PRINT March 1993

Museum Piece

Exhibiting Cultures and Museums and Communities

THE PERIOD IS STILL RECENT when the authority of museums was widely taken for granted, at least among their target audiences. Modernist museology seemed like a fixed, almost scientific practice that could not be altered. One often did not think of exhibition decisions as made by individual curators; it almost seemed it was the massive, monolithic institution itself that was making the choices. What that institution collected and showed had a kind of ultimate weight. Though one might complain about details, there was a brute facticity to the museum that seemed prior to such complaints, and out of reach of them—the museum was simply a given.

Two recent books show how radically that situation has changed. Collections of papers delivered in colloquia at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C., in 1988 and 1990, they attempt to chart new directions in museological praxis and discourse. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, edited by Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine, contains the papers from the 1988 colloquium; Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture, edited by Karp, Lavine, and Christine Mullen Kreamer, represents the 1990 offerings. Though some of the essays, such as Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s discussions of “border art,” are written by figures on the contemporary art scene, the Eckhard Supp, Aboriginal dancers at the opening ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games, Brisbane, Australia, 1982. From Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, eds., Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display.

Majority are written by anthropologists and by curators of ethnological collections. Since the related concerns and points of convergence of art and ethnology have been increasingly apparent in recent years, however, the books remain of interest to an art audience. And the loosening of the museum’s authority has been equally dramatic in both fields.

In the art world, the undermining process dates back at least to 1971, and Hans Haacke’s infamous Shapolsky et al. . . ., an artwork-cum–real estate exposé that forced on the director of New York’s Guggenheim Museum the embarrassment of refusing to install a show he had invited the artist to produce. Around 1980, the protests gained a clear focus on issues of ethnic and gender representation. In that year, thousands of women demonstrated outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to protest the meager representation of women artists in the exhibition “Los Angeles Art in the 1970s.” At about the same time, Native American groups began agitating for the return of tribal artifacts from natural history museums. (The use of the term “natural history” for objects people had made itself exemplifies the attitudes those activists were fighting.) Such protests signaled the growing awareness that museological decisions both esthetic and scientific, far from being objective and impartial, are ideologically determined and made in contexts of power. But the complexity of the museum’s role in maintaining social hierarchies was hardly suspected yet.

Also unsuspected was the fact that the arcs of development of art and ethnology would converge significantly by the end of the decade. The concepts of both the contemporary and the ethnological were affected by the rising awareness of the multiculturalism of the global village. Many of the contributors to the Smithsonian volumes take it for granted that the primary role of the museum is neither to provide esthetic delight nor to advance scholarly research, but rather to bind cultural and social groups around certain interests, and to assert their authority against the claims of other groups. It is probably a relatively new development that, as Karp puts it in Museums and Communities, museums are seen not only as “places for defining who people are and how they should act” but also “as places for challenging those definitions.”

The very idea of the museum seems to have originated in Western imperialistic societies that wanted to set themselves off from the peoples they conquered. The earliest publicly supported museum on record was located in Athens during the period of the so-called Athenian Empire, in the fifth century B.C.; the Louvre, often cited as the first full-scale European museum, was similarly situated in an imperial center. The museum, then, seems to have been created in part to reflect imperialist impulses that are not at all viable in a multicultural situation.

Now the museum is called upon (as Fath Davis Ruffins writes in Museums and Communities) to reverse field, in effect, and become, as Karp says, “an agent of redemption in society,” undoing the hierarchies it had previously helped to establish and enforce. At the very least, as Edmund Barry Gaither puts it in that book, “The story these institutions tell . . . will have to be richer and more inclusive.” In Karp’s words, museums must now become “places for interrogation of cultural diversity.”

For both the art museum and the ethnological museum these issues were brought into focus by the “’Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1984, which many thought reasserted the colonial hierarchies. The later exhibition “Les Magiciens de la terre,” at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 1989, was an example of curation with what Ruffins might call redemptive purpose, attempting to dissolve the hierarchies the "’Primitivism– show had seemed to perpetuate. That the reception of this show was also disputatious only reinforces one’s sense that by the late ’80s—for a while, anyway, until the dust settled—the curator was as much on the cutting edge as the artist. It was the curator who had the power to focus the image in the audience’s eye and pull the communal mind this way and that through the image’s field.

Many related curatorial interventions have occurred in the years since “’Primitivism,—with the recent upsurge of third world biennials—Cairo, Istanbul, Delhi, Dakar—clearly embodying the linkage between the contemporary and the ethnological. By focusing on the ethnological side of things, the Smithsonian volumes tend to neglect this linkage. Yet they do, for example, emphasize the 1987 traveling exhibition ”Hispanic Art in the United States: Thirty Contemporary Painters and Sculptors,“ a show that put many Latin Americans in a rage. As Karp and Lavine write, the show was criticized because it ”underestimates the overt political dimension of contemporary Hispanic art,“ because ”the selections favor folkloric and ’primitivistic’ work,“ because it ”strips the work of [its] linkage to the social arena,“ and, also, because it was ”inevitable that the power and resources to do the exhibition would end up in the hands of non-Hispanic institutions and non-Hispanic curators.“ The curators themselves, Jane Livingston and John Beardsley; the director of the originating museum (Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts), Peter Marzio; and several other authors discuss the show in various essays in Exhibiting Cultures. If, as Karp and Lavine remark, ”museums attempting to act responsibly in complex, multicultural environments are bound to find themselves enmeshed in controversy," these books effectively map the terrain such controversies are likely to traverse at the present time.

The drift seems to be that the museum, which was once a “temple,” is now to be a “forum.” The Modernist museum’s templelike aura derived from the idea that the works collected and exhibited there represented esthetic and cultural universals from which there was no appeal—that a great museum was virtually a realm of Platonic Ideas brought down to earth. To a late-Modernist and post-Modernist consciousness aware of the covert processes by which power exerts itself, this view is highly suspect. We are at a moment in the West when the very idea of human nature has become an open question. Ethnic and cultural communities round the world need to insert their views on such monumental issues into the global discourse. Now more than ever, the mechanisms of cultural definition are vital: what new form slouches toward the museum to be born? The future shape of the museum—at present a question mark—will both determine and be determined by the emerging sense of a redefined humanity. At such a moment these volumes mark out fundamental directions of rational discourse.

Thomas McEvilley, a contributing editor of Artforum, has won the Frank Jewett Mather Award for distinguished art criticism, bestowed by the College Art Association in recognition of three articles published in Artforum—“Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” (October 1991), “Critical Reflections” (November 1991), and “A Time to Choose” (February 1992).


Exhibiting Cultures, ed. Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 468 pages.

Museums and Communities, ed. Ivan Karp, Christine Mullen Kreamer, and Steven D. Lavine (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), 614 pages.