Museums and Modernity: Art Galleries and the Making of Modern Culture

By Nick Prior | Go to book overview

2
From Court to State: The
Emergence of National Art Museums
in Continental Europe
All art objects bear meaning upon their production, display and consumption. Here, as Pomian indicates (1990), a relation can be posited between the visible (the collection, for instance) and the invisible (the past, but also taste, wealth, distinction and so on). We respond less to the intrinsic attributes of cultural goods, than to the symbolic meanings given to them (DiMaggio, 1987; Veblen, 1949; Bourdieu, 1984). Central to any consideration of the character and function of the museum, therefore, are the following questions: who is the collection for? Who sees or takes most meaning from seeing? Which social identities are at stake? What social function has the collection? And how does the gallery space operate to fulfil this function?This chapter pursues an answer to these questions in the form of a socio-cultural genealogy of the national art museum in Europe. There are two broad aims. Firstly, I want to provide a brief survey of the European art field and the position of the national art museum within this field, from around the sixteenth to the midnineteenth centuries. This is really an endeavour to construct a continental model or archetype – mainly of France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands – from which the English and Scottish cases are removed. Secondly, I wish to set up some theoretical parameters to the problem of museum formation in relation to questions of ideology and power: to the interests of cultural elites, mechanisms of state administration and forms of governance.To these ends, I have organised the narrative according to three historical types or profiles:
1. the princely gallery of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries;
2. the inchoate museum of the eighteenth century;
3. the relatively ‘pure’ space of the nineteenth century.

These are useful historical configurations that help to make the history of the art museum more intelligible and patterned rather than explanatory devices in

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