Guide to New Museum Studies

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Randolph Starn

Department of History

University of California

Berkeley, CA 94720-2550


Tel: 510-883-0551 (home)

A Historians' Brief Guide to New Museum Studies
In 1989 the editors of the first book on history museums in the United States complained about a "blanket of critical silence" surrounding the subject. In 1992 the British museum specialist Eilean Hooper-Greenhill observed that the museum as a historical institution had not received "any rigorous form of critical analysis." Other scholars and critics chimed in around the same time.1 As it happened, a tidal wave of museum studies was just beginning to crest, many proclaiming critical agendas while complaining about their absence. The problem these days is how to navigate a flood of literature on the theory, practice, politics, and history of museums.

This should matter to historians. Museums and history are close kin, each with proprietary claims on gathering and interpreting materials from the past. By assembling objects outside everyday time and space, all museums are in some sense historical. According to some estimates, history museums and historic sites account for two of every three museums in this country; they are also the most widespread and accessible museum type, from the great public collections down to the small town’s roomful of memorabilia. It is no stretch, except perhaps for our professional egos, to suppose that museums actually deliver more history, more effectively, more of the time, to more people than historians do. My guess is that many historians first got the itch for history from museums, surely more than from the textbooks they read at school. In today’s conflicts over the purposes and means of representing the past the museum has become (sometimes literally) the battlefield of choice. 2

The fact remains that historians wanting to take the measure of recent museum studies will need to cross a surging expanse of books, periodicals, anthologies, and actual museum shows.3 Since the 1970s history in the museum has become a thriving branch of Public History, with publications and training programs aimed at museum work in public or corporate settings; academic historians, by and large more recently, have done important work on the cultural history of the museum. Even so, museum history is still written and taught primarily by museum professionals and people working in cultural and visual studies.4 There are good historical reasons, if not necessarily good excuses, for the disconnect. Since the late nineteenth century, museum work and historical scholarship, often overlapping and interconnected before then, have followed different professional tracks. The historians had their archives and documents, the curators their objects and aura. Discursive prose was history's main medium, the collection and the catalogue were the museum's. Although the monumental "temples," "palaces," or "castles" of the great nineteenth-century public museums towered over their seminar rooms, the historians outflanked the competition; from their newly-won university positions they relegated museum specialists, archivists, and other “auxiliaries” or “amateurs” to subaltern status as occasionally useful technicians. These tribal divisions persist behind the smiling face of interdisciplinarity. It is a safe bet that museum workers are no more likely to read the AHR than academic historians are to read Museum News.5

More than a half century ago a distinguished museum director was already worrying about the confusion of tongues that has actually come to pass in the newer museum studies.6 Besides museum professionals and historians, the contributors include art historians, social scientists, philosophers, cultural studies scholars, critics, and journalists. If museum goers proverbially know what they like, people who work in museums or write about them tend to like what they know by virtue of training and affililiation. More often than not, museum insiders—administrators, curators, conservation specialists, designers, development and education staff—do not see eye to eye, let alone see as critics, historians, or social theorists might. Outsiders do not need to worry about such mundane matters as budgets, security, staffing, storage, or plumbing. They are free to treat museums as subjects and objects of higher criticism, political agendas, narratives about the past, and visions of the future. The attractions are greater because issues that might otherwise seem abstract or academic look material and immediate on display—and because people can hardly resist holding forth on some spectacular new museum building, curatorial scandal, blockbuster show, or “undiscovered” little museum.

Following a good museum precedent, I offer here a vade mecum to the newer museum studies. It is a brief guide because selectivity is obviously necessary; it is desirable, too, at a time when guidebooks have grown unmanageably thick, a new anthology on the idea of the museum is eight hundred pages long, and the latest textbook on “the changing role of the museum” reprints thirty-four essays.7 I focus primarily on work that has appeared since the late 1980s in the United States, the United Kingdom and Commonwealth, and continental Europe insofar as it represents an influential and self-consciously "new" range of perspectives. To sort out and frame what I take to be the main issues and directions in this literature I exhibit it (so to speak) in four sections, each with its particular theme: the genealogy of museums; the Museum Object; representing difference; the past and future of the “Museum Experience.” By way of conclusion, I suggest what the stakes are or should be for historians.

