Review Essay: Museoloy as Cultural Studies


A Companion to Museum Studies . Sharon Macdonald, ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing , 2006 . 592 pp.

I read this collection of 33 essays on museum studies with one large question in mind: does anthropology still have anything to contribute to this burgeoning field? I hoped that this collection might supply an answer, in part because several of the contributors are anthropologists, but mainly because its editor, Sharon Macdonald, is one of the best ethnographers of museums there is. Her interest in museums began through studying cultural heritage. In her case, it was fieldwork in the Scottish Highlands—a place whose people are often in the business of representing themselves to others and who are therefore quintessentially reflective about the self-conscious nature of cultural production in a museumified world. Macdonald went on to do a wonderfully nuanced ethnography of a science museum—of how the experts and professionals in the museum decide on what stories to tell and how to tell them, and of how the visitors to such a museum respond to its messages. It is of course, the ethnographic approach to a topic that I would suggest anthropology can and does contribute to this or any field.

But the collection is not primarily a compendium of the work of ethnographers. The group of scholars Macdonald brought together reflects the current makeup of museum studies as an interdisciplinary endeavor. Some of them work in museums. Most teach in museum studies departments or offer courses that cross over from their particular disciplines into museum studies, and while they are from different disciplines, they teach museum studies from the shared perspective that has come to be known as cultural studies.

The central theme of cultural studies is that societies produce representations that have political implications. Representation—making a display, a film, a book—hurts some people and helps others by naturalizing certain visions of the world and by privileging certain voices. It is the goal of cultural studies not only to bring into conscious awareness the extent of misrepresentation that occurs, but also to create representational space for silenced voices to be heard. Cultural studies is self-consciously democratizing. It exposes representation as elitist or exclusionary. As it stresses exaggeration and erasure in dominant cultural discourses and imagery, it encourages or even ventriloquizes the voices of the silenced.

Needless to say, the desire for democratization, plus a queasy reflexivity about elitism via (mis)representation, are guiding concerns in what often is called “the new museology”—as Macdonald outlines in the Introduction. And the new museology is an extension of what those in the education departments of museums pretty much everywhere have been trying to do since they gained a foothold in museums. For a long time now, educators have thought of themselves as populists or reformers—in favor of opening up the museum; in favor of making it more relevant; opposed to closing it to all but the most enlightened, or to using it to protect and store treasure however such treasure is defined. So the agendas of education dovetail with those of cultural studies, but it also happens that cultural studies has also inserted itself into art and art history. There are many converging paths leading to the fact that museum studies itself might even now count as a branch of cultural studies—a site for the practical and reflexive application of cultural theory.

The chapters in the first section of the Companion, “Perspectives, Disciplines, Concepts,” lay out the basic themes. Rhiannon Mason's essay on the basic premises of cultural theory, and how those premises are also basic to museum studies, is among the most succinct and accessible synopses I have encountered. Gordon Fyfe follows with a deft exposition of the relationship between the museum as an object of study and sociological phenomenon and the rise of sociology as a discipline. His is at once a reminder that, while museums were until recently “rarely mentioned by sociologists” (p. 33), they are nevertheless perfect sites for sociological analysis—analysis of the kind that has transformed sociological theory. Donald Preziosi, Anthony Shelton, and Susan Crane each offer reflections on the ways the disciplines of anthropology, art, and heritage have articulated themselves in museums. Museums, whatever their disciplinary origins, are above all collections, so Macdonald contributes an ethnographic survey of collecting. Collectors take for granted the notion that time moves in one direction, and that this means things are lost or destroyed. Thus, whatever else they convey, objects in museums, according to Susan Crane in her chapter on time and memory, objectify common understandings of time in terms of “preservation.” Yet arguments about what should be preserved, and, by extension, whether it is necessary or good to remember or forget the past, mean that museums often as not disrupt easy understanding about the relationship between the past and present.

