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

By Nick Prior | Go to book overview

1
Introduction

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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