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

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

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

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


Short-listed for the Philip Abrams Memorial Prize 2003Museums have been the subject of intense debate in recent years and their history and development raise important questions. What was 'modern' about the art museum? Why did museums emerge when and where they did? How were museums involved with the development of modern art worlds? What was the relationship between art galleries and their audiences and who were the key people involved with their inception?Focusing on the role of national art galleries in continental Europe, England and Scotland, this book explores in depth the interrelationship between artistic and exhibitionary forms, as well as between power and governance in those places where the roots of modern culture were being laid most visibly. Drawing upon debates concerning modernity, Prior investigates how the boundaries of art and culture have been determined within the museum world. In particular, he looks at the interface between the project of the nation and the gallery and how galleries were involved in making certain social groups or bodies feel 'at home' and others excluded.


To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction.

(Berman, 1983: 13)

Today it goes without saying, to paraphrase Adorno (1972), that nothing concerning the world of art museums goes without saying. In a climate of international brinkmanship and hyper-commodification art museums have become objects of intense scrutiny: academic, corporate, governmental, journalistic. They inhabit a space subject to the increasing excesses of the late modern in all its ambiguity, enjoying unprecedented global growth yet also being transformed beyond the limits of the museological as it was shaped in the modern age. The current interest is caught in a moment of cultural inflation, academic expansion and millennial tension. On the one hand, ‘saving’ Canova's Three Graces from export to the Getty Museum has been heralded as a ‘national victory’ in Britain. In the summer of 1994 the state refused to give the piece an export licence after a high profile campaign staged by the National Galleries of Scotland and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Instead, the neo-classical piece was sent on a national tour, boxed in its own installation space and ‘auratised’ with a set of celebratory exhibition notes. On the other hand, the developing fascination with museums is testament to the greater reflexivity that modern societies have performed towards their own institutions and material objects in general. Higher education, for instance, has witnessed the growth of ‘museum studies’ departments and courses that pore over the details of museum policy, object relations and social change.

Over the past decade, as a result, a body of work has developed in distinction to an unencumbered conventional history that has scrutinised the intricate social, political and historical relations that structure and are structured by the museum. Born of interdisciplinary exigencies and pockets of academic vision, this body of literature has begun the complex task of widening the scope of analysis in order to subject practices of collecting, classifying and displaying to conceptual probes drawn from the social sciences and humanities (Bennett, 1995; Duncan, 1995; Fyfe, 2000; Karp and Lavine, 1991; Lorente, 1998; Lumley, 1988; McLellan, 1994; Pearce, 1992; Pointon, 1994; Pomian, 1990; Vergo, 1989). In this nascent intellectual space it has become possible to level a new set of questions at the . . .

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