The second section, “History, Heritage, Identities,” can be read as an extended commentary on those facts about memory. Jeffery Abt, for example, reminds us that museums have a more nuanced history than the simplified but useful story that museums began with modernity. Robert Rydell shows that world fairs do more than merely represent dominant visions because they have “always been the sites of contestation” between representatives of empire and empire's subjects, and among exhibition authorities themselves. Both Flora Edouwaye Kaplan and Elizabeth Crooke review how museums have come to increasingly reflect the aspirations of hitherto disenfranchised or ignored groups in society. Nations make museums that enshrine a national identity, but they also make space for religious and ethnic minorities or local communities to celebrate themselves. Kaplan and Crooke show us that some of the most innovative museums on the world stage—for example the District Six Museum in Cape Town or the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC—are the products of minority or local visions. Rosemarie Beier-de Haan goes a step further, arguing that an emerging trend in museum exhibitions is to emphasize the fluidity and ambiguity of identities rather than to celebrate ethnicity or locality and that such a shift reflects broader changes associated with globalization. Steven Hoeschler suggests the opposite. Heritage is emerging as perhaps the most common of displays around the world. Officials like heritage as do bigots; but so too do artists and activists find heritage a useful tool for critiquing the present. To demonstrate this point, Hoeschler refers to the work of the Guatemalan artist Daniel Hernandez-Salazar who, with the help of fellow activists, mounts public exhibits throughout the capital that remind the viewer of the atrocities the government committed in its dirty war or terror. The images get torn down, or they remain because their significance is not initially apparent, and whether they are torn down or stay up, they generate comment and conversation.

The third section, “Architecture, Space, Media,” begins with the fundamental fact that a museum is a building that contains objects on display. The history of museums is therefore an architectural history, and Michaela Giebelhausen offers an overview of the symbolism of museum architecture at the dawn of modernity to provide a context for evaluating contemporary architectural innovations. Victorio Lampugani focuses more closely on current debates about what this architecture represents as such buildings have emerged as attractions that sometimes overwhelm the collections they contain. Meanwhile, Bill Hillier and Kali Tzortzi focus on the interior spaces of the museum, investigating how exhibits create a largely unconscious syntax that guides how we look at what is on display. Michelle Henning reviews the ways museums are currently deploying computers and other media in a general effort to make the museum more accessible and exciting. Tony Bennett traces the history of such spaces as sites for “civic seeing.” As in his path-breaking work on the museum as a central arena in the “exhibitionary complex” of modernity, Bennett stresses a generally democratizing tendency of museums. Today, for example, even though museums are primarily about looking, serious efforts are being made to accommodate the blind, just as museums in general try to include as many ways of seeing as there are audiences they can accommodate. As a result, museums become reflexive about how to present and display, although reflexivity inevitably clashes with the inherent and often unconscious elitism of the aesthetic of museum vision. In making this point, Bennett offers us an image of one of Duane Hanson's life-like sculptures of fat and fashion-challenged tourists. Those who have the wit to look at this sculpture and recognize it as high art worthy of display in a museum cannot help but look down on the culturally impaired tourists they represent. The project of civic seeing is democratizing; it also makes the usual distinctions, celebrating or disparaging the usual subjects.

Those usual subjects are the focus of the fourth section, “Visitors, Learning, Interacting.” Here we confront the perennial problem for those who work in museums: the visitor is still a troubling and far from transparent agent. Eilean Hooper-Greenhill reviews the growing literature on who visits museums and finds it frustratingly uninformative. Basic questions such as how many people visit museums are still hard to answer with any degree of certainty. She finds hope however in a recent shift in visitor studies towards naturalistic, that is, ethnographic approaches—this shift reflecting a growing concern with what visitors actually do at museums, rather than merely a concern with how many of them enter the door. John Falk, Lynne Dierking, and Marianna Adams try their best to be optimistic about what museums teach these shadowy visitors. In their view, the typical visitor to the museum is the kind of learner the emerging knowledge economy requires. If museums can satisfy them, then museums will have no trouble articulating their mission and thereby ensuring their survival into the future. By contrast, George Hein is more pessimistic about current museum practice, but he also argues for the democratizing potential of the museum as a site of “meaning-making.” Likewise, Andrea Wittcomb offers a distanced and somewhat skeptical summary of the current museological fascination with interactive technology.

