Museums and Philosophy – Of Art, and Many Other Things Part I



This two-part article examines the very limited engagement by philosophers with museums, and proposes analysis under six headings: cultural variety, taxonomy, and epistemology in Part I, and teleology, ethics, and therapeutics and aesthetics in Part II. The article establishes that fundamental categories of museums established in the 19th century – of art, of anthropology, of history, of natural history, of science and technology – still persist. Among them, it distinguishes between hegemonic (predominantly Western) and subaltern (minority or Indigenous) museums worldwide. It argues that relations between hegemonic and subaltern museums are often agonistic, and are compromised by claims of universalism on the part of proponents of the former. The article observes that most discussion of museums focuses exclusively and misleadingly on their public exhibition function, and contends that scholarship – not exhibition – is central to all museums. However, that predominantly taxonomic scholarship, while innovative and central to a dominant epistemology based on the observation of tangible things in the 19th century, was compromised by the epistemic shift to abstraction and experimentation in the 20th, which resulted in a loss of initiative and authority. Although epistemological changes currently in progress favor a renewed attention to tangible things as complex matrices to which museums ought to contribute significantly, the fundamental taxonomy of museums by collection type is a clog on the ability of museum scholars to engage with and themselves produce big ideas. In order to function well as sites of scholarship in the future, museums will have to be far more adaptable and attentive to a wider range of things and ideas (including Indigenous ideas incompatible with Western assumptions) than their existing collection divisions permit.