Museum, Media, Message

By Eilean Hooper-Greenhill | Go to book overview

4

Exhibitions as communicative media

Flora E.S. Kaplan

Introduction

Museum exhibitions are products of research, organized and designed to convey ideas. They communicate through the senses, the primary sense being visual, by a process that is both cognitive and cultural. This process encompasses the way people think about what they see and the meanings they attach to it. Thus, within given historical and cultural contexts, exhibitions are kinds of public, secular rituals in the Durkheimian sense of social representation of collective ‘self’. This view leads us to enquire about the nature of the collectivity being presented: who is presenting what? for whom? and why? The collectivity created and fostered by this process is also what is sometimes called ‘a moral community’, and finds national expression in museums (Anderson 1983; Kaplan 1981, 1994a, 1994b).

In recent years, in museums, the collective self being presented has come under increasing scrutiny with respect to both non-western ‘others’, whose objects are so often exhibited in western museums, and those ‘ethnic others’ within modern nations who claim recognition of a separate cultural heritage (sometimes as descendants of ‘others’ and sometimes not). In the past museums asserted a more singular vision. They organized and presented the results of scientific, technical and historical researches; and they interpreted an aesthetic and intellectual history rooted in the world view and interests of local political, economic and social elites. With the growth and downward spread of knowledge among increasingly diverse populations, especially in the nineteenth century, as part of a process I have called ‘democratization’ in emerging nation-states, new collective selves were created and recreated (Kaplan 1982, 1994a, 1994b).

The approach posited here grows out of long experience in the anthropology of art and material culture, and suggests a basis for looking at them in particular cultural, historical and political contexts in society. It is based on some seven years of curatorial experience with collections and exhibitions at the Department of Africa, Oceania and New World Art, at the Brooklyn Museum; on intensive anthropological fieldwork in art, in Africa (Nigeria) and the New World (Mexico); in conjunction with more than twenty years of university-based

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