- Exhibitionary Complexity: Reconsidering Museums’ Cultural Authority
People in the United States trust museums, implicitly granting them tremendous authority to guide us through unfamiliar places and eras, to tell us the truth about our world and ourselves. In May 2001, a survey sponsored by the American Association of Museums revealed that at least 80 percent of every demographic group measured believed museums were a more trustworthy source of objective information than books or television.1 In the late 1980s, as museum studies programs proliferated and the culture wars burned through campuses and Congress, scholars began to investigate how and why museums wielded this cultural power. By the early 1990s, an academic master narrative of museum history had emerged: museums derived their authority from the consolidated liberal state, which employed them to inculcate an uneducated public with self-serving ideologies and to reinforce existing social and political hegemonies. At the same time, Australian cultural critic Tony Bennett developed a more sophisticated version of this theory: an “exhibitionary complex”—his term for the constellation of expositions, department stores, and museums in nineteenth-century Europe and North America—provided public spaces and modes of classification that helped the masses become “a voluntary, self-regulating citizenry.”2
In the last several years, these overarching storylines have fractured. Museum studies scholars have become more determinedly historical, trading broad theoretical categories for the disarray of contingency and context, and have [End Page 1143] opened up a new range of questions in the process. Interest in recent history has also cracked open the field; more than three-quarters of today’s active museums were established after 1945, and they haven’t consolidated knowledge, power, or objects as firmly as their predecessors did.3 Museum studies scholars now find themselves studying institutions and cultural economies that destabilize categories they once took for granted—specimen, public, even museum. While scholars are still tracing the process by which museums convince diverse publics to grant them authority, for this second generation of museum scholarship, the keyword is not hegemony but negotiation.
The books reviewed here exemplify this shift in the historiography. Both use Bennett’s more nuanced rendering of museum authority as a starting point, but refine his concept to account for national, disciplinary, and temporal contingencies. In contrast—and perhaps in reaction—to the field’s early literature, the books under review express comparatively optimistic perspectives on museums’ potential to encourage genuine public debate and intellectual exchange. Despite the radical differences of their topics, these authors all cast museums as laboratories, universities, or community centers, rather than prisons, hospitals, and asylums. Museum Frictions, an edited anthology, provides a series of case studies that illustrates how the complexities of globalization affect the earlier narrative, while Les Harrison’s The Temple and the Forum focuses on public perceptions of nascent museums in the antebellum United States. Both succeed in changing the frame, if not the terms, of the study of museums and their authority, and map out exciting new directions for the field’s literature.
The issue of museums’ authority lies at the heart of Museum Frictions: Public Cultures/Global Transformations, an anthology edited by, among others, Ivan Karp, Corinne A. Kratz, Lynn Szwaja, and Tomás Ybarra-Frausto. Written over six years of meetings on four continents, featuring seven editors and eighteen authors, the anthology is, as one would expect, a grab bag. It’s too uneven and too bulky to be a cover-to-cover read, but a few of the essays—those by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Martin Hall, Leslie Witz, Ingrid Muan, and David Bunn—are real standouts. Museum Frictions follows two other well-known anthologies edited by Emory-based anthropologists Karp and Kratz, Exhibiting Cultures (1991) and Museums and Communities (1992). All three explore museums’ roles in rapidly changing pluralistic...