Essay: Discourses of Culture and Sites of Interpretation

This post originally appeared on The Third Space: Textiles in Material and Visual Culture, an online exhibition curated by myself for the Institute for Curatorial Practice. 

“Thus confined to a specific place and reduced to a set of taxonomic segments, art is immobilized, stamped as an essence of eternal history.” — Didier Maleuvre, Museum Memories: History, Technology, Art (1999)

The medium of an online exhibition prompts questions about the possibilities and anxieties surrounding digital reproductions.[1] Since the emergence of mechanical means of reproduction, there has been debate over whether the reproduced image can substitute for the original work of art.

This debate has been most clearly manifest in Walter Benjamin’s cultural criticism in 1936, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin’s essay has intriguing implications for the digital reproduction of objects. Benjamin argued that the mechanical reproduction of art through photography had major repercussions on art in its traditional form, and that the reproduction of an artwork does not retain the authenticity or the aura of the original artwork. The authenticity of an object, he explains, is its presence in time and space, which cannot be recreated.[2] Benjamin contends that this essence disappears through the process of mechanical reproduction. He examines how mechanical reproduction has transformed the function of art. In Benjamin’s account, art depended on ritual prior to the advent of lithography and photography. What mattered was art’s mere existence and its capacity to facilitate rituals.

Mechanical reproduction thus emancipated art from this relationship and created new avenues for exhibiting art. In the age of mechanical reproduction, what matters more than art’s mere existence is art’s capacity to be publicly displayed. The act of displaying art in public spaces has a distinctly modern history. The museum, like mechanical means of reproduction, emerged in the nineteenth century as a social, educational, and civilizing space. The mass-circulation of magazines and books which began in the late nineteenth century and increased exponentially in the twentieth century expanded art’s capacity to be displayed in public settings. Yet in the digital age, scholars of visual and material culture remain concerned with whether the digital reproduction of an object can serve as an appropriate substitute for the original. Photographic reproductions have proved useful in teaching art history, but the reproduction is still disparaged as inauthentic, and thus less effective as an educational tool.

Author Talita Calitz asks, “Does digitally reproducing art take away its authenticity, its value from the time and space from where it was created and exhibited? Or does it emancipate it from its intended exclusivity for a minority group to the enjoyment of millions for free?”[3] Further, what how does digital reproduction expand our view of possible sites of cultural interpretation?

The emergence of the museum is contemporary with the developments of modern capitalism and colonialism. Therefore, museums are not only institutions that house objects, but they are also discursive systems of cultural power and dominance. Objects in museums are classified by genre, school, style, material, or areas of origin. As this exhibition shows, the historical processes of globalization, colonialism, and modern capitalism facilitated the movement of cultural objects from West and South Asia to New England – the objects are available for us to examine, but are disconnected from their own pasts.

Objects on display in museums are made meaningful according to the historically- and culturally-informed interpretive frameworks into which they are placed, and the perspectives from which they are seen.[5] These interpretive frameworks are often deeply embedded in the politics of empire, nationalism, gender, and race. By containing a certain number of cultural productions, the museum says as much about the objects it contains as it does about what it excludes.[6] Further, however, what the museum does not show, what it does not make accessible, is also worthy of analysis.

The artworks selected for this exhibition are not on view in any of the galleries of the Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium. The textiles often remain in storage until an intern requests to see them. This is largely for pragmatic reasons. Textiles are difficult to take out of storage, and even more difficult to display. For example, the Ersari main carpet in the Mead Art Museum is large and quite damaged.[7] It required two staff members to transport it to the study room and unroll it onto the table. At the Smith College Museum of Art, those textiles that are strong enough to hang require a hand stitched muslin “tube” across the back top through which a dowel covered in muslin is run, allowing the textile to hang from the dowel. More fragile textiles are exhibited either flat in a case (if small) or tilted on a cloth covered board.

