Book Reviews -- on the Museum's Ruins by Douglas Crimp with Photographs by Louise Lawler / the Cultures of Collecting Edited by John Elsner and Roger Cardinal / Museum Culture Edited by Daniel J. Sherman and Irit Rogoff

By Gaskell, Ivan | The Art Bulletin, December 1995 | Go to article overview
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Book Reviews -- on the Museum's Ruins by Douglas Crimp with Photographs by Louise Lawler / the Cultures of Collecting Edited by John Elsner and Roger Cardinal / Museum Culture Edited by Daniel J. Sherman and Irit Rogoff


Gaskell, Ivan, The Art Bulletin


DOUGLAS CRIMP On the Museum's Ruins Photographs by Louise Lawler. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993. 348 pp.; 112 b/w ills. $29.95

JOHN ELSNER AND ROGER CARDINAL, EDS. The Cultures of Collecting Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994. 312 pp.; 59 b/w ills. $39.95; $18.95 paper

DANIEL J. SHERMAN AND IRIT ROGOFF, EDS. Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994. 302 pp.; 25 b/w ills. $19.95 paper

As Donald Preziosi has noted in these pages,(1) the literature on museums is immense: more has appeared in the past decade than in the previous century. Much the same can be said of the literature on collecting. This review alone considers the products of no fewer than twenty-eight authorial intelligences (twenty-six writers, one interview subject, and one photographer) on the subjects of collecting and museums.

One might expect to find a considerable variety of opinion, approach, and reference among so many authors. Although there are certainly some exceptions, most operate within a narrow band of opinion and a limited framework of reference, however varied their subject matter may be. Most are teachers in tertiary education. Many refer to a small number of past writers for the authority of their opinions, notably Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Michel Foucault, all of whom have had interesting things to say about collecting, museums, or cognate subjects. Few of the present authors live up to their predecessors in this respect.

The first issue I wish to address is that of distinction: distinction, first, between individual collecting and museums, and, second, among different museums. Sometimes these (and other contemporary) texts imply that we can treat the practice of individual collectors and museums as a continuum admitting of differences of degree; at other times they imply a difference in kind between individual collecting and museum practice. This diversity admits a convenient alternation of authorial interpretation, writers sometimes casting individual collecting as good, sometimes reprehensible. The same applies to museum practice. The change from individual collection in a domestic setting to public institution (of, for instance, Sir John Soane's collection and London residence donated to the British nation by Act of Parliament in 1833, discussed by John Elsner

Elsner and Cardinal, pp. 155-761) can be interpreted as either a shift of degree on a common scale, or a change in kind. But which interpretation is appropriate and when, in accordance with rational argument rather than rhetorical convenience?

If we must be thoroughly aware of the ambiguity of the relationship between individual collecting and museums, we must also be aware of similarly ambiguous relationships among museums. The range of museums referred to in the volumes under review spans the breadth of institutions usually described by that term. It includes the Museum of Advertising and Packaging in Gloucester, England (its founder, Robert Opie, is interviewed by Elsner and Roger Cardinal

Elsner and Cardinal, pp. 2548

), the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. (examined by Anne Higonnet

Sherman and Rogoff, pp. 250-64

), the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem (analyzed by Ariella Azoulay

Sherman and Rogoff, pp. 85-109

), and the Altes Museum, Berlin (discussed by Douglas Crimp

Crimp, pp. 2823-25

). These alone represent a huge variety in terms of culture, scale, ostensible purpose, collections, patronage, and management.

Confinement of discussion to common characteristics easily masks the considerable differences among these and other museums discussed in the three volumes. The resultant entity is expunged of distinctions and leads a textually singular existence as "the museum." Not only does the term "the museum" (as though characterizing all museums) suggest an essentialism supposedly eschewed by many of the authors themselves, but it also partakes of caricature, a genre that depends on exaggeration and simplification more fitted to polemic than to scholarship.

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Book Reviews -- on the Museum's Ruins by Douglas Crimp with Photographs by Louise Lawler / the Cultures of Collecting Edited by John Elsner and Roger Cardinal / Museum Culture Edited by Daniel J. Sherman and Irit Rogoff
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