Cross-Purposes: Museum Display and Material Culture

By Petrov, Julia | Cross Currents, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Cross-Purposes: Museum Display and Material Culture


Petrov, Julia, Cross Currents


A museum is not a univocal medium: it is a complex of narrative strategies, objects, spaces, texts, and images. Its messages are produced by both curators and audiences and compete for dominance simultaneously. Exhibitions serve a representative function and therefore take artifacts out of their primary contexts, endowing them with new meanings and layering them with esthetic and historical values. Some classes of objects resist reinterpretation, and of these, this paper will focus on fashion, as a commodity that cannot be completely divorced from consumer context.

Museums and meanings

Museums, galleries, and the objects within them both shape and represent knowledge. As study collections, they form the basis of research that transforms the material into the intellectual; as spaces of display, they interpret the intellectual through the material. "The museum possesses capacities for gathering fragments of knowledge into coherent patterns and for imparting information to great numbers of people" (Whittlin 1949: 202). They show and tell (Bennett 1995: 349) and both these functions are assumed to go hand in hand.

The urge to create any kind of narrative from objects is a historical result of Western epistemological attitudes. While Arthur MacGregor's (2007) work on collectors and collecting traced this implicitly, Eilean Hooper-Greenhill's (1992) volume Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge arguably remains the definitive text which provided a reading of the structures of different types of collections and museums as being organized according to complementary theories of classifying the world. Crucially, she views the museum not just as a cultural form, but also as a constructed object, which has followed an intellectual logic. Hooper-Greenhill applies a formalist analysis to the layout of objects within a museum space, arguing that this not only represents the world-view of the author of the space, but also shapes the understanding of the on-looker. In a later book, Hooper-Greenhill reiterates her argument that the physical position of an object is deeply related to its conceptual position within a museum, but concedes that the meaning is produced "through complex and multi-layered museo-logical processes where museum objectives, collecting policies, classification methods, display styles, artefactual groupings, and textual frameworks come together in articulation" (2000: 124). This is a useful reminder that not one of the individual details within the mechanism of an exhibition is arbitrary, nor do these represent final and fixed meanings. All are products of a series of contingent choices, and all are subject to the sometimes-unpredictable interpretive process of the audience.

The narrative of the traditional museum display is related to methods of classifying knowledge more broadly. Arising alongside literary forms, such as atlases, and later, encyclopedias, and combined with the accumulation of global souvenirs in collector's cabinets, by the nineteenth century, the contents of the museum were organized according to intellectual categories superimposed upon objects. Although differences necessarily existed in different geographical contexts and disciplines, the intellectual project of collecting the world remained relatively stable. Tony Bennett has written convincingly of the connection between the simultaneous evolution of the ordering systems for things and ideas, which he calls "the exhibitionary complex":

  For the emergence of the art museum was closely related to that
  of a wider range of institutions--history and natural science
  museums, dioramas and panoramas, national, and later, international
  exhibitions, arcades and department stores--which served as linked
  sites for the development and circulation of new disciplines
  (history, biology, art history, anthropology) and their discursive
  formations (the past, evolution, aesthetics, man) as well as for
  the  development of new technologies of vision. 

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Cross-Purposes: Museum Display and Material Culture
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.