“Art Museums and the Ritual of Citizenship”

A few months ago, I read Carol Duncan’s article “Art Museums and the Ritual of Citizenship,” and it came back up in conversation today with a friend. It struck me and has influenced how I see musuem’s and their societal functions. This post is more of an article summary/review with a few examples to illustrate some of the points being discussed.

Duncan’s article questions the function and role of state-founded public museums in our culture and how they use art objects to create certain political meanings to achieve a purpose. She notes that the political nature of the museum began with the French Revolution and the creation of the first modern public museum. Museums were regarded as evidence of political virtue and were “…indicative of a government that provided the right things for its people.” This notion of political virtue that was associated with the museum also became an indicator for political reliability. Duncan suggests that some countries established Western-style museums in order to be seen as desirable political/diplomatic allies.
Furthermore, she treats art museums like ceremonial monuments. In this way, her analysis suggests that there is a ritual quality to the space of the museum. She argues that the museum space is not neutral and is always conveying a predetermined narrative or political/ideological messages. This is achieved through the use of space, programming, the way objects are displayed, and highly rationalized installation practises. She notes that these messages are often subtly conveyed, and are not always obvious. The museum has a certain kind of truth associated with it as an institution, and we take this truth as fact. This is what she argues binds communities together in a civic body by “…identifying its highest values, its proudest memories, and its truest truths.” In this way, museums achieve a ritual quality that is normally associated with religious institutions. Not only do museums sometimes mimic the architecture of classical temples, but she suggests that they work like temples or shrines. Duncan argues that visitors arrive at a museum with certain receptivity, willingness to contemplate and learn. The museum space is marked as special and requires a particular kind of contemplation–much like religious spaces. Both religious and museum spaces require a similar kind of performance by the visitor. In the museum, this performance is often completed alone, by following a prescribed route around an exhibit, reliving narratives, or engaging in a structured experience that relates to the history or meaning of the exhibit. Exhibits are organized in a way to convey and construct predetermined narratives of a version of history that may only represent the interests of those in power.
The public art museum’s ritual quality alludes to a kind of truth that those in power can manipulate to suit their own political/ideological uses. Duncan outlines the historical uses of public galleries since the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries, where the princely galleries were used to propagate messages of the ruler’s prestige and power. Similarly, in the eighteenth century, the French Revolutionaries appropriated the Louvre as a public museum, and all of the connotations of legitimate power that it possessed. In this way, Duncan argues that public museums are political tools to reflect a good impression of the state upon the people and the world: “Such public institutions [i.e. the public art museum] made (and still make) the state look good: progressive, concerned about the spiritual life of its citizens, a preserver of past achievements and a provider of the common good.” This binds the community into the civic body that supports the state. The public nature of these art museums encourages the political passivity of citizenship and is idealized as active art appreciation. This gives citizenship and civic virtue a sense of content without having to redistribute any real power away from the central authority of the state.
The displays of objects and the programming of information in museum exhibitions can be organized in such a way to promote a certain narrative of history. Objects’ inherent meanings can be manipulated in order to support these new narratives (e.g. objects demonstrating princely power being used to promote civic or spiritual power). In this way, art history and history both become ideological instruments. For example, the progression of civilization can thus be organized in such a fashion to promote one nation’s superiority over others in the way that objects are organized and displayed. The historical narrative of an exhibit can also leave important things out in order to convey its message.
In addition, Duncan notes that the idea of the state-founded public art museum is still present in our society today. However, the relation between the state, the public, and the museum has been somewhat altered over time. The reverence for the classical past that was present in older museums does not operate the same way as in the new modern art museums. Museums that display modern art offer a new ritual experience for the visitor: “It is now possible to visit the museum, see a show, go shopping, and eat, and never once be reminded of the heritage of Civilization.” Despite this change, she argues that museums continue to be powerful identity-defining machines, and that to control a museum one controls the representation of a community and its most authoritative truths. Therefore, those who know how to use art to their advantage are those on whom the museum ritual confers the power of identity-shaping. What is seen and what is not seen is controlled in a way that constitutes the idea of the identity of the citizen, community, and nation.
