Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Framing the Nation

For some reason I'm fascinated by the cultural impact and social intent of museums. I keep meaning to read up on the issue, but never quite get around to it. Anyway, a rather confused stab at articulating my thoughts follows.

I suppose my fascination is rooted in the formation of museums as official forums (fora?) for the construction and maintainance of collectivities. The British Museum was established and maintained specifically for the purposes of educating the people: providing workers with a place where to go and to view the treasures and collections of early Empire. The museum was intended to have an improving aspect: a familiarity with the furniture of the classics would, it was envisaged by Sloane et al, have an educative effect on the people. Quite a democratic and noble idea for the time.

But I think the museum1 has a more significant or tangible role in creating and sustaining the collectivities within which we live.

What's fascinating about a museum (in a certain sense) is not so much the exhibits but the museum itself. The exhibits are merely furniture, supporting the mirror that society holds up to itself through the museum.

History as presented there as an element in continuity. The exhibition of Egyptian, Roman and Greek antiquities in the museum is not simply a function of Empire. Rather it proposes a connection between Britain and the classical world. It's a rather bold statement of civilisation, and place. In a sense, it's timelessness suggests Britain's future legacy , if you see what I mean.

The sense of continuity sets the nation outside time.

The paper I was at speculated in part about the manner in which we might look at archives will change with the advent of hypertext and internet searching. Certainly research in the humanities has, in a rather quietly subversive way, been revolutionised by computers. But I wonder if the same will be the case for nations. Though 19th century nationalism, created in part by things like museums, is defunct anyway (which is different to saying that nationalism is defunct), but we are left with the question of how nations will be sustained in the face of the fragmentation of sources of information (newspapers, as Benedict Anderson claimed, playing an important role in the imagining of communities) and in the increased fragmentation of debate, with people simply opting not to engage in arguments that they would have had to engage in under old structures. They can just go set up their own website. And what of great public buildings and works? Their role in imagining our collective selves will diminish.2

And what of the exhibits themselves? How, as individual items, are they framed by the museum? Well, as I said, they are simply furniture: I'm especially struck by the Easter Island statue above (click on the photos for larger images). It is simply a decoration around which the museum has set a café. It might as well be a water feature. I don't think this reflects badly on the people eating nearby. Rather, it highlights the individual artefacts purpose in the whole setting: it's simply there to furnish the national frame. The sense that these objects might once have been sacred, or the sense that they were once laden with distinct meanings and significance is lost. They are no more than etchings in the museum's significance to us.

1 Not just the British Museum, mind. In my experience many others perform this function. The British Museum is most interesting to me because I'm fascinated by these aspects of British national identity. Anyway, I had photos for the British Museum!

2 Of course, I'm overstating the case here: chances are that the internet will remain a distinctly marginal toy for quite a while yet.

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