Temple of the Truth or Forum for Identities?

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.

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