White Man's Buren
“Acquiring and displaying the treasures of conquered people [is] part and parcel of the public trust.”
“The truthfulness and historical concreteness of the artistic portrayal should be combined with the ideological remolding and education of the toiling people in the spirit of socialism. […] Our Soviet literature is not afraid of the charge of being tendentious.” Andrei A. Zhdanov, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 1934.
The original idea of a museum, arguably, was the Romans’, who made it State policy to publicly display the spoils of colonized people, especially religious objects: statues of their gods, or the seven-branch menorah from the Temple of Jerusalem. The vanquished people (or the emissaries of the vanquished state) would see their cultures and their gods appropriated, and weep.
To the Romans this was a good thing. Looting, if done according to the rules, was as ordered by Nature and by Law—or Gods and Law, to use their terms. The Romans called an image of a vanquished god a simulacrum, not a sign: not the reality but its false image. The image they respected was a signum, the true image of true values. Likewise, they liked to remind the vanquished, the Latin name Roma was interchangeable with the archaic Greek word ρώμα, “Power.” The power of images, the power of words, the power of the State, were objective facts and verified by experience. The objects on display conveyed an immanent truth, the objective reality of the servile position of the conquered people. That was the meaning of that second nature, Culture.
All the same, the rulers of the Roman Republic (the Empire as well) were deeply concerned with Auctoritas, “Legitimacy.” Grand displays of art and architecture were not merely means to impress the People with the power of the ruler in images or words, as in High Baroque: they were also a rendering of accounts, as in Late Baroque. Like modern-day curators the Romans kept careful records of their acquisitions in case of doubtful provenance. Like modern-day museum directors they didn’t do much about it: looting was legitimate as long as it was in the service of the State. The great orator Cicero famously objected to the looting of Sicilian art treasures by the State’s administrator Verres, but that wasn’t for the looting per se, it was because Verres was looting for his own profit, not for the benefit of the State or the Community. Acquiring and displaying the treasures of conquered people was part and parcel of the public trust, the Res Publica. Also, Verres had poor taste and was easily duped by unscrupulous middlemen.1
On August 24 2022 in Prague, after strenuous deliberation, the International Council On Museums passed the following mission statement:
“A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.”2
Founded under the aegis of UNESCO, ICOM is the body representing the interests of museums worldwide or at the least attempting to streamline the divergent interests of its members, museum professionals all: curators, museum directors, staffers, plus those who pay their salaries. The Prague statement is a step back from a proposed declaration rejected at the Kyoto Conference in 2019, asking museums to “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” The new mission statement attempts to finesse the assumptions and resistances that led to the earlier rejection without addressing them directly. By one count it includes thirteen new buzz-words: “accessible,” “inclusive,” “diversity,” “participation,” etc. The assumptions and hidden agendas that determined the original rejection remain.
For things to change the structures have to change, or we’re back where we started. Those structures are laid bare, as is customary, in the initial clause of the Prague mission statement: “A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society.” The expression “not-for-profit” means different things in different countries with different laws but here the sense follows American usage: it conflates “not-for-profit” with “in the service of society,” no different from Cicero’s distinction between good looting in the service of the State and bad looting by loose cannons like… never mind.
And it's understandable why ICOM should choose to draw the line where it did. The French delegation to ICOM had been among the strongest opponents of the earlier draft, in line with the principles of their government, which opposes any kind of “communitarianism,” meaning anything approaching a sop to marginalized groups. At the same time, the governance of museums in France has been split: on one side the many museum professionals and government administrators who see museums, and culture in general, as little more than cash machines for the State and who conceive of their own task as la gestion de l’incorporel, “the management of intangible assets,” with an occasional lapse into Verrismo. On the other side there are those who argue that the role of museums is to instruct or edify, as noted by the drafters of the new mission statement:
“The old definition was passive, just about having a collection,” said Bruno Brulon, co-chair of ICOM Define, the committee overseeing the formulation of the definition. “The new definition is much more active.” 3
Years ago I described the Guggenheim’s Tom Krens and the like, museum directors who saw themselves as “managers of intangible assets,” as
“Dull CEOs floating on a cloud illusion that economics are the scientific mapping of an inevitable upward spiral and they need only know the science to drift upward with it.”
Krens, among others, was a director in the Roman manner. The art, the words, the ruler had innate powers that made outreach or compromise or democratic engagement with the Community superfluous: the immaterial materials of the museum were going to reach out all by themselves like little gods. The directors’ achievement was proof of what the Romans called pietas, his alignment with the Gods of Capital, ordered by Nature and Law. Things became art by fiat in the same way a strip of paper becomes a dollar bill, a mirror of the authority of the State, the true image of true value, “a slipshod model of capital, symbolic capital, and their relation."4
A similar attitude is found in a booklet published in 2010 under the sponsorship of ICOM, that aimed to “launch a new set of standards for the organisation and for museum professionals alike.” Like Krens, the authors are unshakably confident of the powers of the gods:
“We can define the specificity of communication as practiced by museums. […] It is most often unilateral, that is, without the possibility of reply from the receiving public, whose extreme passivity was rightly emphasized by [Marshall] McLuhan and [Harley] Parker. […] ‘So intense is [the museum’s] communicative power that ethical responsibility in its use must be a primary concern of the museum worker’ [Cameron].”
And they conclude:
“It appears... that the real task of the museum is closer to transmission, understood as unilateral communication over time so that each person can assimilate the cultural knowledge which confirms his humanity and places him in society.”5
Nine years later, one of the authors of this booklet would become a vocal and effective opponent of the progressive mission statement at the Kyoto conference. His opposition parallels the opposition of the “pragmatists” to the Zhdanovites in late Stalinist Russia, with the latter demanding all cultural production be subsumed to ideological needs, and the former claiming and demanding ideological neutrality, much as opponents of the Kyoto and Prague statements have done.6
For the Romans and the pragmatists, when the vanquished weep in front of their lost gods that’s got nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with The Way Things Are. Except, there is no neutrality; only claims of pragmatism, neutrality and objectivity that are, as with the Romans, vicious tools of hegemonic repression. The floggings will continue until morale improves.
[Part 1 of 2]
Steven H. Rutledge, Ancient Rome as a Museum: Power, Identity, and the Culture of Collecting, Chapter Two. “Collecting and Acquisition” (Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 31-78. Marcus Tullius Cicero, In Verrem [70 BCE].
"ICOM approves a new museum definition," ICOM (August 24, 2022); https://icom.museum/en/news/icom-approves-a-new-museum-definition/
Sarah Cascone, "After Years of Debate, Leading Experts Have Finally Decided What Defines an Ideal Museum. Did They Not Go Far Enough?" Artnet (August 25, 2022); https://news.artnet.com/art-world/after-years-of-debate-leading-experts-have-finally-decided-what-defines-a-museum-does-it-go-far-enough-2165551
Paul Werner, Museum, Inc. Inside the Global Art World (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2005), p. 75.
André Desvallées and François Mairesse, Key Concepts of Museology (Paris : Armand Colin, 2010), flap copy, p. 29, p. 30; references are to Marshall McLuhan, Harley Parker and Jacques Barzun. Exploration of the ways, means, and values of museum communication with the viewing public. Museum of the City of New York: New York State Council on the Arts, 1969; and D. Cameron. "A viewpoint: The Museum as a communication system and implication for museum education." Curator no. 11 (1968): pp. 33-40.
Jasmine Liu, “Carefully Worded Definition of 'Museum' Eschews Neutrality. Hyperallergic (August 25, 2022); https://hyperallergic.com/756031/carefully-worded-definition-of-museum-eschews-neutrality/