Textiles are also light-sensitive. Exposure to light for long periods of time results in fading dyes and disintegration of the material. The Hellen Geier Flynt Textile Gallery at Historic Deerfield offers one solution to light-sensitivity. The lights in the gallery are operated by motion-sensors. When the gallery is empty, the lights remain off. When visitors enter the gallery, the lights turn on. Each of these exhibition methods for textiles require staff, capital, and time—all of which are in limited supply in small museums.

In 2000, museologist Eilean Hooper-Greenhill identified the emergence of a new museum model, termed the “post-museum.” Hooper-Greenhill describes the post-museum as a process or an experience, taking on different architectural forms, and centers on the spaces, concerns, and ambitions of communities. What might the post-museum look like in practice?

It is possible that the post-museum will consist of virtual collections that do not require a physical building, such as the emerging Google Cultural Institute, the Disability History Museum, or the Museum with No Frontiers.[8] According to Hooper-Greenhill’s proposal, the post-museum must incorporate many voices and perspectives. It must do so through community outreach and collaborative research. At the Anacostia Museum in 1969, John Kinard curated an exhibition titled The Rat: Man’s Invited Affliction, as a result of concerns shared by African Americans in the Anacostia community.[9] Rowena Stewart, who has at different points in her career directed the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society and the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia, and her associates have developed a five-step approach for collecting African American documents and artifacts.[10] This approach requires establishing close relationships with communities that have close knowledge with these materials, and fostering a strong community-museum trust.

The ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ Belongings exhibit at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver offers what appears to be the most promising possibility for Hooper-Greenhill’s notion of the post-museum. This interactive exhibit was produced as a result of collaboration between the Museum, the Musqueam Indian Band, and Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT).[11] ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ Belongings makes use of a tabletop display onto which visitors can place replicas of Musqueam archaeological artifacts and trigger information displays, videos, and audio narratives. The audio, photography, and video materials are informed by knowledge of members of the Musqueam Indian Band, an institution dedicated to preserving the living Musqueam culture and community. Using Musqueam artifacts and histories, the SIAT team created an interactive display on a Microsoft Surface. The ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ Belongings exhibit is part of a much larger exhibition produced through this collaboration, with the overall goal to help visitors learn about historical and contemporary Musqueam culture and community. What is most significant about this exhibit is the incorporation of local, indigenous voices to provide an interpretive framework for artifacts that takes into account Musqueam history and what meanings those objects have carried for those members of the Musqueam community – in addition to the meanings that these objects carry for those in the larger Vancouver community.

The online exhibition is one form that the post-museum might take, or it is one way that existing museums reach outside of their walls to reach broader audiences and to encourage community curation. Through the Institute for Curatorial Practice’s partnership with Museums10 and the Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium, students affiliated with the ICP can work with the collections in the Five Colleges and Museums10 to curate their own online exhibitions—often unearthing new stories, reading objects anew, and rehistoricizing our institutional pasts.


[1] Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Michael Marrinan, ed. Mapping Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Digital Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003)

[2] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Digital Age (1936),” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt. (New York: Schocken Books, 1968)

[3] Talita Calitz, “Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Liberating or Cheapening?” Memeburn, August 17, 2012: http://memeburn.com/2012/08/art-in-the-age-of-digital-reproduction-liberating-or-cheapening/

[5] Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture (London: Routledge, 2000)

[6] Vincent Pécoil, “The Museum as Prison: Post Post-Scriptum on Control Societies,” Third Text, vol. 18, no. 5 (September 2004): p. 437.

[7] Accession Number: AC HTR.1936.24. The carpet’s overall measurements are 66 3/16 in x 133 1/2 in; 168.1 cm x 339.1 cm.

[8] Google Cultural Institute, Google: 2015; Disability History Museum, 2014; Museum with No Frontiers, 2015.

[9] Edmund Barry Gaither, “‘Hey! That’s Mine’: Thoughts on Pluralism and American Museums (1992),” in Reinventing the Museum, ed. Gail Anderson (Alta Mira Press: Lanham and New York, 2004): p. 114.

[10] Gaither, “Hey! That’s Mine,” 2004: p. 114.

[11] Diane Luckow, “Museum of anthropology exhibit features SFU SIAT team’s design and technology,” SFU News, Simon Fraser University (January 21 2015)

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