Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An Antidote to "Seeing"? (Part 2)

In my last post, I set to work deconstructing the depression-inducing claims of Tony Bennett’s article “Civic Seeing.” I argued that Tammy Stone-Gordon’s typology of the community exhibit challenges the Fouccoultean notions of control and manipulation that Bennett claims are inherent in the contemporary museum.

By the time I finished writing the last post, I’d almost recovered from my Bennett-borne depression. But not so fast!

As I finished reading Private History in Public, I began to realize that there was a different reason to feel depressed: many of the places in which the public encounters the past are spaces of economic exchange. (My colleague Bayard Miller notes that, in such institutions, "history is business.”) Stone-Gordon makes claims about the “corporate exhibit” in the final three chapters of her book. Her focus on Cracker Barrel is particularly gloom-inducing. Channeling Jerry Herron, she concludes that “corporately produced history-as-marketing often to a sanitized version of the past, a version that is divorced from the problems of the present" (p. 77). No wonder so many people yearn for the Norman Rockwell-ian America of “yore.”

Add to this glut of mythologized, capitalist-driven museums the claims of Whitcomb in Beyond the Mausoleum: Museums and the Media. Tying her work to Bennett, she advances the idea that government-sponsored museum spaces make not only cultural claims, but also economic ones. In other words, government museums -- in placing priority focus on material objects -- invite visitors to embrace capitalism. Thus, even in spaces supposedly liberated from the consumerist impulse, “history as commodity” reigns.

For the average museum-goer, I would assume, these academia-born typologies have little meaning. People obviously know the difference between a Cracker Barrel and the Philadelphia History Museum, but do they parse the ways in which they absorb history (i.e., arguments about the past) in these varied institutions? Are they cognizant of the diverse epistemologies at work in these spaces, the intellectual strategies of curation deployed to “convince” and “educate”?

I ask such questions only because we don’t have a The Presence of the Past that answers questions of public agency in the museum. We do, however, know -- courtesy of Rosenzweig and Thelen -- that the public trusts museums more than they trust any other source of knowledge about the past.

Boy, is that depressing.

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