How Museums Dupe You

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During a recent trip to the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) I saw this critique of museums written on the wall. It was cool to see a critique of museums in a museum, and frankly it made a lot of sense. 

It pointed out that the art and items and sculputres I was looking at - mostly Indigenous and exotic - were obviously bare of any of the original meaning/context in which they were made. This might not seem like too big a deal, but it changed my experience at the museum. Instead of just browsing and looking around I kept getting pulled into imagining what it might have felt like to be inside the mind, heart, and world that dreamed up and created the piece of art I was admiring. 

SAM mask

Take the image to the right as an example. It's a beautiful mask. Pretty fricken amazing actually. And strangely capivaiting to my little Colonial brain.

But the background is totally white. There's no context that comes with the mask. No setting, geography, religious significance, craftsmanship, pride, or corresponding worldview  - important features of the art that would have all been present when it was first dreamed up and created. Devoid of all this, is the mask still the mask it was when it was made? Nope.

The Museum is Flat

"The museum is a space of displacement," Do Ho Suh reflected. "Every object in a museum has been moved from its original context and placed on a pedestal. It is all flattened out. A tenth-century Buddhist statue sits next to a Joseon dynasty ceramic bowl. While it is not possible to give the entire context of the pieces, it is time to rethink how we see these objects, how the pieces are put together to tell an overall story."

Suh voices one of the fundamental issues in museum practice, which was expressed in 1925 by French poet Paul Valery, who wrote of the museum's "cold confusion... [where] a dazzling bust appears between the legs of a bronze athelete." Valery was overwhelmed by the sheer number of objects, not to mention the de-contextualized assmbly of objects from very different cultres, time periods and artistic genres.

How can we respond to Suh and Valery, and a thousand other critics who love art and beauty but chafe at the contradictions the modern museum imposes? Is it possible to recover the original meaning of things, or even to make the attempt? Is it enough simply to recognize the problem? Suh concedes that he does not know all the answers, but offers a modest suggestion.

"The walls seperating galleries need to be more permeable than they are now. The museum should provide a more fluid experience, as if everything were connected."

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1 comment

  • Comment Link Nancy Van Kirk Saturday, 01 September 2012 15:28 posted by Nancy Van Kirk

    How Museums Dupe You makes a valid point that needs to be kept in mind for all visits. Good interpretation and discussion can bring out some points that are missing from the static display of objects but these need some media such as guides or videos. The suggestion about more permeable walls will not solve the lack of context, I think, and has been tried in such places as the Barnes Museum. It can give you some connections but the juxtaposition tells more about the curator than the objects. The fact that the Seattle Art Museum is reminding its public of the limitations in front of them is a good sign because museums have known this since the beginning but have rarely suggested that it is part of the experience they offer. It is worth remembering too that but for their actions there would be no such viewing experience at all.

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