Museums, Representation and Cultural Property

This article was first published in Anthropology Today 8 (4) 11 - 15. The selection of sections for the links below, was made in the course of this project, and not by the author of the article.

Behind the scenes

Museums and selective criticism

Brian Durrans

The author is Deputy Keeper in the Department of Ethnography of the British Museum. He has a long-standing interest in modes of representation in museums and elsewhere.

Since the Second World War, museums and material culture seemed marginal to most debates on the social role of anthropology. Recently, however, ethnographic exhibitions have become a hot issue. It is not that curators have become more daring - the occasional display has always aroused enthusiasm or dissent - but that displaying, especially of or by cultural 'Others', is increasingly seen as overtly or implicitly political.

Exhibitions, and museums themselves, have come to be criticized as hegemonic devices of cultural elites or states. They distort and hence mask the oppression of the cultures they supposedly represent; and their ideological messages appear as 'truth' because museums do not or cannot reveal to their publics the actual choices and negotiations through which cultures are (mis)represented in particular objects or displays.

Since any form of representation is bound to omit and distort to some degree, museums find it easier to defend individual exhibitions, even when they are grossly misconceived, than the principle of representation itself. But in this, museums are hardly special. Any engagement with the world, in thought or in action, entails selecting what is relevant to the purpose in hand and rejecting what is not. The same applies to formalized methods of enquiry. The pertinent questions are therefore, first, how far a particular selection or representation is adequate to the purpose it is meant to serve; and second, how far that purpose is itself justified.

The latter may be a pertinent question and entails consideration of who has the power to represent whom, but in the absence of a consensus about the 'purpose' of anthropology, few are likely to agree on the answer. Most curators probably see their role as acquiring, displaying and preserving material objects to assist the present or future understanding of the contexts from which the objects themselves derive. Some indeed will anguish, but not usually to the extent of paralysing their work, over what such 'understanding' might amount to.

Focused on museum display, the politics of representation are given a powerful if partial airing in a recent book entitled Exhibiting Cultures (Karp and Lavine, eds., 1991; for a report on the conference on which the book is based, see also Fischer 1989). The book itself and the questions it raises emerge from the conjunction of two main trends, one largely internal and the other largely external to academic anthropology.

The internal trend concerns the now-familiar emphasis on the subjective construction of anthropological knowledge, of ethnography as the voice of the author. In collections and displays, however, this irresistible force meets its immovable object. If everything else is fabricated by the enquirer, the bits of material, however classified or interpreted as ethnographic artefacts, are certainly not. Exhibiting or publishing such material amounts to a public assertion that a world exists independently of what we say about it. The public, for whom this is old hat, are more likely to be interested in the objects themselves, in the ways of life or social processes they illustrate, and in the intellectual, political and economic histories through which artefacts enter museum collections. To postmodern theory, however, the materialism of this assertion is unacceptable. Its response is to sidetrack collections, and the productive questions of what and how anthropologists might communicate about the cultures they study, by digressing into a debate about claims and counter-claims to cultural authenticity.

The external trend with which anthropological postmodernism intersects, and without which current arguments about museum displays would hardly have arisen, is what might be called a consumerist politics, an expression of the success of contemporary capitalism is marshalling even critical theory behind globalization, commodification, and the privileging of exchange-value over use-value, or signifiers over signifieds: '... it is in the nature of the commodity system, of its compelling systematicity per se, to substitute labor with magic, intrinsicality with marketing, authoring with ushering.' (Stewart 1988: 162; see also Harvey 1989). What then becomes important in museums is not their field- and collection-based work in studying and interpreting cultures, or what people do, say or think, but rather the assumed needs or impressions of visitors. Market-oriented museum management, which in its extreme form favours a 'Disneyland' approach to exhibition design and prefers 'collections managers' to academic curators, allies with consumerist politics to scold as 'elitist' those responsible for displays that may take some effort to appreciate (Terrell 1991).

* * *

Yet different sections of the public do not use (or create) cultural resources for the same purposes (e.g. Bourdieu 1984). If traditional, educationally-oriented museums try to fill visitors' minds, while theme parks try to empty their pockets, both define their audiences restrictively. In neither is the public an active participant. Not everyone, of course, wants to 'create' culture, or at least not all the time; part of the continuing appeal of traditional museums is the access they give to what other people have created. How people respond to museum displays is a complex process, still imperfectly understood. While some empathize with artefacts or atmospheric settings, others seek in the same material the reassurance of human ingenuity or of explanation based on ascribing evidential status to objects. Museums have always been able to arouse the curiosity of visitors but it is sometimes argued that to do so now they have to offer doubt rather than knowledge. There are so many other claims on the time and attention of potential visitors that museums have to provide something distinctive. A worthwhile display, however, will generally spark off new ideas whatever its underlying philosophy; and most visitors seem to appreciate learning more than what to distrust.

