The Museum in Transition

In her book ‘The Museum in Transition‘, Hilde Hein relfects on the contemporary state of “museums” from a philosophical perspective. She seems to be nostalgic towards a former, more autonomous state of the museum and criticizes a current more market based discourse which seems to prevail. How laudable this latter stance is, she seems to put the ‘old’ (modern) museum and the ‘new’ (postmodern) museum in a binary position and equals more recent keywords such as ‘process’ and ‘experiment’ with ‘enterprise’ and ‘market’… However, this brings out a pertinent question: Is the spectator- and public centered museum indissolubly bound to the market and neoliberalism?

These quotes (p.144), I think, are exemplary for Heins’ stance:

“Growth”, “change”, “development”, and especially “experience” are the generic bywords that have replaced the substantive visions held by past curators and museum directors, leading them sometimes into fierce struggles over power, succesion and ideology. Gratifying the public translates as programs and exhibitions, and the comparative devaluation of other priorities that followed from that emphasis shows up in concrete ways. Process, associated with a vague sense of experiential product, now determines personnal decisions and financial allocations. Every facet of the museum is affected: its architecture, investment in technology, acquisition policy, storage facilities, provisions for conservation and deaccesionment, managment, and governance. Even the ‘gentlemanly’ vocabulary in which its activities were formerly described has given way to the brisk of language of organization and enterprise. Fully emerged from its nineteenth-century cocoonlike role as an enclave of private pleasures, the museum, by the end of the twentieth century, has become part of what Tony Bennet calls the ‘collective hail’ of the leisure industry. It belongs to the well regulated sphere.
Derived from an ancient faith in the universality of reason, which supresses difference, today’s marketplace capitalizes on difference and trivializes reason. Individuals gather in the public sphere to ‘duke it out’ symbolically by whathever means possible. Museums’ entry into that domain as sites for multiple experience marks their new relationship with the public, but it does not represent a coherent identity. No single consensual path can be expected to fuse out of the exposure of differences; yet perceptual distinctness among systems is not itself a final thruth. When taken seriously, pluralism calls the very meaning of same and different to account, for the meaning of these words depends on a traditional logical system that does not map precisely onto alternatives and may find no common denominator with other logics.

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