The Exhibitionary Complex

August 22, 2011

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The modern day museum is a place where historical artefacts are exhibited for the public to see. Whereas the prison is a place which has been created to house and facilitate the disciplinary actions towards those in society whose behaviour has been deemed unfit. Although these were not always the case. Tony Bennett argues that the display of historical artefacts prior to the eighteenth century was for private use and it was only at around the turn of the century that the public display of these items occurred. This is in contrast to the prison where prior to the eighteenth century the discipline of individuals was a public affair which then saw a progressive retreat of public discipline to a more private incarceration.

“[T]he scaffold and the body of the condemned – which had previously formed part of the public display of power were withdrawn from the public gaze as punishment increasingly took the form of incarceration.” [1]

This shift in display saw the knowledge/power relation of each institution shift and take on certain aspects of each other. The shift from the public display of discipline to private saw a shift in power relations, where the display of power that once took form on the very body of the criminal is replaced by incarceration institution which is integrated into the hierarchy of the state. Bennett quotes Foucault: “the scaffold, where the body of the tortured criminal had been exposed to the ritually manifest force of the sovereign, the punitive theatre in which the representation of punishment was permanently available to the social body, was replaced by a great enclosed, complex and hierarchized structure that was integrated into the very body of the state apparatus.”[2]

This is in contrast to the museum where the shift from the private to the public display saw the people witnessing the objects as “essential to the display of power as had been that of the people before the spectacle of punishment in the eighteenth century.”[3]

The shift in display also saw the creation of architectural problems to address the nature of prison and the museum. The Panopticon, is a Foucault concept for the prison which address the need for constant visibility of the incarcerated by having a central looking tower with surrounding cells so one guard has a constant view all the inmates. This form of surveillance has become deinstitutionalised and poured into other aspects of society. The museum for example, has been designed so that the artefacts can be seen by the public; however it is also design for the public to be seen.

“To see and be seen, to survey and yet always be under surveillance, the object of an unknown but controlling look: in these ways, as micro-worlds rendered constantly visible to themselves, exposition realised some of the ideals of panopticism, in transforming the crowd into a constantly surveyed, self-watching, self-regulating, and, as the historical records suggest, consistently orderly public – a society watching over itself.”[4]


[1] Tony Bennett, ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’, in The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, (London: Routledge, 1995) 59-60.

[2] Bennet, “The Birth of the Museum”, 60.

[3] Bennet, “The Birth of the Museum”, 59.

[4] Bennet, “The Birth of the Museum”, 60.

Adrian Rivalland

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