The newer studies constantly remind us that museums are not neutral. While they collect and conserve, classify and display, research and educate, they also deliver messages and make arguments, and so does this Brief Guide. It grows out of my own need to come to terms with dogmas about the relative or literal authority of the past that confront us, or are said to confront us, these days. My historian’s instinct in the bright glare of ideas about objectivity, authenticity, and truth is to look at the historical institutions where physical evidence of the past is tested and organized, not just talked about.8 And this brings me to a further reason why museums should matter to historians. One recurrent and sometimes unintended lesson of the newer museum studies is that the dividing line between old and new practices and purposes is far from being sharp and fixed. This not to say that today’s challenges to the identity of the museum are merely dejà vu. If anything, the challenges mean that we can learn from seeing how transformations have come about (or not) in the past. The itinerary that follows is bound to be provisional given the pace of change in the museum world, but any worthwhile guide should encourage its users to go beyond it.

* * *

Until the 1980s museum history was mostly written by museum professionals and a few interested amateurs telling a story of progress--or so it seemed in the wake of the revisionism that followed.9 The newer museum studies were resolutely historical yet ambivalent about history, at once committed to treating museums as historical institutions and skeptical about histories of their development. The history of an institution has given way to its multiple genealogies.

The initiative for rewriting museum history did not come from historians but from a professional insurgency in the museum world. In 1985 the journal of the International Council of Museums editorialized nervously about a New Museology in France, "a movement of criticism and reform incorporating new developments in the social and human sciences with the aim of revitalizing techniques of display, exhibition, and communication, and, ultimately, altering traditional relationships between the institution [of the museum] and the public." 10 Toward the end of the decade a group of British museum specialists and cultural studies scholars published The New Museology, a collection of essays ranging from the status of museum objects to ways of experiencing them. The connecting link, according to editor Peter Vergo, was "widespread dissatisfaction with the 'old museology,' both within and outside the museum profession in that it is too much about museum methods and too little about the purposes of museums; that museology has in the past only infrequently been seen, if it has been seen at all, as a theoretical or humanistic discipline; and that the kinds of questions raised about the development of the museum have been all too rarely articulated, let alone discussed."11

When the "old museology" was still new, Scottish archaeologist and bibliophile David Murray, in an exuberant charter text, had saluted the triumph of a new era of scientific description, classification, and explanation over a jumbled and credulous past.12 For all its keenness to expose much less blatant cheerleading than this, the New Museology echoed the idea of breaking with the past, together with the implication that the history of museums was not steady and continuous. The radical new extension was to single out differences to the point of dissolving the museum as a coherent subject. In a nice instance of radical propositions turned mainstream, this view has become a dominant one in museum studies. To quote a knowledgeable writer who is otherwise quite critical of new directions in museum studies, "institutions now called museums have family resemblances to one another, but they share neither a common history nor a common cause…."13

Far from putting historically-minded museum scholars out of work, the emphasis on difference and diversity multiplied their opportunities as museum history devolved into multiple genealogies for a promiscuous family of institutions. Of course the genealogical approach has a genealogy of its own. As a critical method descending from Nietzsche on through Michel Foucault, Nietzsche's self-proclaimed heir as genealogist or archeologist of culture and institutions, it fosters counter-histories and, though this aspect usually goes unremarked, counter-myths to the unifying forces, factors, and directions of conventional historiography. Foucault himself paid scant attention to museums, but by the late 1980s they were grafted into his analyses of genealogies of power and knowledge for asylums, hospitals, and prisons.14

One of the first full-fledged demonstrations of this interpretative strategy was Eilean Hooper-Greenhill's Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge, several times reprinted since its appearance in 1992. “[I]instead of attempting to find generalisations and unities,” Hooper-Greenhill proposed “to look for differences, for change, and for rupture.”15 This “effective history” as distinct from the “normal history” of progressive development would clear the way to a full appreciation for the array of alternative practices that the old teleological accounts had glossed over or suppressed. On the model of Foucault's templates of successive formations of power and knowledge (the famous “epistemes”), Hooper-Greenhill discussed a succession of sites of collection and display—the Medici Palace in Florence; the Renaissance Wunderkammer or Cabinet of Curiosities; the natural history collections of the seventeenth century, particularly the Repository of the Royal Society in England; the modern "Disciplinary Museum" for which the post-revolutionary Louvre was the prototype.16 The result is not a connected museum history, let alone a history of "the" museum. It is rather a kind of genealogical chart of the shifting constellations of epistemology and authority governing the collection of material objects.