It is therefore inadequate to describe the subtle changes which museum practice is undergoing as a contest between a benevolent dictatorship of connoisseurs and a tyranny of diversions, both of which actually limit consumer choice. This 'contest', in which entertainment now seems to be getting the upper hand, only expresses the current tendency of established cultural institutions to be marginalized or redefined by newer media, the effect of which is to privilege fantasy and profit. Representations are shifted further away from their referents. Public 'participation' is then reduced to playing with the options offered; it does not extend to control over the representational machinery itself. Clifford Geertz recently observed, for example, that the Festival of Indonesia which took place in the United States in 1990 involved culture being 'sent' rather than 'brought': that it was, in broad terms, an instrument not of the representers but of the represented (Handler 1991). Geertz sees in these representations evidence of 'internal Indonesian identity struggles', but the Festival also reflected an external power struggle in which the represented (or their 'representatives') are obliged to hawk their culture in the West (Wallis 1991).

The issue of who controls representation, however, is hardly a productive subject for discussion outside a wider programme concerned with political power. Taken in isolation, as if it were a matter lightly to be considered by curators or directors, this deeply political question finds itself parodied as merely another consumer choice. It is strangely inconsistent for those emphasizing the social embeddedness of museums, as most contributors to Exhibiting Cultures do, to imply that control over the images created by exhibitions can be resolved without tackling the embracing issue of political power. Neither is anyone convincingly suggesting how agitation over museum displays might contribute to a solution of more far-reaching iniquities. Those who argue as if museums are in the front line of political struggle implicitly deny its history and complexity. The state is first detached from 'civil society', then overlooked, leaving civil society split between reproduction and representation, the determinate and the voluntary. Instead of an analysis of the interconnections between these complementary forms, one is abandoned in favour of the other. Social reproduction and its intractable structures slip from view leaving only tokens and symbols, which we are expected to believe that the fuss is all about.

In her article in the June issue of A.T., Julie Cruikshank acknowledges that competition between communities for control over meanings is complicated by the division of those communities along class lines, and she correctly suggests that this implicates hegemony and the state. But it is not just obfuscating politicians who use the notion of 'values' to distract from material conditions; the issue of what museums and anthropology are up to is often presented in the same terms. The idea that display or analysis (whatever their restrictions or misapprehensions) can be about how societies operate, how they have come to be as they are, and why they vary as they do, is being pushed aside. There is plenty of room in museums, however, for experiment, hesitation, self-assessment, playfulness, and even chaos; but to let these overwhelm the development and dissemination of knowledge is to deny its critical potential. Environmental arguments means it is no longer radical to suggest that everyone's interests would be served by a global redistribution of wealth and power. But for this to even begin to happen, restrictive structures will need to be challenged not just by desire for change, but by the conviction that change is possible. Demonstrating this, by documenting and interpreting the alternative forms and transformations of the past, is what social science is mainly about. Escaping discourse with the help of material evidence is such alternatives is to be reminded that if every signifier has its signified, no ideology is safe from rejection.

* * *

If museums are ill-equipped to confront political power head-on, or by themselves, we can nevertheless ask how their work might help people overcome problems. For practical purposes, the interests of museum specialists, the public, and those whose cultures are exhibited, are much closer than the occasional well-publicized controversy might suggest. Neo-liberal economies squeeze museums like other social services and encourage them to convert from long-term research to cheaper quick-fix entertainment; but this is being resisted. Ancillary programmes and display styles encourage visitors to deepen their understanding of other cultures beyond that of a tourist, while museums increasingly collaborate with (representatives of) the peoples concerned to prepare exhibitions of their ways of life. When a museum takes a sensitive interest in the cultures it interprets, and seeks to convey as accurate an understanding of them as possible, it may be necessary to self-censor an exhibition in order not to offend some or all of the community concerned, or of the visiting public. If exhibiting were all a museum did, such behaviour might be condemned as unprincipled; but ongoing research, documenting and collecting, as well as public relations and fund-raising, are also essential museum activities and decisions about displays may take account of any or all of them.

As Exhibiting Cultures shows, art historical curators who regard at least certain masterworks as capable of communicating cross-culturally the aesthetic values of their makers have become easy prey. Their stance is open to legitimate objections (e.g. McLeod 1991), yet postmodernist and consumer-political criticism also targets the training and experience necessary to connoisseurship, implying that democratic access is denied where effort is necessary for understanding. The brutal truth, however, is that visitor access to information formally available in museums, no less than in libraries or through the education system itself, varies markedly according to class and other dimensions of social division. A 'radical' criticism that ignores such factors is clearly more interested in signifiers than in signifieds.