The ideas in this article can be applied to how exhibitions are organised and how the narrative art history is being presented. Part of the article focussed on the actual space of the public art museum as a site of ritual. This suggests that an exhibition’s meaning is also constructed based on the physical space in which it is held. Space has an incredible impact on the design of exhibitions and their meanings. For example, the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World exhibit is organized in a series of rooms in a linear progression. The space is very structured and forces the visitor to follow a prescribed path where each room’s theme builds upon the previous room’s theme. The exhibit begins with an examination of rural and city life, and progresses towards explaining the religious beliefs and rituals of the Mayan people. Likewise, the atmosphere at the beginning of the exhibit is dark, while at the end of the exhibit the space becomes very bright. Both the themes of each room in combination with the changes in lighting convey a sense of mystery that is disappearing, along with kind of spiritual progression. This organization and use of space supports the exhibition’s main message of progressing towards an ‘unveiling the secrets of the Maya.’
The Maya exhibit can also be used as an example of how politics and sponsors can influence the message of an exhibit. The Mexican government was one of the sponsors for this exhibit, and it was quite obvious that they were trying to convey a specific message about their civilization’s history. The exhibit tried to dispel any previous assumptions about Mayan history, made it clear that the Mayans were still alive and well in Mexico, and constructed a sense of identity for the Mayan people. In this case, there was a subtle political message that was not overtly experienced within the exhibit. In other cases, the manipulation of historical narratives and public memory can be more explicit. For example, the Stalin Museum in Gori, Georgia has been called a “… falsification of history” and a “…typical example of Soviet propaganda and it attempts to legitimise the bloodiest regime in history.”# Prior to 1989, this museum had been a glorification of Stalin’s life and achievements, and did not cover the horrors of his regime. In this way, the Stalin Museum was used to manipulate public memory to convey a sense of identity to the USSR. However, post-1989, there was an attempt to revaluate this narrative by the pro-Western government of Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power in 2003. Mr. Saakashvili tried to erase everything Soviet from the country, and he plans to turn the Stalin Museum into a museum about Stalinism which will include information about the horrors and consequences of his regime.# Here, we have two examples of both subtle and overt attempts to manipulate the museum ritual through political ideologies. Carol Duncan’s article encourages us to be aware of the ideologies being presented behind public art museums, and think critically about their impact and meaning upon our collective identities.
Carol Duncan presents a strong argument in her article “Art Museums and the Ritual of Citizenship” for the idea that there are political inclinations at play within the display of objects in public art museums. However, what is not always clear is how these inclinations shape civic identities. She probably could have expanded on this idea within her article. Ultimately, what was discussed was the effect of political power on the institution of the museum and how these power relations shaped/manipulated historical narratives. Duncan presented a historical approach to the idea of the state-founded public art museum. She primarily discussed the politics of art museums in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, so there is very little discussion of how her ideas function in modern museums. She does mention that older and newer museums operate in a similar way, however she does not fully elaborate on this distinction. How do modern museums construct civic identities? Duncan noted that in older museums those in power would appropriate iconography or objects of the previous regime in order to confer legitimacy upon their own power. Do contemporary museums continue this trend? If not what does this mean? And what identities are being constructed?
Overall, this article challenged the general assumptions that we take for granted in a public art museum setting. We normally go to see an exhibit and we don’t question¾or even see¾the ideological or political motivations behind the exhibits’ narratives and meanings. Duncan takes a critical approach to how things are displayed, and encourages her reader to analyze what is being displayed and what is not being displayed on account of political motives.

Duncan, Carol. “Art Museums and the Ritual of Citizenship” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Eds. Ivan Karp and Stephen D. Lavine. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991, pp. 88-103.

Walker, Shaun. “Hero and horror: Stalin rebranded.” The Independent, June 06, 2012. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/hero-and-horror-stalin-rebranded-7817895.html

“Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World” Exhibition. Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau, May 18, 2012-October 28, 2012.


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