Please Believe that Museums are Important!!!

I agree with LauriAnn that Luke (what a wonderful name!!) somewhat overstates the case for the importance of museums. Rather than being “venues where many key cultural realities are first defined,” museums seem to reflect cultural realities that have long since been defined and integrated into the dominant forms of power. Instead of being an engine at the forefront of cultural reality definition museums could be better understood as the cultural caboose.

This is seen in both of the controversial exhibits Luke provides as evidence. The revisionist interpretations in both “The West as America,” and the proposed Hiroshima exhibit had long been created and defined by such popular discourses as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and by social history in our own profession. The reason for the controversy associated with these exhibits was that each side had substantial power behind it-the conservatives so just happened to be running congress at the time of the Hiroshima exhibit.

Luke also appears wide of the mark on the nature of entertainmentality and its relationship to museums. Entertainmentality-which Luke defines as practices that keep us held in some mutually prespecified manners- likely is much different in a democratic and free market society-where institutions must compete for people’s time, votes, or money, than it is described by Luke. The voluntary and competitive nature of American entertainmentality is anything but confinement/containment/occupation. Because of the democratic-in the political sphere-and the competitive-in the economic and temporal spheres-museums have to provide historical narratives and cultural artifacts that reflect the ways patrons want to spend their time, votes, and money. Museums have to be both democratic and competitive to succeed in a politically and economically free society.

On a final note: The usefulness of Foucault needs to be reexamined by academics in the humanities and social sciences. I realize he can help us justify our social value when confronted by the natural sciences-discourse anyone-but otherwise using Foucault seems little more than profoundly self-serving.

One thought on “Please Believe that Museums are Important!!!”

  1. While I do agree that there are some things vital to the success of museums, I don’t know if they are the “cultural caboose.” Different types of museum serve different roles. For art museums, there’s often the problem that contemporary art doesn’t make sense to the patron. Give it a few decades though, and the same pieces might be much easier to understand, reflecting the time it was created in.
    As for how this relates to the controversy surrounding the exhibits, you’re right– revisionist histories of these subjects have been out there for years. It wasn’t that the museums were just picking up on that though; it was that those opinions were put out there in national museums in a way that seemed to be judgmental and by default, seemed to judge those who were involved. It seems to me that it has less to do with conservative vs. liberal and more to do with the ethical assertions in the exhibits and the forum in which they were displayed.

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