Another example of the excessive abstraction that bedevils museum criticism is the notion of the curator as prima donna. In fact, the anonymity of most exhibitions reflects not authorial privilege but the teamwork on which display depends. It is sometimes claimed that anonymity shields authority from questioning, and is therefore hegemonic. But if this criticism is valid, an exponential surfeit of doubt is hardly the corrective required. False or misleading interpretations are open to criticism on the basis of evidence; if, however, all interpretations flawed on the a priori grounds that it can never escape subjectivity, then not only museums but social science (as something apart from literature) should indeed shut up shop. Insofar as they confuse artefacts as evidence of human activity with proof of some ultimate 'truth', museums are open to criticism, although this nut can be cracked more economically than with an ultra-subjectivist sledgehammer. On the other hand, if museums that have inherited this reputation now seek to disown it, they risk undermining their credibility by completely abandoning any criterion on which visitors can feel reasonably confident about the interpretations offered. But this problem is hardly unique to museums: textbook writers are in a similar predicament.

Because of the complex negotiations from which exhibitions emerge, a curatorial line of argument may be easier to identify in labels or information panels than in the layout of exhibits, or vice versa. In these circumstances, exhibitions are unlikely to benefit from what postmodernists prescribe for ethnographic writing (Clifford and Marcus 1986). Enhanced awareness of the categories which different styles of writing use to define their subject-matter, had led to the emergence of the author as a conspicuous, even obligatory, component of ethnographic texts. This has been a counter-hegemonic manoeuvre to divert the texts from their assumed role of legitimating, in terms of 'objective' reporting, the exercise of power over those described (i.e., interpreted). Yet, in the name of sensitivity to the political context of ethnography, this approach itself collapses into sterile introversion by overlooking the specifics of rival knowledge-claims and the grounds for deciding between them. it criticizes the power of the interpreter without empowering either the interpreted or the consumer of the interpretation. In fact, the power of interpreters (in this case, specialized academics and curators), although greater than that of the people whose lives they interpret, is largely insignificant by comparison with the main concentrations of political power in society. Postmodernism not only substitutes relatively trivial distinctions for more deep-rooted ones, but also offers the palliative of a personal politics susceptible to will-power as a substitute for more thoroughgoing struggles needing collaboration with others.

One response to the privileging of exhibitions over other aspects of museum work is to emphasize, as Freed has done (1991), that what happens on the surface is based on support-work underneath. Another is to see museums as influencing and influenced by alternative traditions and sites and modes of display (Hiller, ed., 1991). It may, however, be worth listing (not necessarily in order of importance) some of the other things museum staff do besides exhibiting: collecting, documenting, storing, conserving, publicizing, arranging access, ensuring security, researching, lecturing, training, advising, collaborating with other colleagues and institutions, fund-raising, publishing, and loaning. As this list indicates, museums are complex organizations; their objectives and methods are shaped by the varied, sometimes contradictory yet mutually-adjusting interests of funding bodies, trustees, directorates and other staff, and by the lobbyists, critics, specialists, visitors, non-visitors, producers and consumers who comprise their heterogeneous public. These complexities mean that the contemporary museum, whatever its speciality, shares the predicament of any set of practices (anthropology or history; or, at a further remove, writing or representing) that finds its purpose sharply questioned.

* * *

Disagreement about what museums are or should do shows no sign of being resolved; nor can it be; like interpretation itself, 'all museum exhibitions are inherently problematical' (Beidelman 1989). The focal issue varies considerably; for some it is collecting (Stewart 1984; Clifford 1988); for others, the extension of museum-like methods into other dimensions of cultural life (Handler 1985; Horne 1984 and 1986; Eco 1987); concepts of the 'Other' (Hiller, op. cit.; Price 1989); museum display modes (Shanks and Tilley 1987); or particular exhibitions (e.g., Cannizzo 1991; Philip 1991; Schildkrout 1991). Yet of the almost limitless criticisms that could be directed at museums, only some have made it onto the agenda. Among the most favoured arguments (together with comments and reservations) are the following; all are represented, explicitly or implicitly, in Exhibiting Cultures.

- Museums are expressive (ideological) institutions rather than interpretive ('scientific') ones. Even those who reject the possibility of non-ideological knowledge would recognize, however, that the expressiveness of a 'scientific' institution is at least in part a function of its interpretive practice or of its claim to such practice: a relationship that is also contentious throughout the academic world including biological and social or cultural anthropology (Haraway 1989; Reynolds 1991; Clifford, op. cit.; Beidelman, op. cit.).

