What if the museum imposes more than it suggests?
What if it hides more than it shows?
What if it censures more than it remembers?
These are some of the provocative questions made by the French philosopher François Dagognet in an essay called Le musée sans fin. The book was published in the 1990s, a period characterized by a movement of proliferation of museums of all kinds and by the phenomenal increase in state credits granted to museological institutions in France; a context that is very different from today when we assist to a global destabilization of public institutions in terms of funding politics linked to the general spread of a certain neo-liberalism economic ideologies. Evoking the end of museum as well as their lack of goal, that the double meaning in French of the word «Fin» allows him to do, in this context of museological ebullition, was both audacious and «frondeur». But it was also a reaction to a situation where a lot of these institutions where still fossilized in the past and the ones that were emerging where copying the ancient models and structures. Dagognet takes into account a literary and political tradition of critical thinking about the museum, presenting next to his essay an anthology of texts by Quatremère de Quincy, Proudhon, Baudelaire, Huygues, Gide, Valéry, Lebensztejn and Jean Clair just to name a few. His call for change had a certain role to play in the movement of the reform that took place after that, and prevailed until today. The question of the relevance of the museal institution is posed as well as the questions of the nature of its relation to art, of its role and social functions in the perspective of collecting, conservation and collective memory. By means of a philosophical approach, therefore as an outsider and not as a curator or as an art historian, Dagognet’s reflection can still provide us some deep understanding of the inherent contradictions and the difficulties that still exist today to overcome some of them.
The critic made by Dagognet is first virulent. As one of the main buildings of separation and confinement – next to the prison, the hospital, the hospice, the school and the barracks – the museum suffers from an excess of accumulation, programming and artificiality, as well as of an excess of rationalization. Dagognet qualifies it «sans detours» as the «Machine of Deception». As an institution mainly closed on itself, separated from the unpredictable and disturbing flow of life and otherness that takes place «outside its walls» – the museum mystifies, for it transforms the living experience into «sight», an attractive one, as it reduces the strange and the threatening with reassuring, familiar and mastered knowledge.
The museum’s practices consist in appropriating and extracting and then, in disinfecting, cleaning, restoring and polishing to the extreme. These initial stages are those of the collecting and of the «refurbishing». Subsequently, it disposes the works of art in the space provided for the exhibition, determines the location of each of them and chooses the display devices. It exposes the objects publicly in the spotlights, according to a vision, a reading, a narrative, a sequence and a scenography with a precise progression and its main stations. All this spatial and rational organization of art, conducted by the directors and curators, tricks and distorts the objects consequently trapped in this foreign network where they became the pieces of an ad hoc constructed scenario.
According to Dagognet, the reason for this enterprise of deception should be found in the historical triumphalism of the bourgeoisie of the French Empire. In this perspective, the museum appears to be one of the main means of fortification and self-justification of the newly established power. Besides their initial architecture, that evokes the temple, the palace or the sanctuary, museums, like railway stations, had the functions of marking the entrance to the territories of the Empire and of marking the material expansion inherited and conquered by confiscation, war, and pillage. Dagognet pertinently reformulates here the analysis developed by Jean Clair in an article published in 1975 and entitled «Du musée comme élevage de poussière» and he quotes: «To the first ruling class without a past, these new monuments, some dedicated to the vertigo of space and others to the vertigo of time, were meant to extend on this space and time that which did not yet belong to it, they represent the marks of its domination».
As Dagognet recalls it, the museum was created at the end of the eighteenth century in the spirit of the philosophies of rationality, of the aspiration to a universal, collective and encyclopaedic knowledge which responds to the need of a principle of organization that should lie behind the threatening chaos of Nature, and of the will of a general and synthetic grasp of the world and its productions. The characteristics of the historical emergence of the museum are understood by Dagognet as the gathering of the elements for the establishment of a cultural imperialism based on violence in its practices and intentions. Under the influence of the works of Michel Foucault and of his analyses of the historical and ideological context of the emergence of prison in Surveiller et Punir published in 1975, Dagognet digs the underside of the museum as an institution also linked to power. He shows the subterranean strategies that govern the creation of these ensembles for cultural purposes, the museum collections and the narrative of nation’s edification that are intertwined with it.
First, museums, seemingly innocent, neutral and objective, act according to the ideologies of the power in place and according to their interests, whether declared or not. Secondly, the artificiality of their system and the arbitrariness of their practices cannot be entirely concealed from the attentive analyst. The glass box, which makes any object, whatever it may be, distant, glorious and untouchable, appears as the very symbol of the artificial and arbitrary procedures practiced by the museum. The show case encircles the object of the solemn character of the sacred taboo, while giving it the «scientific» and aseptic touch prompted by the use of the glass container that recalls the laboratory or the preservation of specimens fixed in death and presented in the Natural History Museums.
