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The Journal of Aesthetic Education 37.1 (2003) 107-119

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Museum as Process

Carol S. Jeffers


Today's art museums are committed to completing major expansion and renovation projects, and vigorously carrying out their stated missions. 1 These missions typically are concerned with processes of acquisition, preservation, exhibition, and education. The National Gallery of Art, for example, is dedicated to "preserving, collecting, exhibiting, and fostering the understanding of works of art." 2 Similarly, the Getty Museum at the J. Paul Getty Center seeks to "delight, inspire, and educate the public by acquiring, conserving, studying, exhibiting, and interpreting works of art." 3 Such processes are strategic, of course, and give direction and purpose to the range of programs and services offered by these institutions. Ensuring that visitors are surrounded by works of art, "at the highest quality," these processes also give rise to a particular view of the museum as an "object of reflection, contemplation, and discussion." 4

Although unstated, I shall argue that art museums typically have other missions that are actively, if insidiously implemented through processes of representation (re-presentation), socialization, institutionalization, and commodification.The museum functions as a "socializing institution," that both represents and presents cultural assumptions, as well as social and aesthetic values to young and old alike. 5 These processes succeed in establishing an "ideology of aesthetic autonomy — the compartmental conception of fine art that segregates it to the separate realm of the museum." 6 Simultaneously, they present "ideology in material form." 7 The museum itself is a representation that tends to take on an independent and ultimately self-reflecting existence. In a Debordian view, "it is a spectacle, which, in its generality, is a concrete inversion of life, and as such, the autonomous movement of 8 [End Page 107] non-life." Through processes of representation and commodification, the spectacular museum is constructed as a frame that influences the public perception of art and society. Moreover, this ideological frame influences how the public experiences constructs of time and place, and how it comes to know about art in relation to the real world.

Today's thriving art museums — and the various processes that deliver both their overt and covert missions — are likely to have a greater impact on society than ever before. With such potential, it seems especially important at this juncture to examine critically the art museum as process; to deconstruct that which has been "constructed as a symbol in Western society since the Renaissance." 9 In undertaking such an examination, then, the first task is to describe current museum impact on the public. Of special concern are questions about what the museum represents to its visitors, particularly to young students and teachers, and how these representations shape constructions of knowledge, conceptions of art, and roles for visitors and artists. Contemporary representations themselves raise questions about the historical context in which they originated, developed, and were carried forward. As a second task, then, this essay will present a historical-critical analysis that integrates several theoretical perspectives on the origins, development, and implications of the Western museum and its various processes. Next, I will consider the possibility and implications of visitor impact on museum processes. This last section includes examples of alternative museum approaches whose mission is implemented through active visitor participation in processes of conversation and community.

Collecting and Exhibiting:
The Museum as Sacred Grove

The museum as a symbol in Western society is apparently recognized and understood as such, even by its youngest members. Children in the United States, Canada, and France, for example, can offer definitions of an art or other museum, and know how to "act and react" within one, even though they may have had extremely limited ornoprior museum experiences. 10 To these children, a museum is a venerable, quiet place, "like the library." 11 When asked, "what is a museum?" children typically respond with: "a place to collect things," or "a big place where lots of people go" to see "old stuff" and "lots of pictures." 12 In general, children seem to view museums as sites for exposition, and as repositories for...


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