- Exhibitions should not be evaluated in terms of fidelity or sensitivity to their themes but in terms of their effects on contemporary contests around identity and power. Rephrased to allow evaluation in both respects, this bland view is unexceptionable yet it does little to help curators strike an appropriate balance or critics to judge fairly what they have done. How accurately a display represents its chosen subject is almost always a matter for experts, while how well it is done with regard to audience response - beyond possibly uncritical approval on one hand and hostility on the other - is usually a subjective matter.

- Exhibits should be selected and displayed in a manner that is sensitive to the interests of varied audiences. How these interests are to be discovered and taken into account is difficult enough even when it can be predicted which sections of the public will visit the exhibition. There is certainly a case for collaboration that goes beyond prudently testing an almost finalized display for points likely to cause misunderstanding or offence. Generally, however, curators discuss exhibition plans and other aspects of their work with colleagues inside and outside museums, and with educators and members of local communities likely to be interested in the subjects concerned. Although much criticized, the 'authority' of the curator is often earned in the sense that it expresses views emerging from a whole network of discussions rather than being arrogantly 'imposed' through a display for visitors to make what they can of it.

- Objects should be shown 'in context', i.e., with appropriate information to counteract, or to make explicit and therefore to undermine, the privileging effect of the museum habitus, and to provide insights into the cultural background of the objects and those who made or used them. Much current discussion of these questions is too abstract and ignores both the possibility that the 'museum effect' may work to the advantage of some or many visitors in respect of some or many subjects, and the responses of visitors to displays of specific types. Whatever curators may want to do, moreover, there are always practical constraints, most obviously architectural and budgetary, on their freedom of manoeuvre. Perhaps less obvious, but in some ways even more important, are the limitations imposed on what curators can do - not just in exhibitions but also in other aspects of their research - by the nature and extent of the collections available to them.

- Channels of communication should be expanded from the visual to other senses, mainly aural and tactile. Again, while practical constraints are often ignored by museum critics, the advantages of multi-sensory communication for varied audiences are easily overestimated. For example, the 'festival' is often contrasted to the 'exhibition' (Karp and Lavine, op. cit.) to point up the wider multi-sensory choices a festival provides, and therefore of the alternative 'readings' that it allows of the overall theme. But few participants in festivals get to sample more than a fraction of what is on offer, while they may feel more frustration from things missed than fulfilment from those experienced. Conversely, an exhibition visited is selected from among others in the same museum and in other museums. Since there are many opportunities for multi-sensory experiences outside the museum, but not for the 'visual privileging' in which museums traditionally specialize, it may be especially a will to see that encourages people to visit museums rather than other places. One recent study discovered that visitors have a 'robust interest in traditional museum [diorama] cases' (Davidson, Heald and Hein, 1991) and recommended using such cases in conjunction with other forms of communication rather than abandoning them as old-fashioned. Although a diorama is a specialized type of display case, it evokes a past style of representation even more powerfully than mahogany ones with shelves. That 'dated' modes of display may be popular and educationally effective suggests that at least some visitors appreciate museums as counterweights to the vagaries of fashion and hence see their exhibits, perhaps despite the efforts of designers, as signifying and alternative to the decontextualizing commodification of objects everywhere else.

- Exhibitions should reinterpret the otherwise anonymous creators or bearers of cultures as individuals and active social subjects, and should give an impression of the dynamics of the cultures represented. However, limitations of available material and (especially) of documentation mean it is often difficult to support a new interpretation of cultural phenomena with collections acquired by ethnographers or others working within an earlier paradigm. Materials unsuitable for one purpose may still, however, be useful for another; there are many ways, for example, to convey sensitively and strikingly the complexity and achievements of other societies, or the interdependence of exhibited and exhibiting cultures, especially in relation to the latter's museum subculture.


To summarize: ethnographic museums are no more immune to criticism than any other institutions responsible for spending public money. Their special role of interpreting and safeguarding public collections for future generations logically extends to a commitment to study the cultures from which collections derive and to treat the bearers of those cultures, as well as the visiting public, with respect and sensitivity. New forms of display, the development of knowledge, and changing political conditions, expose curatorial practice to both constructive and negative criticism. Much of the latter is unfocused ad the indifference of some of it to object collections and, beyond museums and academic anthropology, to the salient asymmetries of political power, suggests a deficiency of postmodernist theory rather than of museums themselves.

I am grateful to John Mack and the editors of A.T. for comments on a earlier draft of this article.

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