
-representation of Cairo, Egypt in the exposition:  recreated a street Cairo by bringing in stones and people and donkeys from Egypt = similar to a film set, artificial world; visual displays with no sense of reality (see: Jean Baudrillard's Hyperreal)
-European organization of cultures further proves colonial order; see the world as a picture.
-feel close yet removed simultaneously/ push-pull effect  

Artists Whose Work Deals With Museums

Sophie Calle's Last Seen (1991) offers a wonderful dialogue on museum display.  Shortly after works were stolen from the Isabelle Stuart Gardener Museum in Boston, Calle took photographs of the empty spaces where the paintings once hung and asked the museum staff to describe the missing paintings to her.  Beside the photograph of these empty spaces, Calle recorded the descriptions she received of the missing work.  Last Seen is a commentary on museum display and its use of didactic panels.

 "Last Seen: Vermeer The Concert"

 Sophie's description of "The Concert" 

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