The pilgrim and the shrine: The icon and the oracle

The pilgrim and the shrine: The icon and the oracle

The Pilgrim the Oracle A Perspective DUNCAN F~K(;USON and the Shrine: on Museology The Icon and for Tomorrow’ CA~II:K~)N Introduction Every morn...

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The Pilgrim the Oracle A Perspective DUNCAN


and the Shrine: on Museology

The Icon and

for Tomorrow’


Introduction Every morning, before it is light, a boy brings the newspaper to my door. While the house is asleep I read about the events of the past hours around the world. When I put down the paper, and think for a moment of the headlines of today, yesterday, the past weeks and months, I am shaken, unsettled, more than disturbed. It is as though the tectonic plates of values and beliefs that clad our world of ideas were shifting, colliding and breaking up what I have taken to be the ordered landscape of Western thought. New mountains are being thrown up; dark chasms are revealed. In this epoch of ominous change it seems that almost daily the tremors from ideological fractures bring down to rubble the structures of society. Arc we entering into anarchy or nihilism or chaos, or is the world reordering itself once more? I choose to believe that these great upheavals are no less than the creation of new landforms in the geography of thought, shaped as whole continents of difference drift towards each other, not to a calamity but with the potentials of harmony. I see it as much more than what every schoolboy now calls a ‘paradigm shift’, and much less, in fact not at all, as the end of civilization. It is, perhaps, the realignment of the world’s peoples and cultures and metanarratives,’ in a new configuration which, of course, we cannot yet envision. The millennium, that artifact of invented time, intrudes itself into this scene, but it is neither a cause nor a signal. This happenstance dots, however, give the soothsayers opportunities to predict either Armageddon or Utopia, and for the rest of us it does provide a convenient format for our speculations. What will or can be carried forward into the 2Ist century for the building of a more humane world? In a changed world of global cultural pluralism, new aspirations of tribal nationalism, collective rights to equity taking the place of the old democratic ideal of individual rights, and all grand mctanarratives being suspect and, appropriately I feel, being unenforceable, it does not seem likely that the institutions born, bred and cultivated by the old order will be with us. This is the dilemma of the North Atlantic enclave-Europe, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States-which has long assumed that its established institutions had lasting worldwide application, but are now found to be inadequate even at


A Perspective

on Museology



home. Among the institutions whose viability is questioned is the modern, public museum, that oddity which hoards, names and assigns meanings to objects of power. This 18th century invention of the enlightenment, born of reason’s victory over superstition and then corrupted by all the doctrines of racial and cultural superiority, is not well fitted out for today, let alone for tomorrow. Neither high technology nor more sophisticated techniques, neither the refinement of strategies nor finesse, will save the modern museum as we know it. Only a consummate metamorphosis will meet the demands of change. The museum must be dismantled and reconstructed, and such a miracle of transformation cannot be devised without a knowledge of the genesis. It is here that we are lacking, for we do not know the primal elements of this social phenomenon which has manifested itself in our Western culture as the ‘museum’. We cannot create the new because we know too little of the old. I suggest that research into the deep origins of this strange and pervasive creature of human societies-the museum-is the most critical museum research today. To undertake this task there must be new perspectives and priorities in museology. Museology The genesis of the muscum is to bc found in human behaviour in the distant past and in the present, throughout world cultures. The genesis of museology, on the other hand, is to be found in the last decades of the last century and the early years of this one. It was born out of the movement for universal education and its corollaries-free libraries, worker education and the decline of child labouras that movement evolved in Europe, Britain and North America. Out of the moves to educate the masses came a new definition of the museum, now seen as a part of the apparatus of schooling, whether for indoctrination or for freedom of thought being arguable. But in the late 19th century, and for the first time, museums were seen to have political value in the management of society and thus came under scrutiny. They had to bc financed, monitored, and given appropriate direction. The\- had to be critiqued for effectiveness and popular acceptance. Museology was born. To pursue this discussion of the new ‘science’, a definition of museology is needed. The word does get lost in the thicket of terminology we have inventedmuseonomy, musealia, museography, museality-and other museale epithets which I may have forgotten. Here, museology is taken to mean the study and critical analysis of the theories and practices ot collection-centred activities. The questions as to whether museums are, or arc not, in the service of society, the ethics of the content, structure and interpretation of their collections, or the validity of the museum’s ultimate and profound objectives arc subjects of such study and analysis. What is not of tnuseological concern are techniques, systems, technologies, marketing and management tactics or other mechanics. Museology is about ‘why’; museology is not about ‘how to. . .‘. My term ‘collection-centred activities’ demands explanation, for it clearly encompasses more than museums and art galleries, or even libraries, zoological and botanical parks, archives, monuments and historic sites. It includes hoards, treasuries, individual and family collections, grave goods and time capsules, charms, ex-votes and other objects deemed to be ‘sacred’ or having powers. It is





a term employed to signify the activity of selecting and assembling the stuff of the material world for whatever purpose. If we understood the purposes beneath the human propensity for collecting, behind our rationalizations of science, education, history, religion, aesthetics, remembrance and safe-keeping, which obscure more than reveal, then we would have no need to pursue these researches. I argue that we lack the necessary understanding.3 For the sake of simplicity, I use the word museum henceforth to refer to the place, or result, of collecting activity, falling back on the dictionary definition of a museum as ‘a building or place where (collections) are kept and displayed’. Origins

in European


A useful beginning in the search for a museum genesis is the study of museum development in the Western world from at least classical times and up to the 18th century and the Age of Reason. The 19th century and the revolution in public education then demand careful analysis. From there the museum in the 20th century, in Europe, Britain and North America, must be reviewed in terms of the education mandate, certain conflicts among the populists, scholars and proprietors, the international movement, and the museum as propaganda. Many of us, I fear, have been unable to see the forest for the trees when considering the history of the modern, European, or Western, museum. We have been too close to our specialities, our own museum institutions and the familiar fields of home. The Louvre, the Prado, the British Museum, and the ‘Met’, have always been there, and we have assumed the pedigree. Now we question it, and I would propose that we do so at arm’s length, which is to say that we study each other, and not ourselves. In this way, and with diligence, 1 believe we can dig out the roots of the muscum phenomenon as it has grown in Western culture. But having done so, we have only unearthed one, just one, culturally specific manifestation of the phenomenon. After that, with good fortune, our friends and colleagues in non-European cultures will share with us their understanding of this phenomenon in their societies, and then, and only then, may we begin to speak of the essentials of a museum dynamic and the array of its cultural variations. But first, we must understand ourselves. In studying our muscum past we must turn our attention to those collecting activities which have been both pervasive and persistent and which reflect fundamental human needs. We might, for example, look at relics, reliquaries and that useful display device, the monstrance. We will find relics of miracles, of art and of science, showing the presumed hand of God and the handiwork of manthe body parts of saints, rocks from the moon landing, the lens from Galileo’s telescope, and art made a relic in a bullet-proof monstrance, the Mona Lisa. The tangible fragments of the miraculous, of heaven or of earth, are imbued with magic and sanctified in museums. Grave goods become the stuff of museums. The furnishings for the afterlife signify immortality and we are spellbound. Even the founders of museums arc entombed in museum lobbies and on their front lawns. I can think of a dozen examples in America. The museum then becomes the mausoleum, the burial chamber itself, with the local Croesus surrounded in death by his or her worldly treasures, as passports to immortality. What is this all about?


A l’ersprctlve



It is also most important that we study private collections. These may be someone’s treasured possessionsand family heirlooms, or a child’s collection of fossils or souvenirs; a family snapshot album, flowers pressed in a book of poems, or a billionaire’s hoard of Old Masters. When studying private collections, however, the analysis must include not only content but provenance, structure, assigned meanings and those with whom the collection is shared, for private collections and public museums can be analogous in ways important to our research.’ There arc many avenues to cxplorc. Museums have paraded the spoils of war in their galleries for ccntures, mocking the icons of the defeated while enshrining the victor’s sword. The tradition is still alive. Science museums, since the time of the Wunder-kammern with their ostrich eggs, coconuts, nautilus shells and crystals, have been offering the public science education . What the public may have sought, and found, however, is magic, alchemy and the Wizard of Oz5 Works of art in both classical and modern times have offered an aesthetic experience, and in the centuries in between art has offered a religious experience. Do we assumeor understand the difference? Whv do WCwant museums to prove the perfection of the natural order-the symmetries and precisions of nature and the mathematical elegance of the universe-when science tells us that nature is erratic, fallible and even chaotic? As these historic museum themes are examined it will become clear that we are looking at two different initiatives which can be together or far apart depending on the time and place. One is the initiative of the individual and then the community to identify a special place for objects deemed sacred in some sense, where their power can be received and shared. The other is the initiative of those assuming authority over the society-kings, priests, tyrants and prophets-to establish a place where the symbols of their orthodoxy can be imbued with power and shared. ‘Sharing’, in the latter case, can range from a communion of belief to totalitarianism. We must also analyse our information bv criteria of fundamental human concerns-the mysteries of life, death and Immortality, power and our relationships to others, the evidence of God or the perfections of humankind-and do so while unrestrained by considerations of logic and reason. Thus, we will be looking at the human needs that museums have served and perhaps do serve now, in comparison with the museum as the purveyor of a rational curriculum. We must extend such hypotheses into our investigations of the museum in non-European societies. Keeping Places Amar Galla, the Australian muscologist, tells the story of an aboriginal band that was successful in obtaining a government grant to build a museum for its sacred objects.” When the inspector came to see the result, he was shown a small, plain building with no windows and one door. It was locked, ‘What kind of a museum is this?’ He asked. ‘This is the keeping place’, he was told, ‘and this is the way it is supposed to bc’. Ethnologists have reported many traditions for the keeping, or displaying, consecrating, feeding and blessing of ‘objects deemed to be sacred’ in nonEuropean societies. The early accounts are of the exotic and the later ones are as scientific as ethnology knows how to be. But we do not have sufficient



information about collecting, naming and meaning from a museological perspective. For th is WCmust turn to our colleagues who are both of and in the culture. As we share our growing understanding of the European phenomenon with them, and they share with us their cultural traditions of the museum, in whatever form and function, we will be approaching our objective of comprehending a universal museum dynamic, with all its shades and colours. Underlying this approach to new museological research are the assumptions that every culture has its own ‘museum’ traditions; that the European museum model may not be appropriate in non-European societies, and may in fact be ‘a festering, alien implant, infecting its host or doomed to atrophy and die’. These assumptions have been argued in my recent paper, ‘Marble Floors are Cold for Small, Bare Feet’.’ Such assumptions do, however, raise questions about the international museum movements before and after World War II, just as the argument that there are two primary initiatives at play in the museum dynamic raises the issue of the museum as a political tool. Our research will be providing us with new understandings of the ‘primal elements’ in the genesis of the museum. We may be considering them in the languages of anthropology, sociology or psychology, the logic and rationality of the Greeks, or in the transcendent spaces of spirituality, as we prefer, but there will have been uncovered a dynamic that can be observed, described and validated by our chosen criteria. We can look for the ‘museum in the service of society’, as Rivigre idealized it, or for the museum in the service of power, as others have had it.’ The museum has been used as a political tool in every period but is most usefully studied for our purposes in the 20th century, in the international museum movement, the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin, and in the struggles over museum education in America, for example. The International


The international muscum movement, that is the League of Nations’ International Office of Museums (1926 to 1946) and the International Council of Museums (1947 to the present, in alliance with Unesco) has sought not only international cooperation but also a consensus on ethics, standards and methods, and thereby museum philosophy. In the developing, non-European world, and I would think for all of us, this raises questions of cultural transfer, or export. I know of no reason to question the original objectives of these international movements which were clearly to preserve world heritage while making it accessible to the broadest possible public. Much of lasting importance has been accomplished, made possible only by central leadership and the cooperation of member states. The question is whether or not ICOM and UNESCO have gone beyond international cooperation to coercion through the setting of standards and worldwide education in European museum ideologies and methods. It is reasonable to examine the international muscum movement in the terms of our second initiative in museum development-‘the initiative of those assuming authority. . to establish . . . the symbols of their orthodoxy’? Some would argue that in the museum world, as in most things after World War II, the Europeanization of the world and the homogenization of culture was the thinly veiled objective of the United Nations and its agencies. Did the political and economic power of the North Atlantic enclave allow us to export the ideologies


A Pevsprctize on Musrology

for Tomorrozr

of the industrialized north to the developing south through the international museum movement? Museums and Propaganda In Nazi Germany, over two thousand heimutmuseums, reinforcing the myth of the super-race, were opened while other museums were censored and ‘decadent’ art was destroyed.’ Hitler’s architects planned the ‘museum of a vanished race’, to exhibit looted Judaica and prove the successof the ‘ultimate solution’.” It was a different pattern in Stalin’s Russia. There were propaganda museums to revise history and validate socialism, but there were also the over five hundred and forty public museums formed from the treasures of the czars and nobles, now held up as objects of pride in the new socialist state.” And an embalmed Lenin became the focus of the century’s most atavistic museum. Cathedrals became art galleries; sacred objects became art objects. And the official art-socialist realism-influenced art in the Western world. Today, the Lenin museum is closed; art galleries have become cathedrals once again, and the political statues from downtown Moscow have been put in a suburban theme park. But what have we learned about museums, and the art of inverting meaning through context, in which we stem to be so expert? In this we can defraud the most noble human emotions, and we must ask if we ever do such things, with subtlety, in the name of intcrprctation?

Museums and Education An understanding of how the museum came to be considered primarily an educational institution-a didactic, practical, three-dimensional textbookwhen our experience shows it to be a non-linear, experiential place of selfdiscovery is critical to our understanding of the social and political dynamics of museum development. The American muscum experience from the end of the 19th century up to the present provides a good laboratory for investigation. In the revolution for masseducation at the end of the 19th century the museum was seen as an extension of the school into the street. It had political value in shaping society. By- private rather than government initiatives, in the American tradition, museums flourished. Then ensued the classic struggle among those who governed and saw the museum as part of the apparatus of indoctrination, as were the schools; the populists who would throw the door open wide to a mass audience, offering a world of discovery and intellectual freedom, and the scholars who saw both the governors and populists debasing academc. Museums were to uplift the masses, inculcate Christian morality and established values, said the benefactors and founders. John Cotton Dana, ‘the quintessential museum populist’, and founder of the Newark Museum in the 192Os, wanted the museum to be a part of everyday life and thought a crowded museum was a healthy museum. In 1927, a year after Dana published ‘In a Changin g World Should Museums Change?‘, New York Universitv art historian Richard Offner told his students: A muscum should not bc a public pkyground. It is primarily for scholars and when actuated by a consideration of the public at large soon losesits force.”





The educational imperative has dominated not only American but all Western museums throughout this century, and the struggle among those who finance and govern them, those who manage and operate them for the public, and the scholars within, is still with us. Our research, however, may show that such struggles are less over educational purpose and effectiveness versus a forum for discovery ve’eTsus the rational pursuit of new knowledge, than they are about ownership, and utility. Surely the flourishing of museums in Nazi Germany had to do with political utility. The museum boom in England after the Great Exhibition of I851 was about economics and manufacturing. The museum explosion in North America has been in support of museums as utilitarian in schooling and indoctrination, and more latterly, for science museums in particular, as useful in job training for the industrial market. Today, museums are very useful for tourism-and again it is the economic imperative. When we carry this forward to a conclusion, it can be argued that museums as institutions which meet very basic human needs in coming to terms with self, others and the world in which we live, which is to sav, coming to terms with a tenable reality, have little political and economic utility. Their ownership does not command serious investment by the state. Museums that encourage tourism, manufacturing, job training, or contribute to social stability through the teaching of established values, on the other hand, are ‘valuable’. Summary I began by worrying about tectonic plates crushing my world, but where have I been since then? The first argument was that a ‘consummate metamorphosis’ of the modern museum as we know it was necessary. Secondly, that we knew too little of our beginnings to change so dramatically. And then it was said that if we discover our own, European, genesis, it would only be the discovery of but one museum manifestation. It would be necessary to learn from others of the muscum phenomenon as it had manifested itself in all world cultures. Then, and only then, I suggested, could we begin to understand the essential nature of the museum phenomenon. Two different initiatives were identified as being keys to the museum dynamic, which led to the statement that we were looking at the museum serving inherent human needs as compared to the museum serving up an approved curriculum for consumption. This led, eventually, to the museum being tossed about, used and abused, in the world of politics. And from there we came down to the unhappy proposition that the utilitarian muscum-at least those seen to be useful by those providing the funds-would be supported, whereas the humanistic or metaphysical museum would not. The issue is whether or not we know enough about the seminal museum to engender a positive and viable metamorphosis-enough to create museums for tomorrow, museums in the service of humankind, whose worth will be measured by their contributions to the quality of our lives, and not by their contributions to the market economy, the advance of an ideology, or the suppression of freedom. I suggest that WC have a moral responsibility to conduct whatever research is necessary to achieve such knowledge. We can then work to create museums, formed variously out of the world’s cultural traditions, which will contribute to the harmony of humankind which I so optimistically foresaw in my opening remarks.


A Perspective

on Musrology



Some Hypotheses In all that I have said here, wandering from topic to topic, there have been implicit hypotheses about the genesis of the museum, and with temerity I will try to set them out for readers to consider as the basis for further study: l







In all societies, individuals collect from the environment both natural and made objects, which they may alter by their hands, and to which they assign iconic meanings, in the sense that they signify something apart from their physical properties, vernacular name or value as barter. The selection of objects may bc idiosyncratic in some degree, but is derived from the extant cultural interpretations of reality and the prevailing social constructs. The collection is a sample of reality. The chosen objects, as a collection, will have structure, which is to say that each will have both place and a particular spatial relationship to the other objects. The collection is a model of reality. The individual collection, whether elaborate or as simple as a single talisman, will reflect the content, structure and iconography of a communal collection, which embodies the constructs or consensual reality. (A communal collection may be only of texts, songs and poems, rituals or other immaterial signs, but will be analogous to a collection of objects.) The communal collection, as an institution, will take on the power and authority of the icons it holds. It will be cared for by appointed persons who will see to its proper place, structure and interpretatron. The individual, in seeking out truths and the reaffirmation of cultural faiths, will turn to the communal collection and its keepers to receive interpretations of the icons, and bv communion, to share in their power. The individual will then make comparisons with his or her idiosyncratic collection with the expectations of revelation and the achievement of a personal, tenable perception of reality. The dynamics of this collecting phenomenon can be expressed in the Western language of the pilgrim, the shrine, the icon and the oracle.

In yet other terms we could say that all of this simply describes the human desire to create order in a world of chaos, perhaps to impose an order on an unruly world. Ccrtainlv that is inherent in what has been hypothesized, but in itself does not answer our questions for tomorrow. The ultimate objective is, as I have said, to create museums that will contribute to a more humane world. Should we find that the essential, perhaps universal, museum dynamic is one of creating order out of chaos, when that order can only be culturally specific, then even more apparent is the need for dismantling and the reconstruction to create a museum that can transcend cultural boundaries. Some have argued that the future museum can have no oracle, no authority. Certainly the authority of the curator/priest is widely questioned today. Others say that the museum’s possession of collections is the inherent vice. The future museum has been described as no more than a meeting place where ideas can be shared and where collections are useful only as occasional interpretive tools. I will not speculate here beyond saying that I know too little of the past to make predictions about the future. But the future begins tomorrow at sunrise; time is very short, and I urge you to join me in exploring our past so that we can be prepared to act with humanity and vision.






Notes I. This paper was first prcsentcd as a ‘principal communication’ at Colloquet MusCes et Kecherches, Paris, 29 Novcnlbcr-December 1~~3, organized by the French ministries of culture and of higher education. 2. For a discussion of ‘mctanarratives’, set David Harvey, The Conditton of Pojtmodesnity: an Enq~irl, into the Orzgtns of Cultural Changes (Cambridge, MA and Oxford, UK, Blackwell, 1992); pp. 44-45: ‘To begin with, wc find writers like Foucault and Lvotard explicitly attacking any notion that there might bc a mcta-language, mcta-narrative or meta-theory through which all things can bc connected or rcprcscnted. Universal and eternal truths, if they exist at all, cannot be specified. Condemning mcta-narratives (broad intcrpretivc schemes like those deployed by h,larx or Freud) as “totalizing”, they insist upon the plurality of “po\vcr-discourse” formations (Foucault), or of “language games” (L!;otard).’ 3. Much of the literature on collecting concern5 the content of collections analyscd by the appropriate academic disciplines, the collectorand his or her social and political context, and familial relations of the collector in the aristocratic world of dowries, gifts and alliances. For collecting as behaviour or as a social \!;stem, see: Jnmc3 Clifford, The Pvedicument of Culture (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 198X), or an abstract of a relevant passage in ‘On Collecting Art and Culture’, The Cultural Studies Reader (Simon During, cd.), (Routlcdgc, London and New York, 1994), pp. 49-73. Jean Baudrillard, Le Sq’st;me des objects (Gallimard, Paris, 1968). Wcrncr Munsterberger, Collccfing; An linrul]~ Passion: Psychological PerspcctZVej (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1993). The latter work is a Freudian intcrprctation of compulsive-obsessional collecting bchaviour, of less interest than Baudrillard’s classic work and Clifford’s insightful focus on museums and art gallcrics. 4. The Buttons on the RoaYd, an essay by American playwright David Mamct, dcscribcs idiosyncratic personal collecting so analogous to museum activity (and so in line with my own theories of collecting behaviour) that I recommend it to you. It appears in his rcccnt book of essays, T/7e Cabin: Reminrscencc and Diversions (Turtle Bay Books, New York, 1992). ‘Science Fiction: Arc Museums 5. See ~Vzre (Dunnd, Paris, 1989). 9. Germain BaTin, TJ7c Muwum Age (Universe Books Inc., New York, 1967) (translated from the French). p. 269. 10. For a description of the Nazi confiscation of Judaica in Czechoslovakia and Poland, and plans foi- a propaganda mubcum, see Th Precious Ixgacy: Judaic Treasures from the Czcchoslovak State Collectzons (David Altshulcr, cd.) (Summit Books, New York, 1983), pp. 17-44. 11. Bazin, op. cit., note 9, p. 269. 12. Karl E. Mcycr, The Art Museum: Porno; Money, Ethics (A Twtwtirth Centq~ I;und Krport) (William Morrow and Company Inc., New York, 197y), pp, 36-44.