Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge

By Eilean Hooper-Greenhill | Go to book overview
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A useful past for the present

The successes and failures of history

Museums have been active in shaping knowledge over (at least) the last 600 years. During the period of the Renaissance episteme, the classical age, and the modern age, a variety of both structures of knowledge and rules for the production of truth can be observed to have been in operation. Accumulation of material things, both natural and artificial, have always been one of the ways in which it has been possible to know the world, but cabinets, studioli, Theatrum sapientiae, repositories, and ‘museums’ have been constituted according to the prevailing epistemological context, and have, therefore, enabled different possibilities of knowing according to the rules and structures in place at the time.

There is no essential museum. The museum is not a pre-constituted entity that is produced in the same way at all times. No ‘direct ancestors’ (Taylor, 1987:202), or ‘fundamental role’ (Cannon-Brooks, 1984:116) can be identified. Identities, targets, functions, and subject positions are variable and discontinuous. Not only is there no essential identity for museums, as the case-studies demonstrate, but such identities as are constituted are subject to constant change as the play of dominations shifts and new relations of advantage and disadvantage emerge. ‘Truth is of the world: it is produced by virtue of multiple constraints’ (Foucault, 1977b:13).

The successes of history belong to those who are capable of seizing these rules, to replace those who had used them, to disguise themselves so as to pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them; controlling this complex mechanism, they will make it function so as to overcome the rulers through their own rules.

(Foucault, 1977c:151)


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