In Greenblatt’s article, he discusses the life f the object before it entered the museum, that these objects served a purpose and have a history that shifts when it is placed in the museum setting. He asks us to consider:
How have the objects come to be displayed? What is at stake in categorizing them as ‘museum-quality’? How were they originally used? What cultural and material conditions made possible their production? What were the feelings of those who originally held these objects, cherished them, collected them, possessed them? What is my relationship to these same objects now that they are displayed here, in this museum, on this day?
This weekend I visited the Art of the Pacific exhibition at LACMA I contemplated these questions. While the hierarchal nature of museums have historically subjugated non-western arts and artifacts, I feel that many museums have attempted to correct these wrongs by “elevating” these arts by in some ways decontextualizing their objects to display them for purely aesthetic value, as western art objects. This was apparent in the Art of the Pacific Exhibition. The presentation of the works is rather beautiful in a minimalist “white box” display with no text.
While the lack of text to give context for these pieces and their “former life’s” is problematic in itself, as many of them where not just meant for aesthetics and were stolen from their original owners through colonialism, I also found it troubling that they invited a visiting artist, Franz West, who is neither of Polynesian or Melanesian descent or an expert on the objects to present the show. While one from the culture cannot represent the beliefs of all pacific communities, I found it a bit strange that they chose a western artist to “elevate” these works to make them “museum-quality”.
When considering multifunctional cross-cultural objects that have been displaced and re-contextualized in a museum, I think that in may ways, the way to resolve the flattening of their presentation is not just through text as Greenblat’s article suggest, but unique approaches to display including digital technologies.