As a lecturer in Cultural and Media Studies at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, I recently taught an undergraduate course on Modernism. In addition to a class discussion on the discourse surrounding the museum of modern art, the participating students also visited the Van Abbemuseum in the Dutch city of Eindhoven, which was founded in 1936 as one of the first public museums for contemporary art in Europe. Although the students had prepared for the field trip by reading about the history of the institution, I was struck by the emotional and almost physical responses to nature of the collection, the strategies of display and the general atmosphere of the museum. As it turned out, most students appeared to be dead set against the sheer self-referentiality and hyperconceptualism that seemed to leak from every corner of the gallery space. One student even wondered why she was evidently not allowed to simply enjoy the beauty of art. I was slightly taken aback by the students’ fervour and heart-felt irritation, but I was actually not surprised by their comments. Studying the position of museums and heritage institutions in contemporary society for almost ten years, I have indeed witnessed a shift from understanding the museum as a medium for communicating ideas to a sensibility for creating affective or aesthetic experiences. My student’s demand for beauty was, in other words, illustrative of a move from cognition to experience that is noticeable in the whole of the museum and heritage sector.
Considering the undergraduates’ reaction to visiting the Van Abbemuseum, I am convinced that they belong to a metamodern generation that – as Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker aptly put it – is ready to discard the practice of deconstruction in favour of a neo-romanticist pursuit of beauty and aesthetics. At first glance, this apparent ‘experimentally experiential ambition’ (cf. Seigworth 2006) fits seamlessly in a category of economic offerings that can be defined as ‘aesthetic experiences’, in which audiences are passively immersed in a compelling and overwhelming environment (Pine & Gilmore 1999: 38). It would therefore be tempting to quickly jump to the conclusion that museums and heritage institutions are finally to succumb to the pressure of commoditization and the imperatives of today’s consumer society. After all, as Joseph Pine and James Gilmore claim in their best-selling book The Experience Economy, customized and paid-for experiences are nowadays an important source of value, beside commodities, goods and services. Addressing visitors in a personal way within a sensationally staged and highly aestheticized setting, many institutions seem to be fully absorbing the logic of the entertainment industry by adding amusement to the collection display in order to meet the demands of an audience that, in addition to being diversified and therefore greatly divided, is deeply influenced by the alluring spectacles of consumer culture (Kellner 2005: 25). As a consequence, my student’s cry for beauty may seem naïve or even superficial, since we are told that beauty is but skin-deep.
Granting that it may certainly be true that curating exciting or sensational exhibitions is a legitimate attempt to strengthen the position of the cultural sector against the increasing competition of the entertainment industry and other fields of leisure activities, I would like to push the argument in a somewhat different direction by stating that the growing attention for aesthetic experiences indicates a shift in the traditional museum sensibility, which expressly surpasses inventing new business models or reaching broader audiences. Moving from marketing and economics into the fields of cultural studies and museology, I propose that the current trends in museum display should rather be understood as a critical inquiry into the foundations of the twenty-first-century museum through the reassessment of its position in a digital and completely mediatized culture. The academic field of museum studies is nonetheless still mostly centered around the well-known assumption – stemming from postmodernism – that the daily work of museum professionals is embedded in an underlying system of cultural values and political beliefs that should be critically assessed and openly discussed. Consequently, especially within ethnographic and historical museums, there has been a continuous reflection on stereotypical and thus stigmatizing representations of ethnicity, gender, sex and class in the context of the gallery space. The inevitable result is an almost endless series of self-critical and self-referential exhibitions, research papers, conferences and mission statements.
Acknowledging the necessity of a radical examination of the gallery space in terms of power relations, dominant discourses and the production of knowledge, I am nevertheless inclined to follow Simon O’Sullivan (2006) in the assertion that the very radicality that underpins even the most fruitful and productive insights has almost become a new kind of orthodoxy in itself. Moreover, as O’Sullivan also stresses, its resources are hardly relevant to studying the twenty-first-century museum, since artistic practices and technologies of display increasingly operate beyond textual paradigms and representational regimes. Along with that, as Simon Baker rightly argues, we have nearly reached the limits of conceptualism, which is clearly evidenced by the merely ornamental parody of criticality that has characterized the museum of contemporary art in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Therefore, aligning myself with O’Sullivan and Baker, I feel that we should rather be investigating as to what kinds of alternative strategies might force themselves into play beyond the threshold of conceptualism, the fallacy of representation and the presumed self-evidentiality of deconstruction. My preliminary answer would be that both audiences and institutions are currently moving in the direction of re-aestheticizing the museum in the etymological sense of the word by expressing a renewed interest in materiality and sensuous perception, thereby highlighting the fact that “the same material operates with different logics depending on our attitude and approach to it” (O’Sullivan 2006: 19). Instead of necessarily organizing artworks, historical objects or ethnographic artifacts into a narrative sequence – the history of art, the evolution of life on planet earth, the biography of the Other – paying attention to the singularity of any particular object in a collection allows for an aesthetic experience that is opposed to the centralized, monolithic and canonical type of display that is typical of conventional heritage institutions. The museum object then changes into an object of an encounter, which does not seek to reconfirm pre-existing facts, beliefs and values. Rather, as O’Sullivan explains, a genuine encounter is challenging and unsettling. Additionally, when objects are removed from their usual context and perhaps recombined with pieces that appear to have no logical connection to it, museum visitors are encouraged to use their imagination to link the individual objects together and, in the practice of doing so, to retell familiar stories through “the creative construction of new narratives” (O’Sullivan 2006: 145). These personal tales are often oscillating between fragmented, highly personal tales and ‘grand’ or epic narratives, between factual learning and embodied knowledge, between past traditions and a mythopoetic future, between confirmation and distraction. Processes of identification or recognition are, in other words, continuously alternating with moments of disruption, thus drawing attention to the fact that metamodern encounters with a museum object entail “not just a reorientation in the object but a reconfiguration of the subject as well” (O’Sullivan 2002: 85). With regard to the experience of visiting the Van Abbemuseum, I would like to stress that these encounters also require the reconsideration or re-introduction of a notion of conceptualism that is firmly rooted in the material, as well as a museum practice that, above all, refers to something other than itself. Precisely through the atopic praxis of both-neither systematically ordering and-nor radically displacing the collection, the metamodern museum becomes a site – a placeless place – that is concerned with the non-committal exploration of alternative realities, which supplement the preservation of the past with a future presence that is futureless.
Douglas Kellner (2005) ‘Media Culture and the Triumph of the Spectacle’, in: Geoff King (ed.) The Spectacle of the Real: From Hollywood to ‘Reality’ TV and Beyond. Bristol: Intellect, pp. 23-36.
Simon O’Sullivan (2006) Art encounters Deleuze and Guattari: thought beyond representation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Simon O’Sullivan (2002) ‘Cultural Studies as Rhizome – Rhizomes in Cultural Studies’, in: Stefan Herbrechter (ed.) Cultural Studies: Interdisciplinarity and Translation. Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 81-93.
B. Joseph Pine II & James H. Gilmore (1999) The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre and Every Business a Stage. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Gregory Seigworth (2006) ‘Cultural Studies and Gilles Deleuze’, in Gary Hall & Clare Birchall (eds.) New Cultural Studies: Adventures in Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press: 107-126.
In 2010 Museum Het Valkhof in the Dutch city of Nijmegen promised its visitors to offer a startling viewing experience by presenting a hundred objects from its main collection in a strangely new way.