Week 4: The Museum as an Apparatus of National Identity

What provides the basis for any given culture’s sense of self and nation? I wrote a paper in an anthropology class last quarter about the power of sport as an apparatus for shaping nationhood. In one example, I looked at soccer tournaments in rural, Amazonian Peru and how the structure and rules of the sport help integrate modern laws (which favor unity under the state) with indigenous cultural values (which hold the individual in high regard). In another example, I looked at ski telecasts in Slovenia and how the media acts as a vehicle for contrasting Slovenia with other nations and using visual cues and language to construct a national identity.

Bennet’s “The Exhibitionary Complex” points to the State using museums as a means of setting up rules and control in much the same way as do soccer tournaments in Peru. But as this week’s readings point out, the role of museums in shaping a nation and a culture extends much further. One quote from the Introduction to “Exhibiting Cultures” really stood out: “Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach have analyzed the architecture, decoration, and art-historical arrangement in what they call universal survey museums—the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and so on—and conclude that these elements create rituals of citizenship.” What museums choose to display and how they choose to display it has a great influence on the public’s notion of a place. Tourists often seek out museums when traveling, and citizens visit museums for education and enrichment, so curators and museum architects are instrumental in shaping these experiences and peoples’ views.

An interesting tension arises when museums display art of other cultures. Does the displaying museum get to define nationhood by means of its exhibitionary practices, or does the culture whose works are on display have a say? Which state has the right?

2 thoughts on “Week 4: The Museum as an Apparatus of National Identity”

  1. I think its interesting how a museum’s displays can have such cultural importance to certain groups of people. I think that the culture of whose the works are on display certainly has a right for an opinion on what a museum displays, however its hard to tread the line between defining nationhood and cultures accurately, and being culturally sensitive to the work that is being displayed.

  2. Unfortunately the question of who gets to decide exhibitionist practices is never questioned by those who are in control. Ultimately, it comes down to who owns the culture and the history in the first place. For travelers visiting foreign museums, I have to wonder if foreign cultures misrepresent our own. If one were to visit China and see how they portray Western art, I wonder how the exhibitionist process changes…

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