Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 11, 2004
Donald Preziosi and Claire Farago, eds. Grasping the World: The Idea of the Museum Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2004. 804 pp.; 68 b/w ills. Paper $70.00 (0754608352)

Grasping the World: The Idea of the Museum effectively presents the dominant present-day academic ways of understanding museums and contains a range of material not duplicated in any other volume. And considering its length, the book is reasonable in price. The editors’ introductions are lucid, and the essays, which consider a range of topics, are strong. I will begin this review by briefly summarizing the subjects of the essays in the various parts of the book and then offer my evaluation of the volume as a whole.

In the first section, which addresses the rhetoric of historiography, Hayden White argues that there is no objective way of showing the past as it really was. Michael de Certeau supplements that account through a historical understanding of psychoanalysis. Jean-Louis Déotte describes the founding of the Louvre, a museum that invented the modern “art of fragments” (53); Stephen Bann explains the poetics of the Musée de Cluny; and Mieke Bal analyzes what might be called collecting narratives. Collecting, she suggests, is a form of fetishism.

The second section is devoted to histories of museums. Mary Carruthers presents the art of memory; Giuseppe Olmi examines sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian cabinets, which are linked to the memory theater; William Ashworth describes natural history in the Renaissance; Paula Findlen explains how Renaissance art collections were structured; and Frederick Bohrer describes the collecting of Assyrian art in England and France in the nineteenth century.

Section 3 takes up activist issues. Donald Presiosi and Claire Farago argue: “The extent of our responsibilities as academics and intellectuals to link museology, history, theory, and criticism to contemporary social conditions is an urgent and painfully obvious issue” (229). Homi Bhabha deals with colonialism, asking whether we can approach each culture on its own terms; Donna Haraway presents natural-history museums and the social construction of knowledge; and Carol Duncan discusses the creation of the Louvre and the English National Gallery. Annie Coombes relates museums to the formation of national identities, while Beverly Grindstaff describes the 1904 World’s Fair, where nearly 1,200 actual Filipinos were on display. Sandra Esslinger discusses Nazi museums, describing how the “masses could be tamed and educated in a museum space, which trapped and spoke directly to the viewers in personal terms” (330–31). And Shelly Errington presents a grandiose Javanese theme park.

Section 4, “Observing Subjects/Disciplining Practice,” begins with a selection from André Malraux’s introduction to his Museum without Walls. Then Michel Foucault discusses the history of space: “We do not live in a homogeneous and empty space, but on the contrary in a space thoroughly imbued with quantities and perhaps thoroughly fantasmatic as well” (373). He goes on to explain how museums juxtapose several different spaces. Paul Hirst describes constructed space and subjects. Hans Haacke argues that museums are managers of consciousness, and Tony Bennett claims that they are interested in a “power which aimed at a rhetorical effect through its representation of otherness…” (420). Timothy Mitchell discusses Orientalism, and Craig Clunas the presentations of Chinese art in London.

The title of section 5 borrows Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach’s phrase, “Secularizing Rituals.” In their contribution, these two scholars describe the iconography of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Claudio Mazzaro re-creates the milieu of sixteenth-century collections of animals in Florence, where there were staged animal fights and copulations. Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann argues that Rudolf II’s Kunstkammer was a magical memory theater. Hans-Olof Boström presents a Swedish Kunstkammer, and Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny examine eighteenth-century museums in Rome. Magnus Olausson and Solfrid Söderlind discuss the Royal Museum in Stockholm; Rosalind Krauss’s “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum” argues that Minimalism prepared the way for the “utterly fragmented, postmodern subject of contemporary mass culture” (609). And Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska describe museum shops.

Finally, section 6, “Inclusions and Exclusions,” deals with the way that museums represent art and culture. Moira Simpson offers multicultural reflections, and James Clifford argues that the tribal artifacts in “Primitivism” in Twentieth-Century Art, the 1984 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, reveal a disquieting quality of modernism, namely “its taste for appropriating or redeeming otherness” (639). The curator Susan Vogel says, “African art has not been included in art museums long enough for its presence to be accepted unthinkingly” (653). An intemperate lecture by Rasheed Araeen’s given at the Slade School of Art also critiques Western ways of thinking about “primitivism.” Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge describe Indian museums; Néztor García Canclini discusses multiculturalism; and Janet Catherine Berio and Ruth Phillips write on Native American art. JoAnne Berelowitz tells the story of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Andrea Liss argues that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum doesn’t “restore the personhood of the individuals who perished or who suffered immeasurably” (742); and Ruth Phillips describes long-term installations of African art in several museums.

