Weekly readings: what is a museum?

Bennett traces the history of Modern Western museums, with particular emphasis upon the way in which Enlightenment thinking transformed them from clubhouses wherein elites conversed about art and into hierarchical educational institutions that sought to improve the lower classes. “Visual competence” was required to properly consume art.

The ethnography of Colonial Williamsburg reveals an institution which places much emphasis upon material culture and documented facts. The hierarchical museum model is very much in evidence behind the scenes (interpreters primed, via training materials, to produce a certain type of interpretation) as well as in public-facing programming.

Gordon points out that “museum” has a broader meaning than the pillared institutions that leap to mind (and are the focus of most studies). She explores smaller exhibits, curated for diverse reasons. If Bennett focused on top-down trends, Gordon is very much in the bottom-up camp. The “visual competence” of sports bar patrons is a non-issue, not least because the informal setting is rarely parsed as an exhibit space.

Witcomb explicitly ties her work to Bennett’s, but views governmental deployment of museums as economic as well as cultural: their focus upon material objects encourages visitors to embrace capitalism. It’s a disconcerting thought, targeting cultural assumptions that can easily go unnoticed. Even more radical is her discussion of museums’ information-dissemination superseding the physical repository function in the digital age. That would be a truly revolutionary change…except insofar as it would create a new marginalized class in need of education, refinement, and saving. “Digital competence,” rather than “visual competence,” would divide the museum-going public.

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