But the core of Dagognet's critic of the museum lies at the intersection of the questions of presentation and perception. This is what he names the principle of the flattening and underplaying visibility. Because the museum accumulates and presents a multitude of foreign objects to each other in rows, associations and groups, the possibility of any emergence, arising or glare is reduced to almost nothing, as well as the originality, singularity, strength and vitality of each work taken into account individually.
In order for a presentation of art to be stimulating and to generate vivid and penetrating impressions, it is necessary to ensure 2 levels of perception. This twofold perception, which should occur both among artists and spectators and which is thought to be a duality or a necessary complementarity, has been largely illustrated by Anton Ehrenzweig in his book The Hidden Order of Art published in 1967. He distinguishes between an obvious surface order and a hidden one that stimulates a deep and unarticulated perception. Dagognet applies this conception to the analysis of the «museum effect» and to the perception practices in its context. There is the visual level of flatness, surface and centre, of what is given a priori to perception in a clear, stable, intact way. Then there is the level of the oscillating and ambivalent content, which is not directly perceptible by the clear, conscious and focused gaze. It is thus the unfocused perception of what moves or escapes, of what is framed in the negative, the periphery, the edges and the margins. Everything that belongs to the realm of the accidental or the emptiness in the sense of the dynamism of the potentialities that are not directly given, or of what allows both movement and transformation. It is this slight tremor that explains why the interpretative apprehension of a work of art can never exhaust it.
In a non-tricked perceptual relationship, these forces are simultaneously active and are maintained in a kind of effective moving equilibrium. The swing and the gap between the articulate and the rational on the one hand and the unstable and the undifferentiated on the other ensure the dramatization effect. Thus, Dagognet tells us, the same picture loses the essential part of its trembling, of its unseizable aspect as soon as it enters the museum. Why is that so?
Because the presentation in series of the pieces of art, in the spotlights, in this artificial and over-programmed context, eliminates the underlying structures, reduces the singularity, the movement and the strangeness of the works. As it thus suppresses the double visualization which allows a rich and dense approach that simultaneously integrates the rational, the emotional and the affective dimensions.
As they are emptied of the different strata of their contents, they become projection screens where one can inscribe the desired discourse or narrative. Thus, only the central, articulate and rational vision, which corresponds to it, can be exercised. The subliminal vision that allows us to approach what has been buried, what erupts and disrupts, what fragments and scatters, is sacrificed for the benefit of the clear, focused and unified vision. «There is certainly something like an inherent refusal by the museum institution of unstable perceptions and a rejection of uncontrolled forces, although their presence guarantees the vibrancy of the picture or of the perceived. […] The museum is based on an inverted practice of visibility consisting in the flattening and obliteration of this region in favor of an academicism. The act of ‘seeing’ is less exalted than devitalized: the halo that worries the form has been removed, as well as the duality of the object in order to put forward the most reassuring and stable aspect».
The strategy of rational regrouping combined with the neutrality of the background, which corresponds to the museum’s space, aligns «surfaces» that form a chain of links and produces a super-focusing effect. The museum limits the possibility of a sensitive and multidimensional gaze, the eminently subjective area. By removing an unforeseen appearance of unstable forms in favor of a classifying rationality, of an orderly arrangement and of immutable landmarks, the museum creates a reduced, impoverished and manipulated sight. Therefore, instead of valuing ambiguity, indetermination and shifting, the museum divides and statufies. What Dagognet observed in the 80’s and 90’s is also to be put in the perspective of what is at stake nowadays, when such process occurs through a set of public roles, missions and ambitions, values and causes to be defended that are endorsed by each institution within the general economy of the local or international cultural and political landscape that is framed beyond the artistic production itself.
In other words, the institutionalization of an art which is not institutional brings it into a pre-established order – that is guaranteed by the structures of power – which deprives it of its wild and indocile dimensions, of it’s event to the benefit of the museum’s event itself, «when the exhibition is exhibited», to quote Daniel Buren’s critical formulation. The comparison is legitimate and, in my opinion, summarizes well Dagognet’s position: museumized art is not without evoking a caged tiger! It loses most of its vitality and effectiveness. And while this loss and reduction take place, the museum celebrates its victory against time by subtracting the objects from destruction and by freezing them in eternity. This victorious struggle against the effects of time goes with the defeat of the subversive by the museumization of the rebellious, by its enrollment and sanctification. Such struggle must be placed in the perspective of a long cultural and existential history that goes beyond the mere framework of museology.
