The Art Museum as Ritual

Article excerpt

The literature about art museums tends to represent them either as collections of things or as distinctive works of architecture. Museum catalogues, for example, itemize the holdings of particular institutions; the museum is treated not as a place but as an accumulation of distinctive and unique objects. Meanwhile, architectural writing concentrates on the kind of artistic statement a museum building itself makes or the way it solves practical problems such as lighting or traffic flow. But art museums are neither neutral sheltering spaces for objects nor simple architectural products; rather, they are complex totalities that include everything from the building to the selection and ordering of collections and the details of their installation and lighting. In my view, this totality is best understood as a ritual setting, a ceremonial monument in its own right and not just a container for other monuments. By approaching art museums in this way, we can, I believe, more fully grasp not only the meanings that art museums impose on the objects they display but also those they project onto the social and political world outside the museum's walls.

Since their appearance in the late eighteenth century, art museums have regularly been compared to older ceremonial monuments such as palaces or temples. Indeed, through most of their history they were deliberately designed to resemble them. One might object that this borrowing from the architectural past is only metaphoric; after all, museums are secular institutions, and in the secular/religious terms of our culture, "rituals" and "museums" are antithetical. Rituals are associated with religious practices--with the realm of belief, magic, and miraculous transformations. Such goings-on bear little resemblance to the contemplation and learning that art museums are supposed to foster. But in fact, rituals in traditional societies may be quite unspectacular, informal, and contemplative, while our supposedly secular culture is full of ritual situations and events, very few of which (as Mary Douglas has noted) take place in religious contexts.(1) Like other societies, ours, too, builds sites that publicly represent beliefs about the order of the world, its past and present, and the individual's place within it.(2) Museums of all kinds are excellent examples of such microcosms; art museums in particular--the most prestigious and costly of all museums--are especially rich in this kind of symbolism and even equip visitors with maps to guide them through the universes they construct. Once we question our Enlightenment assumptions about the sharp separation between religious and secular experience--that the one is rooted in belief while the other is based in objective rationality--we may begin to glimpse the hidden--perhaps the better word is disguised--ritual content of secular ceremonies.

We can also appreciate the ideological force of a cultural experience that claims for its truths the status of secular, that is, objective, knowledge. To control a museum means precisely to control the representation of a community's highest values and most authoritative truths. It is also the power to define the relative standing of individuals within that community. Those who are best prepared to perform its ritual--those who are most able to respond to its various cues--are also those whose identities (social, sexual, racial, or ethnic) the museum ritual most fully confirms. It is for this reason that museums and museum practices can become objects of fierce struggle and impassioned debate. What we see and do not see in art museums--and on what terms and by whose authority we do or do not see it--is closely linked to larger questions about who constitutes the community and who defines its identity. At the same time, however, art museums are not always or entirely reducible to sociological or political description. It is precisely their complexity-their existence as cultural objects as well as social, political, and ideological instruments--that makes the idea of the museum-as-ritual so attractive. …