Even though it branded previous histories too dismissively as "ineffective history," the Foucauldian turn inspired fresh investigation of the multiple cultural and political investments of collecting and its institutions across time. However, Hooper-Greenhill's work also underscored the liabilities of this agenda, not least when contradicting some of its own guiding principles. With a hardening of the categories, the stress on contingency tended to become a necessity, and propositions critical of orthodoxies became themselves dogmatic. In insisting on material interests, on the power side of a binomial equation as if it foreclosed the knowledge side, Hooper-Greenhill’s analyses were more reductive than Foucault’s. Despite the critique of teleological plotting in museum history, her book culminates in a Whiggish teleology turned upside down. Of the modern “Disciplinary Museum” fully realized in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries Hooper-Greenhill writes in a near-parody of Foucault that “its seriated public spaces, surveyed and controlled, where knowledge is offered for passive consumption, are emblematic of the museum as one of the apparatuses that created 'docile bodies' through disciplinary technologies.”17 Taking a different slant, Australian cultural studies scholar Tony Bennett argues for a more benign liberal reading of “the exhibitionary complex” installed in “the modern public museum.” It was “disciplinary” too, but “in seeking to render the forces and principles of order visible…it open[ed] objects to more public contexts of inspection and visibility” with the aim of producing “a voluntary, self-regulating citizenry.”18 This expressly liberal account has not prevailed. Calling for “an archeology of the museum on the model of Foucault's analyses of the asylum, the clinic, and the prison,” art critic Douglas Crimp condemned the modern art museum as one more “institution of confinement”; for having insulated art from the material conditions and creative ferment of its making, the modern temple of art deserves its post-modern fate as an abandoned ruin.19 In what must be the farthest stretch of Foucault, Timothy W. Luke has recently asserted that the ever-increasing role of entertainment in museums “has powerful carceral implications that suggest a practice of containment and confinement.”20

One reason for the jaundiced chorus is itself genealogical: inbreeding. Introducing a self-consciously venturesome collection of conference papers published in 1994, Daniel J. Sherman and Irit Rogoff referred to a "shared intellectual formation" and "a coming of age of a broad range of critical analyses [that] have converged on the museum." More than breadth, however, the phrasing suggests convergence on the order of a concerted assault. The preferred strategy was "unmasking" to show "not only that museums have a history but that their enterprise entails an attempt to conceal it…."21 In a shrewdly mischievous review of this and two other related collections of essays Ivan Gaskell turns the strategy back on itself to unmask what he calls "naïve outrage" and "museophobia".22 Even moderately experienced museumgoers, he supposes (he is himself an art historian, historian, and museum curator), know well enough that museums are not reliably transparent or disinterested institutions any more than, say, universities are. We would not have needed a cluster of newly canonized authorities, notably Foucault, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin, to make this point. If anything, Gaskell suggests, formulaic critiques of "the museum" as the creature of "hegemonic capitalism" have themselves begun to look like museum exhibits. He singles out in particular Adorno's slight but disproportionately influential essay "The Valéry Proust Museum," with its wordplay on museums as mausoleums, "family sepulchres of works of art" that embalm the accumulation of capital in showily useless forms, thereby embodying its allure and obfuscating its dominion.23 But as Neil Harris, pioneering the history of American museum culture, pointed out years ago, Gilded Age capitalists, not to mention their Renaissance forebears, had little to learn about such uses of useless forms of capital.24 There is not much to unmask in Joseph C. Choate's 1880 exhortation to "ye capitalists" as patrons of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:

[Consider] the glory and better fortune that may yet be yours, if you only listen to our advice to convert pork into porcelain, grain and produce into priceless pottery…and railroad shares…into the glorified canvas of the world's masters, that shall adorn these walls for centuries. The rage of Wall Street is to hunt the philosopher's stone, to convert all baser things into gold, which is but dross; but ours is the higher ambition to convert your useless gold into things of beauty.25

Fortunately, genealogies have, in their multiple forks and branches, remedies for reductive hypotheses. The ramifications of the new museum studies are too complex, dynamic, and indeed historical to be boxed in tightly. In myths of origins the muses on Mount Parnassus were already jockeying for position; we know for certain that Alexandria's Ur-museum, "the precinct of the muses," was not only a library but also a combination of temple, mausoleum, treasury, and research center.26 Paula Findlen's studies of early modern collecting have shown how the term "museum" became a metaphor for the collection and display of knowledge before it became an actual location; in fluid Renaissance usage deriving from humanist scholarship on Greek and Roman antiquity a museum could just as well be an idea or a book as a room or a building.27 As late as the 1820s, plans for Berlin's Altes Museum, soon to be a model national museum, elicited earnest controversies over its name—whether it should not rather be called a monument, treasury, studio, or academy.28