Overall, Foucault’s reading of Friedrich Nietzsche—whose argument that knowledge, always linked with power, is never neutral—motivates much of Grasping the World. Following Foucault, these writers tend to deny that today’s art museums are linked with their premodern precursors. Suspicious of the claims of museums to represent the past or to present objectively a range of non-European cultures, the essayists are extremely mistrustful of the political agendas of these institutions. The book’s cover reproduces a photograph entitled British Museum Shop by Cummings and Lewawdowska, an image that nicely summarizes Preziosi and Farago’s ways of thinking. They are melancholy leftists. In their introduction to section 5, the editors write:

The authors accept the circumstance that corporate capitalism is … here for the duration. Artists and academics have no power to halt or even deter the grinding mechanisms of profit-production. What they can do effectively is to offer consciousness-raising alternatives to the mindless, spectatorial participation in the game-playing, mind-deadening social order we all unavoidably occupy. (482)

Thus, their goal is to promote critical reflection without seeking radical change.

The historical facts are not in dispute. Art museums are intimately linked with imperialism and nationalism. Their large collections exist because powerful nations wish to display their wealth. That said, I find it a little depressing that many of these scholars are so skeptical about and, often, so hostile to the institutions they analyze. (This is a broad generalization. Some of the historical essays in this volume do not take this view.) What the history of the museum teaches, I think, is that much progress can be made. Dismayed by their precursors’ “racist” ways of thinking, present-day curators seek to do better. Very aware that museum audiences in the past were traditionally privileged people, nowadays museum staffs make determined efforts to be inclusive. Real abuses of power occur easily and frequently in government, big business, or the hospital and insurance industries, for example. In the art museum, by contrast, you are usually free to look on your own terms. The viewer need not read the wall labels or go through the exhibition following the curator’s floor plan. And if you don’t approve of the gift shop, then you are free to keep walking. No one controls what you say to companions or how you respond to works in the collection. In this way, museums are essentially benign institutions. The worst that can be said of them is that, by understaffing, overworking, and underpaying their employees, they typically make life difficult for their workers, and that museums give undue influence to the very rich. The contributors to Grasping the World attribute too much power to museums. Were the National Galleries in Washington, D.C., and London to disappear tomorrow, that catastrophe would hardly affect the life of the larger population. Very many people care passionately about film, pop music, and other forms of mass art; high art in the museum, on the other hand, has a much smaller, engaged audience.

In thus being cautiously optimistic, I do not avert my eyes from real problems. For reasons that deserve full analysis, art museums, although they generally have public funding, remain tethered to the benevolence of the upper class. And as yet, their educational programs have not been entirely effective. But for all of their obvious problems, museums are one of the great success stories of bourgeois democracy. They demonstrate the power of capitalism to expand and to revise critically its ways of thinking. (Of course they also show the immense destructive powers of these industrial cultures.) The museum, an invention of Western Europe, is now found almost everywhere, along with related institutions—the market economy, democratic politics, and a real concern for human rights.

One odd feature of current museology is the felt hostility to this institution, which is shared by many diverse writers in Grasping the World. The discipline of academic museum studies will progress only when scholars find ways of advancing beyond the confines of the paradigm presented by Preziosi and Farago’s volume. Admiring their capacity to be critical, I regret that their positions are unlikely to attract most working curators. Museums need large audiences and so actively court the public. If certain shows are not popular, then curators will stage different exhibitions. Even so, museum staff members work hard to present difficult or unpopular subjects in an inventive, interesting way. In that way, they are essentially rational democratic institutions. If we scholars want to have any real effect, then we need to reflect on the practice of museums and offer an historical and political perspective that explains why this strange institution has proven to be so very successful.

David Carrier
Independent Scholar