Despite all its inconvenients, this «Machine of Deception» remains a viable solution to the problem of collective memory and cultural preservation. Indeed, the museum is one of the many manifestations of an ancestral and founding human conduct, which is that of preserving and fighting against oblivion, deterioration, decomposition, loss and deprivation. The primary desire for maintenance, custody and the power of preserving and fixing perishable goods or materials is the driving force of all techniques of conservation and storage. Since elementary preservation processes such as fermentation, drying, curing, sealing, freezing and the storage techniques such as pottery and basketry, as well as the use of the barrel, the attic, the warehouse, the silo up to the more complex and sophisticated technologies of today, the will is everywhere to hinder corruption and to shelter.
The primary factors contributing to the degradation a raw material or crops are the same as those which damage the work of art, the craft or the written document in its material form: humidity, air, heat and parasites. As treasures are collected and protected, so are crops inventoried and stored. Collection, preservation and concentration in one place are sacred and founding acts. These combined processes logically open the way to the practice of capitalization.
The conception of memory that springs from these practices and which is at the heart of the question of museums is that of a registering, accumulative and stabilizing memory. The museums’s transition – which Dagognet advocated in the 1990s, but which is still relevant – depends merely upon a radical change in our understanding of memory. It equally relies on the ability to substitute this passive and monotonous «file memory», by a random, unpredictable, open, playful and rhizomatic one. This shift is analogous to the one required by a perception of objects that are no longer conceived as witnesses of the past, but as living and fluent entities. Such change of perspective on memory and on museum objects invites us not to chronological, didactic and repetitive displays, but to the spontaneous emergence of suggestions and alternatives, overlaps, unrelated ties, significant and astonishing affinities. It is the idea of enhancing transients, plurality and transversality, rather than privileging petrifaction, unidirectional ways and uniformity.
Exhibitions with variable geometries in a museum that has become a «museum-muse», which knows how to inspire by a rich dialogue between objects, spectators and their surroundings emphasizes the variation of objects, their capacity for change and transformation, as well as their current symbolic power to trigger collective processes through art and effective knowledge. It knows how to make room for a certain disorder and for the undefined, as well as for spontaneity and for some freedom in the rules. This museum of living memory does not put objects into sleep, but awakens them. It does not hypnotize its visitors by arousing a distant and fascinated gaze detached from the body, but rather stimulates through multidimensional perception, thinking and action. Finally, its space is no longer fixed in a backward academicism, but becomes a space of creation and production, carrying new structures, ideas and collaborations. And if the museum cannot solve its main contradictions and its limits such as artificiality, enclosure and pseudo-sacredness, as well as the tension between elitism and massification, it can expose them and show the stakes.
Far from the fetishism, the mystification and the cultural terrorism that were denounced by Dagognet, I would finally also add, that the museum should feed creation and novelty, rather than expecting an automated cultural consumerism and a sterile status quo. Extracted from its traditional practices of domination and national edification in the conventional spirit of bellicose competition, the museum can therefore welcome the emerging, the performative, the subversive or the revolutionary, not to assimilate it, to diminish it, to normalize it or to settle it down (instrumentation) as it has been done so often, but to feed it, as long as it is possible, within the framework given to us. The limits of this framework can be extended and the museum of ancient arts for instance opens itself to the contemporary as we see it a lot today and vice versa. The ethnocentric traditional European point of view on others and its presumed superiority can be further dismissed and replaced by the creation of an international platform for dialogue and real exchange between cultures, artists, curators and institutions.
Such «laboratory» can open itself to new fields of experimentation, to the most crucial problems and take into account artistic productions that concern social issues, global crisis, urbanism, architecture, fashion, music, performance, design, scientific research, activism, sustainability, and the main other challenges of our time in a vast range of artistic expressions, hybridization of genres and approaches. Doing so, it can directly engage the viewer, immerse him to stimulate a transformative awareness, and restore this indispensable symbiosis between thought and sensory, between theory, gaze and practice.
The museum's main vocation is eminently cultural and the critical reflection on it aims to go beyond a simple reconciliation of its two main functions, those of showing and demonstrating, of allowing sight and producing rational knowledge. This vocation is to make sensitive the ideas, the dramas and the ingenuity, while creating potentialities for sharing and social transformation, for new encounters, subjective and collective useful knowledge through the forms of art. Like art itself, it is located at the crossroads between the imagination and the actual, between utopia and reality.