Artifacts as Expressions of Society and Culture…

michelle straebler

In “Artifacts…”, authors Leone and Little raise questions about the accuracy of any history that does not examine itself. They suggest Peale and Nicholson’s work in post-Revolutionary War America, purported to be legitimate histories, were essentially “myths”. Seeking to justify the social hierarchy as predestined, these “myths” were intended to control the newly independent population, using the weight of science and government. Strategically, they would visually instruct others on how their world came to be and how to become model citizens in it – without the public questioning anything. Whether Peale and Nicholson were successful is unknown. What we do know is that Peale’s work in ordering human and natural objects would go on to set the standard for natural history museums, and Nicholson’s Maryland State House would remain unchanged for over two centuries. Peale’s categorizations, however, demeaned certain races. Eventually, this would be used against museums in repatriation efforts as these “genealogies” proved museums could not be trusted with native artifacts. Manipulating perspective, the State House emphasized church and state authority, encouraging citizens to be watchful of themselves and their neighbors.

Historians, the authors conclude, must be willing to reevaluate earlier peers’ work rather than readily accept the status quo.


This week’s essays consider the importance of seeing history/information with a critical eye in order to gain fresh perspectives. Leone and Little argue we must be able to honestly assess our own past and its preservation. Despite the authors’ recaps, unfortunately, this message was often unclear.

In “Technology…”, Isaac maintains that the overuse of media to tell the story of Native Americans led to the messenger becoming the message and the objects little more than window dressing. Yet I appreciate the museum’s focus on people, not things. It resisted interpreting objects and shaping our vision of the culture. As opposed to Peale’s myth-making, NMAI invited close observation of their process, thereby implying criticism of past gatekeepers, i.e., historians, museums, and society.

Rader and Cain analyzed the fundamental redesign of natural history and science museums in the Twentieth Century. Moving away from taxidermy to live, hands-on collections (e.g., The Exploratorium) likely resulted in more meaningful encounters with scientific subjects that inspired many STEM careers.

In “Thinking through Art”, Burchenal and Grohe’s SPP program opens young students’ eyes, encouraging them to examine and discuss artworks of interest to them. In addition to improving students’ critical thinking skills, this program creates ease with the unfamiliar, removing barriers that traditionally cause people to avoid museums. Greater self-confidence will surely follow, resulting in a lifelong relationship for these students with museums and learning – a positive outcome for society in general.


What role do generational differences play in deciding whether to make heavier use of modern storytelling devices?

(c) 2019 MuseumHawk, all rights reserved.

The Universal Survey Museum

In “The Universal Survey Museum,” Duncan and Wallach assert that the encyclopedic museum is an ideological construct; it proclaims the state’s political dominance via ceremonial architecture and manifests national ideals through the arrangement of the collections. This influences the visitors’ experience, effectively causing them to enact religiously suggestive rituals while absorbing the state’s socio-political values.

Duncan and Wallach place the Louvre at the pinnacle of universal survey museums; visitors take in “classical moments” that climax in the glory of French art as the ultimate inheritor of this greatness. French art embodies the achievements of these ancient civilizations becoming the height of civilization itself.

Conceived to rival the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York represents national pride and demonstrates the greatness of “the Republic” and moreover cements the Museum founders’ dominant social status.

Neo-classical design and visual logic reign supreme at the Washington National Gallery. With its select objects framed by precise architectural elements, art and space become one, announcing that the state embodies the aesthetic and intellectual legacy of Greek and Roman antiquity.


The encyclopedic museum grew out of royal art galleries that heralded owners’ intellect, refinement, and power. These galleries were for the elite by the elite until they eventually opened to the public ostensibly becoming palaces for the people. A closer look reveals encyclopedic museums as political instruments in their respective societies. In their historical transition from the private to the public sphere they realized the power to control cultural narratives.

Findlen’s tracing of museum attitudes from grandeur fit for the muses to more grounded concerns rooteed in humanistic and reniassance ideals about collecting are fascinating. Ultimately, the museum is both a place for learning – and conversion of the audience. Duncan and Wallach present convincing evidence that Louvre visitors internalize France’s greatness due to the Museum’s architecture and strategic design, with its imposing physical structure and meticulous details creating a narrative of art history as history itself. Colonialism, Goldwater points out, provided the objects for the ethnographic museum, which in turn became invaluable influences for western artists. Yet I wonder whether the ends justify the means? In many cases the objects were exoticized and exploited, raising questions about appropriation, and people and cultures were treated with disrespect. de Gorgas says historic houses captivate audiences with their immutable past thus objects can have a more personal effect on audiences’ emotions. I agree that there is still potential for control; the presentation can be manipulated even when objects and space cannot.

Questions for further research:

Do museum objects create bridges between cultures or do they sometimes emphasize the divide? Is there always enough context to appreciate what is on display?

(c) 2019 MuseumHawk, all rights reserved.