The authors in Part Five, “Globalization, Profession, Practice,” remind us that administrative and pedagogical protocols (as Patrick Boylan shows), not to mention laws about property (which Patty Gerstenblith discusses), are becoming increasingly globalized. Globalization invariably has its flip-side—the theoretically intriguing possibility of the local cultural origins of curatorial and display practices in a world where museums are everywhere. Christina Kreps makes a case for such local origins in her discussion of museums in Indonesia. In any event, whether museums around the world are products of local visions or global protocols, visitors to museums are also increasingly international. Of the ten million tourists who go to Paris every year, most visit at least one museum, and the same applies to foreign visitors to New York or Washington, DC or London. Go to, say, any municipal museum in Greece in the summer or Ubud in Bali, or Waitangi in New Zealand, not to mention the District Six Museum in Cape Town and you are as likely to encounter, if not more likely to encounter, foreigners than locals. Add globalizing tourism to globalizing protocols and you have, as Mark Rectanus notes, the rise of the “blockbuster” exhibition, and civic planners all over the world who would like a version of Bilbao's Guggenheim to attract and capture a tourist market. So, globalization above all entails an increasing acceptance of the idea that a museum is a wealth-generating machine. But, as Bruno Fey and Stephen Meier emphasize, how museums are to be measured as machines is not a simple process. Blockbusters, for example, may appear to generate more profit than they actually do. But prestige is also important, if harder, to measure. So with globalization also will come a more sophisticated accounting of the economic costs and benefits of museums and their exhibits.

In the final section, “Culture Wars, Transformations, Futures” we return to what the new museology might entail for museums in the future. If the new museology emerged out of an increasingly powerful populism, it also was an attack on knowledge as a straightforward display of objectified facts. This shift, according to Steven Conn, is especially relevant for how and what science museums will display and discuss. Science museums are newcomers to the new museology, but facts in art museums or history museums are far more obviously politicized than in science museums, making them the places where the conflicts in, what came to be called, “the culture wars” first occurred, as aesthetic rubrics or historical frameworks were questioned and revolutionized. Curators in art museums, for example, routinely mount exhibits that reflect on or critique the aesthetic frames that museums once took for granted. Thus they welcome, as Mieke Bal shows by discussing her own efforts as a curator, innovative ideas from the perspective of cultural critique. Steven Dubin outlines the museum's role in the culture wars by comparing how museums in the United States and South Africa have mounted innovative and challenging exhibits dealing with racial segregation and cultural disenfranchisement. Such exhibits represent and generate conflict, but they might also allow, Dubin suggests, for reconciliation, as opposed groups find themselves compelled to share museumified space. Just as museums have become more politically engaged—and therefore democratizing in that sense—they also have been captured, as Nick Prior details in a more critical essay, by the superficial populism of the mass market. Museums have been “transformed into cultural multiplexes” even while they struggle to be politically and pedagogically relevant (p. 521). Ultimately though, according to Charles Suamarez Smith, who is the director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, museums will never become mere shopping malls or buildings housing the latest in interactive technologies, because they are repositories of valuable objects. Indeed he asserts that to maintain their integrity as institutions they must make what is beautiful, rare, and enlightening available to people in the future, not just the present. And that requires an inevitable conservatism.

This last point seems to square with Macdonald's vision as well. Like many of us who study museums or work in them, she is predisposed toward the populism of the new museology but also well aware of how that populism gets yoked to corporate or bureaucratic agendas that “produce uninspired and quickly dated museums” (p. 9). That is what you usually see so clearly when you study the museum as an outsider. None of us, outsider or insider alike, want that. So, as the new museology becomes increasingly the old museology, we must recognize that museum practice is still an art. As an art, it can never be entirely rationalized, nor can any exhibit worth doing be intelligible or interesting to everyone or anyone.

Eric Gable is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Mary Washington. He is the author (with Richard Handler) of The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg (Duke University Press, 1997). In addition to his work in museum studies, he has written extensively on the contemporary experiences of the Manjaco people of Guinea-Bissau, West Africa.