Cross-Purposes: Museum Display and Material Culture

Article excerpt

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. … 


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