In the 17th century, this bizarre collection made up part of the Chiefest Rarities in the Publick Theater and Anatomie-Hall of the University of Leyden, according to Museums, a brilliant study written in 1904 by the Englishman David Murray. There was also the skeleton of an ass upon which sat a woman that killed her daughter; the skeleton of a man, sitting upon an ox, executed for stealing cattle; a young thief hanged, being the Bridegroom whose Bride stood under the gallows, very curiously set up in his ligaments (...). Using extensive primary and secondary research sources and mind-boggling collection inventories, Murray gives a nineteenth-century, historicizing explanation of the museum. Not dull or pedantic, but written entertainingly and with passion: a must for those who have a love-hate relationship with museums. However much you may already know about the history of the museum, Murray pulls you into a fantastic labyrinth of objects and freakish structures.
Reading about the collections of medieval and sixteenth- and seventeenth-century churches, treasuries and curiosity collections, the antecedents of the museum, one is reminded of the senseless classification system in a 'certain Chinese encyclopaedia' in a story by Borges, which inspired Foucault to write The Order of Things. In this mysterious reference work, animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.
The classification systems of the collections Murray studied are almost as strange. Until the seventeenth century, the place occupied by objects in a collection was determined by their 'correspondence' with regard to material or size. Symmetry was also a primary aim in creating an exhibition. Thus were created the most extraordinary linkages, for example: an armadillo beside an ostrich egg; a cocoa nut beside a stone swan; a bird of paradise beside a remora. Most often, the exhibited objects were a hodge-podge of natural and artificial rarities, and were considered a spectacle whose main purpose was to amaze.For example, the anatomical collection at Dresden was arranged like a pleasure garden. Skeletons were interwoven with branches of trees in the form of hedges so as to form vistas. Things were selected according to the degree to which they deviated from the everyday and as illustrations of religious or scientific beliefs. A good collection always had giant bones, mummies, human skin, and a unicorn's horn, said to possess wondrous healing powers. New classification principles emerged in the eighteenth century. This was to Murray's relief, as he looked somewhat askance at the 'unscientific character of the first museums', which were based on 'metaphysics and theology'. As specialisation increased in all areas, art, science and nature became separate fields and correspondence became less important than difference. Separate chapters are devoted to Köhler's classification system and Linnaeus' ideal museum classification.
But in 1816, according to Murray, a museum was still often a collection Of unicorns and alligators,/Elks, mermaids, mummies, witches, satyrs,/And twenty other stranger matters. For Murray, the 'modern' museum is characterised by specialisation and scientifically responsible classification. The nineteenth-century Murray believes in science, progress and history. The museum should illustrate the growth and development of civilisation and the arts. Murray regards the museum as a humanistic storage depot for 'human' knowledge and skill, conveying the best of the best to humanity in an orderly, methodical fashion. How this should be accomplished is the subject of his handbook, suffering as it does from an infectious kind of overload. His conclusion is modest: The museum of 1897 is far in advance of the museum of 1847; but it in turn will be old-fashioned by the end of twenty years and when the coming century is half-way through its methods and arrangements will probably be wholly superseded by something better. We are ever moving onwards, but we do not reach the goal.
A devoted museophile, Murray could not regard the museum he advocated as an ideological construction - he was part of one himself. He could not evaluate the museum as an instrument of political power or a potential weapon for controlling history, things and people. For him the modern museum was a principally progressive, enlightened institution. The museum is still struggling with this image. The conservation of culture and nature is still seen as something noble and natural, an act that compensates for the large-scale destruction wrought by continuing modernisation. It would be difficult for museums to perceive that they are inherent to the strategy of the modern, in which the 'new' can only manifest itself if the 'old' is also produced. We have long since seen the consolidation of the kind of museum Murray desired. We are also witnessing an irrepressible global growth of museums. And if modernisation has run rampant, so has the museum: the way it deals with the world and its objects has expanded outwards. The musealisation of nature and culture has taken on the proportions of a genuine phenomenon of the times. Just as in the distant past, but on a much larger scale, the rare and strange (which may now be anything) is conserved and celebrated. One can only wonder if these preserved objects display any more coherence than the 'fantastic' classifications of long ago.
Of course, 90 years after Murray, there is a serious museum 'discourse' which goes much further than the hackneyed issue of whether a museum should be a temple or a laboratory. Daniel J. Sherman and Irit Rogoff, the first a professor of Critical History and French Studies at Rice University, the second a professor of Critical Theory and Visual Culture at the University of California, put together the collection of essays Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles, a critical analysis of the theory and practice of the museum. The collection 'focuses on museums as the intricate amalgam of historical structures and narratives, practices and strategies of display, and the concerns and imperatives of various governing ideologies'. Recovering the history of the museum is an important goal of Museum Culture, as the concealment of this history and the transformation of `History into Nature' has become a part of the business of the museum, according to the editors.
Fans of French theoreticians like Baudrillard and Jeudy - both of whom, especially the latter, have written about the musealisation of culture - may like to know immediately that they are not referred to here: Museum Culture is a museological examination, not a sociological one. The museum is not used as a metaphor or model to describe the state of culture, but rather is examined in terms specific to museums, from the viewpoint of their own history and practice. Museum Culture questions the museum about the role it plays in the formation and maintenance of social ideologies and power structures. In the introduction, it is with a certain pride that the editors note that they share a view of the museum with the authors, one influenced by the classification theories of Foucault and by Adorno and Benjamin, as well as critical studies of gender and colonialism.
