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Museums of Human Bodies

From: College Literature
Volume 40, Number 3, Summer 2013
pp. 156-175 | 10.1353/lit.2013.0034



This essay reflects on the role of contemporary visual technologies, traditional museum practices, and aesthetics in the enactment and suspension of human rights. It applies Walter Benjamin’s discussion of “aura” and exhibition value to argue that analyzing human rights through the lens of museum arrangement and display practices enables a comparative look at multiple spheres of social activity where human bodies are staged and made legible: war zones, residential environs, and the art world and its galleries. Such interdisciplinary focus helps show significant interconnections between military and artistic practices in sites of militarized, violent surveillance, creativity, and destruction and in sites of artistic production and circulation; it also demonstrates that aesthetic evaluation and exhibition value are fundamental means through which human bodies acquire and lose rights. The article concludes with a discussion of the human rights potential of radical curation in the works of Vik Muniz, Kara Walker, and Ursula Biemann.

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