- A Transnational Museum World of “Intangible Pasts”
This is the third volume in a series of museum- and exhibition-related essays built upon a significant sequence of major conferences. In 1991 Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine edited Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display followed a year later by Karp and others editing Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture, both published by the Smithsonian Institution Press. The present work evolved through considerable brainstorming at several gatherings held between 2001 and 2005, generously supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. Whereas the first two volumes privileged museums in the United States and Western Europe, this one is primarily oriented to "Third World" museums, and transnational connections and comparisons. The authors are primarily anthropologists, sociologists, and historians of art. Although only one contributors might strictly be called an Americanist—Fath Davis Ruffins, a senior curator at the National Museum of American History in Washington—the project has significance for historians of American culture and politics as well as public historians, and should be placed alongside Thomas Bender's edited volume, Rethinking American History in a Global Age (2002) and other works that have appeared calling for greater attention to Atlantic history and what Akira Iriye and others have designated as international history.
Ivan Karp, a social anthropologist, was formerly curator of African cultures at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. He currently holds an NEH endowed chair at Emory University where he directs the Center for the Study of Public Scholarship. This third volume swings the focus of a project initially launched in 1989 even closer to his original interests. When the long-term enterprise began, its rationale "sought to assert a more inclusive narrative of the United States in contemporary and traditional cultural production, supporting, among other projects, exhibitions of African American, Asian [End Page 447] American, Latino, and Native American art both in mainstream museums such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and in culturally specific venues such as the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, and the Mexican Fine Arts Center in Chicago" (p. xi). This latest volume reaches almost entirely beyond U.S. borders, especially to museums in Latin America and Africa, but also Cambodia and what might be called satellite extensions of American museums, such as the Gehry Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain.
The editors and contributors forthrightly acknowledge that heritage sites and cultural tourism, especially in postcolonial situations, have transformed the social and political role of museums worldwide. As the editors note at the outset, "museums and heritage organizations have increasingly become sites and means for political contestation as well. At once facing inward to local constituencies and outward to wider audiences through relations to other museums and sites, these institutions provide ways to mobilize an internationalist—perhaps global—sense of local identities, histories, and concerns. They have become essential forms through which to make statements about history, identity, value, and place and to claim recognition" (p. 4).
The keyword throughout the volume is not so much globalization as it is transnational, both in terms of outreach as well as conflict. And the work might well be called prophetic as well as cutting edge. Since it appeared, for example, we have seen countless stories about the Louvre's new museum to be located in the United Arab Emirates (target date 2012), for which Abu Dhabi is paying $520 million merely for the Louvre's imprimatur and yet another $747 million for art loans, special exhibitions, and management advice. On the conflict side, we have the example of Peru's lawsuit against Yale University, seeking the repatriation of objects that Hiram Bingham brought back to New Haven from Macchu Picchu in 1912.
In addition, we now have hotly raging controversies involving the sale of stolen antiquities to such American museums as the Met and the Getty, chronicled in riveting though inconclusive detail by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini...