Temple of the Truth or Forum for Identities?

What is a museum for?

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On the one hand, blockbuster shows at major museums like the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan constantly reshape the cultural landscape by using their immense authority to elevate, redefine, or ignore artists and movements. On the other, historical and ethnological museums (and art museums too) are on the front lines of the culture wars, balancing the claims of specific communities for justice (Native Americans demanding new respect for their sacred objects; veterans demanding control over how World War II is depicted) against the need to serve a wider public or a broader concept of the 'truth.'

In this atmosphere, scholars and theorists are taking a hard look at the museum -- what it was, is, and ought to become. Steven D. Lavine and Michael Karp, editors of a compilation of museum theories published by the Smithsonian, see the museum as a combination of 'temple' and 'forum' -- authoritative definer of culture and marketplace of competing ideologies and identities. They point out that the era of the definitive museum exhibition is over; that there is no way to organize an exhibition that will not be contested -- especially as the museum continues to reach out to marginalized communities and their diverse identities. A struggle to abandon the traditional white, male, Eurocentric point of view in exhibition design is leading to innovations -- a British Columbia museum exhibits Native artifacts not in vitrines but piled together as if for a potlatch; a recent exhibition of Indian art in Paris and New York abandoned chronology and organized the works according to a complex scheme from medieval Indian aesthetics.

Innovations notwithstanding, many observers are pessimistic about the museum's role. Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, the Australian scholar Tony Bennett points out that the modern museum was the successor of lively, unruly fairs and shows -- and that in becoming a disciplined and 'respectable' institution, the museum also disciplined its visitors, helping turn them into good, middle-class culture consumers. And in several essays in the book Museum Culture, German scholars note the almost inescapable dilemma of portraying Nazism in museums: ignoring it is inexcusable, but giving it traditional 'museum treatment' relegates it to a safe, 'dead' past. And to portray it in the currently fashionable 'interactive' mode, with lots of buttons to push and recordings to hear, risks turning it -- and any other painfully serious subject -- into pure entertainment.