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 taking 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 the museum from the muses to humanistic and renaissance attitudes about collecting is 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?
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