Museums

May 2, 2012

In “On the Museum’s Ruins” Douglas Crimp suggests that the museum, alongside with the prison and the mental asylum, is another institution that should be analysed in Foucault’s terms. With the example of a Flaubert novel he explains the museum functioning as a collector of an absolute heterogeneity and through it questions of origin, causality, representation and symbolization are involved. The museum further relies on fiction to create the meaning of objects, founded in a belief that ordering and classifying can produce a representational understanding of the world.

Crimp’s analysis is seen as a bit narrowing by Tony Bennett, who further develops it in the chapter “The Exhibitionary Complex” in The Birth of the Museum. Bennett explains that the emergence of art museums was closely linked to a wider range of institutions, such as history and natural science museums, national and international exhibitions, department stores and more. These institutions all served as sites for development and circulation of new disciplines, their discourses and development of new “technologies of vision”.

Bennett states that the museums further developed the functions of the Panopticon, combining it with the concept of the Panorama. As I suggested in my previous reflection upon Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment, Beatriz Colomina’s analysis of Loos and le Corbusier houses is suggesting somehow more complex vision relations in architecture, changing roles of to see and to be seen, to positions of being a subject or an object. Colomina’s analysis opens up to an understanding of subject and object positions influenced and created by gender, ethnicity, class and sexuality. The exhibitionary complex functions in a similar way, complexly making people both subjects and objects of knowledge at the same time:

“Yet, ideally, they sought also to allow the people to know and thence regulate themselves; to become, in seeing themselves from the side of power, both the subjects and the objects of knowledge, knowing power and what power knows, and knowing themselves as (ideally) known by power, interiorizing its gaze as a principle of self-surveillance and, hence, self-regulation.” (Bennett, p 63)

For example, the Crystal Palace combined spectacle and surveillance, it was arranged so that everyone could see, but there were also vantage points where everyone could be seen. The world exhibitions sought to make the whole world, past and present, available in the assemblages of objects and peoples they brought together, and to lay it before a controlling vision.

Bennett shows how museums and other exhibitionary institutions have formed the nation-state through the ordering of things and people in a imperialist (and racist) manner, while creating a unified audience. The museums were important in the fostering and forming of citizens, enabling working class people to be inspired and learn from the manners of middle class people, creating certain forms of behaviour. The museums organized space and vision to function as organs for public instruction.

Where there music institutions of the time that functioned in a similar manner as the exhibitionary complex? Maybe institutions of music have and still are more diversified, but surely “fine” music as well as fine art and institutionalized exhibitions have served a similar function of forming, educating and fostering people, loaded with norms and cultural ideals of the nation-state.

– Anja Linna

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