Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums

Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums

Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums

Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums


Illustrated with over fifty photos, Civilizing Rituals merges contemporary debates with lively discussion and explores central issues involved in the making and displaying of art as industry and how it is presented to the community.Carol Duncan looks at how nations, institutions and private individuals present art, and how art museums are shaped by cultural, social and political determinants. Civilizing Rituals is ideal reading for students of art history and museum studies, and professionals in the field will also find much of interest here.


Since their appearance in the late eighteenth century, art museums * have become steadily richer, more numerous, and, lately, more glamorous, as sites of cultural activity. The Museum Age, as Germain Bazin called our era, seems still not to have peaked, at least judging from the ever-increasing amounts of square footage that art museums can claim.

This book looks at a series of collections from what I believe to be a new perspective, namely, as ritual structures. The literature about art museums tends to represent them either as collections of things or as distinctive works of architecture. Museum catalogues, for example, normally treat only the contents of a collection. The “collection” is not conceptualized as a place but rather as an accumulation of valuable and unique objects. Books about famous collectors do something similar, usually narrating the how and when a collector gained his possessions. There is even a kind of adventure literature in which collectors or curators appear as clever sleuths or dashing heroes who track down and bag their art treasures like hunters or Don Juans. Meanwhile, architectural writers focus on the kind of artistic statement a museum building makes, or, more practically, on how its architect handled such problems as lighting or traffic flow. Where the focus is on collecting or a collection, the museum environment itself is often ignored, as if its spaces were neutral or invisible. Most guidebooks sold in museums take this approach, representing the museum experience as almost solely a series of encounters with discrete art objects.

In this study, I consider art museums neither as neutral sheltering spaces for objects nor primarily as products of architectural design. Like the traditional temples and palaces they so often emulate, art museums are complex entities in which both art and architecture are parts of a larger whole. I propose to treat this ensemble like a script or score-or better, a dramatic field. That is, I see the totality of the museum as a stage setting that prompts

* In Great Britain, there is an understood distinction between the art gallery and the museum that does not exist in the United States, where art galleries and museums of art are the same kind of thing. In this book, I am following American usage and will use the terms art gallery, art museum, or even just plain museum interchangeably.

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