Even the common wisdom that the nineteenth century was "the century of the museum" has run into the genealogical complication that museum types proliferated within, alongside, and beyond the "modern public museum." A number of studies have reinstated international exhibitions, fairs, and department stores—once lopped off the museum's family tree for their unseemly mix of commerce, culture, and entertainment—as a major inspiration for the organization and display of museum material in the later nineteenth century. 29 The strenuously monumental exertions of so much museum architecture obviously had much to compensate for. In a concise 1895 manual on museum administration Smithsonian Secretary George Brown Goode defined the goals of "the modern Museum idea" as advancement of learning, public accessibility, systematic arrangement, but then went on to show just how many-sided its aims were. He divided museums into two types according to contents, from art to zoology, and according to intended public, from national to private. Next he observed that a museum may fulfill any or all of number of purposes--propagating knowledge, preserving the record, serving the classroom and the lecture hall, making a "Bureau of Information" available for "the occasional enquirer, laboring man, schoolboy, journalist, public speaker or savant." Some of Brown Goode's principles are as provocative today as they ever were; so, for example, "A finished Museum is a dead museum, and a dead museum is a useless museum.30 Historian George Stocking's conclusion for anthropology's "Museum Period," 1840-1900, seems to fit "the modern Museum idea" more generally: "it is hard to locate the historical moment [when] the institutional moment of the museum was not intensely problematic."31

Certainly the rise of national museums to the top rung of the museum hierarchy in the nineteenth century was neither linear, uniform, nor consistent. Brown Goode made much of an Anglo-American scenario celebrating a happy union of private benefaction and public reform with "rational recreation" and “moral uplift” for the working classes.32 The French paradigm of the centralized state museum had precedents going back, in good Tocquevillian fashion, to the Ancien Régime well before its national reconfiguration in the wake of the Revolution.33 However, the French paradigm is as much a historiographical as a historical construction, a product of narratives centered on the state in some proportion to the real and imagined centrifugal pressures that have threatened it. Daniel J. Sherman has further complicated the picture by documenting the pull of local interests and the policy of distributing artworks from Paris to provincial museums thoughout the nineteenth century.34

There were many national variations in any case. As historians Susan A. Crane and James J. Sheehan have shown in exemplary studies of the development of a national museum culture, the Germanies before unification in 1871 spawned any number of museum types, often intertwined with one another. The German National Museum in Nürnberg (1852), established before German unification, was a hybrid institution. To consolidate, museum officials had both to depend on and to outmaneuver local collectors, learned associations, civic promoters, and princely patrons; as a result, centralizing aspirations were strong and Prussian models of state control all the more thorough-going.35 Elsewhere in Europe the National Museum of Poland (1862), predating a Polish national state, was partly housed in Switzerland. An Italian National Museum was founded in Turin in 1878, nearly a decade after Italian unification, and the national system of museum administration in Italy, though often overlooked in surveys of museum history, remains the most highly developed—and bureaucratically intricate—in the world. Beginning in 1922 with the International Museums Office associated with Committee on Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations, transnational museum organizations have been organized mostly by national and therefore highly diverse memberships.36

Scrambling lines of descent still further, opposing agendas and controversies are part and parcel of the museum's development, not an untoward aberration. They are better followed in older works insofar as newer museum studies tend to treat "the modern public museum" as a fixed type, not to say a straw man. Alma S. Wittlin counts three phases of "reform" projects and any number of variations since the mid-nineteenth century.37 In the Golden Age of the public museum before World War I centralization, specialization, and classification were watchwords, but this period also saw a quantum leap in the number and range of the museum-going public. The growth of large public museums in many instances facilitated rather than preempted the work of local museums by setting an example and encouraging loans and exchanges. However grasping in other respects, great capitalists were the most generous benefactors of the new public museums. Wittlin distinguishes a second period between the world wars when educating the public became the focus of reform and at the same time of bitter opposition. Critics claiming a speciously venerable pedigree fumed over a "Philistine victory," an "atrophy of perception in Anglo-Saxons," the illusion of "thinking educational effort the panacea for all the ills of society."38 Wittlin characterizes a third period from 1945 until the time of her writing in the late 1960s as a time of "search and conflict, of gestation, achievement, and deadlock such as museums have never known before."39 Her inventory of postwar trends reads like an agenda for the sharpest museum critics since the 1980s. Initiatives later touted as new departures againstresistance and inertia had many precedents, including complaints about resistance and inertia. 40

An old museum hand concluded some years ago that "the history of

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