Museum Culture is divided into Histories, Discourses and Spectacles. In Histories, the contribution of museums to the formation of national and local histories and identities is examined. The essays look at the relationship between the art museum and the creation of a German national identity in the 19th and 20th century (Detleff Hoffman); the ideological aspirations of the founders of the Whitechapel Gallery in Victorian England in their attempt to appeal to the 'people' (Seth Koven); attempts in the us in the last century to close the gap between museum and public (Vera Zolberg); the emergence of the 'eco-museum' in France and the degree to which it has influenced the idea of 'cultural and natural heritage' (Dominique Poulot); and the role of Israeli historical museums in the (idea) formation of a charged Jewish history (Ariella Azoulay).
Discourses is about the claims museums make about their enterprise, and is in my opinion the most intriguing part of the collection. In 'The Museum as Metaphor in Nineteenth-Century France', French historian and curator Chantal Georgel researches some of the habits which emerging institutions like the modern museum, the department store (the arcade/show window) and the press (specifically, the popular 'museum periodicals', 'printed' museums intended for a broad reading public) took from each other (habits of looking, display, spatial organisation, selling, vocabulary) and how they complemented each other as 'machines of capitalism' in its early phase. 'Quatremère/Benjamin/Marx: Art Museums, Aura, and Commodity Fetishism' by Sherman is a pre-history of museum criticism, in which he draws parallels between the insights of Quatremère de Quincy (an influential French art theorist in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and Secretary of the Academie des Beaux Arts) and those of Marx and Benjamin. Sherman's point of departure is the museum criticism formulated by Adorno in Valery Proust Museum. Adorno condemned museums as cemeteries of art that contribute to the neutralisation of culture. He rejected a situation in which people may only come into contact with art in museums as an artificial one. According to Sherman, Adorno comprehended both 'decontextualization as a strategy of power' and the direct link between the museum and trade. Sherman then takes a step backwards by revealing how anti-museum discourse began at the very appearance of the museum in the writings of the 'museophobe' Quatremère de Quincy (who wrote, for example: 'To displace all these monuments, to gather up in this way the decomposed fragments, to put the debris in a methodical order, and to make of such a gathering a practical course in modern chronology: this is, for a practical reason, to constitute ourselves as a dead nation; it is to attend our own funeral while we are alive; it is to kill Art to write its history; but it is not history, it is an epitaph.'). Sherman illustrates how Quatremère had already developed a theory about the commodification of art and the alliance of art and the marketplace. Here, he finds parallels with Marx's notion of commodity fetishism and Benjamin's theory of the decay of the aura.
The final two articles in Discourses emerge from specific practical examples: Boris Groys, known for his Über das Neue, analyses how the ideal of the Russian avant-garde, 'a unified, all-encompassing space of life in which everyday praxis would coincide with art', could not be realized by the avant-garde itself because it perceived this new unity as the stylistic opposite of tradition; in other words, it could not distance itself from a museum perspective. The Stalinist regime, however, was able to execute this project, a 'struggle against the museum', not by liquidating old culture, but by appropriating it at an ideological level. The consequences for art were fatal, according to Groys. German art historian Walter Grasskamp writes about the politics of the museological embrace of modernism in the Federal Republic of Germany. He concentrates on the first Documenta of 1955, 'reconstructing and discussing it as an incomplete, even inadequate answer to another German exhibition of some national and international importance, the campaign against `degenerate art' in 1937'.
Finally, Spectacles illustrates various moments at which strategies of cultural display embrace the technologies of spectacle. Frederick Bohrer, an art historian specialized in exoticist theory and practice, researches the notion of exoticism in relation to a collection of exotic, ancient Assyrian artefacts added to the British Museum's collection around 1850. He explores various ways the objects were exhibited, the social and institutional loci that determined their representation, and their influence on the emerging popular press. Irit Rogoff contributes a discerning essay on 'how strategies of display actually make the museum the funerary site of uncomfortable or inconvenient historical narratives'. She focuses on the manipulation of gender categories in reconstituting a mode of representation for National Socialist fascism in German historical museums. She concludes that 'museum displays, in their profound anxiety not to replicate the original seductive spectacle, have produced an equally dangerous gendered fiction that is rendering viewers politically neutered through humane empathy and historical mastery.' Anne Higonnet's contribution examines the ambiguous role of feminism in the creation and maintenance of The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington. The American critic and curator Brian Wallis concludes the book with his thorough essay on how nations sell themselves and practice diplomacy through large cultural festivals and spectacular blockbuster exhibitions. Lured by profit, museums all too easily allow themselves to be used for these organized displays of national self-promotion. They 'narrow our view of a country to a benign, if exotic, fairy tale', writes Wallis.
We cannot know what Murray would have thought of it, but Museum Culture is a substantial contribution to museum discourse. These essays have been written with the greatest possible knowledge, though their academic form might be tough going for those who prefer experimental theorising and gay science. The research areas are specialized and some of the authors stick too closely to the paths marked out by the museum itself - unfortunately, this is not really an anti-museum book - but taken together, the essays live up to their aim and 'call attention to the museum's presence and power in the broadest conceivable configuration of contemporary culture'. Those interested in the museum as a metaphor for culture would do well to read the more staid books as well, in order not to lose sight of what the museum, and thus the metaphor, entails.
translation JIM BOEKBINDER