Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

Museum Frictions: Public Cultures/Global Transformations

by Ivan Karp, Corrine Kratz, Lynn Szwaja and Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, Editors
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2006
632 pp., illus. 70 b/w. Trade, $99.95 Paper, $27.95
ISBN: 0-8223-3878-5; ISBN: 0-8223-3894-7.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg


Museum Frictions sets the agenda for the conjuncture of critical theory and practice in the museum world and arts and heritage industries as they continue to grapple with the effects of globalization. The last in a trilogy on museum anthropology, the first being Exhibiting Cultures (1991) and the second being Museums and Communities (1992), the series constitutes the tangible heritage of the Rockefeller Foundations and the Smithsonian Institutions investments in funding, inspiring and assisting museum programs, exhibitions and scholarly research. If the first two volumes provided the proverbial intellectual wheels for critical museum studies in the nineties, this volume provides the connecting chain to combine and advance all this knowledge so as to produce the conceptual power to sustain such intellectual energy in museums and the heritage industry for years to come.

Inadvertently perhaps, Museum Frictions represents a productive conjunction of anthropological interests in the politics of cultural representation with philosophical issues previously more central to Cultural Studies, specifically in terms of the shared interest in Jurgen Habermas’ notion of the public sphere. Working within this legacy it is an exceptional example of inter-disciplinary fertilization in which anthropologists have responded to Tony Bennet’s groundbreaking contribution The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (1995) which advanced his earlier work "The Exhibitionary Complex" published in New Formations in 1988. No less significant is the opportunity that this engagement has provided for Bennet himself to advance his notions of the museum as a differencing machine and to develop a more qualified notion of the public sphere in order to more effectively engage the particularities of globalization. The total effect is a wonderfully energized set of emerging theoretical discourses and practices in tactical museologies and museum reconfigurations in which activist-scholars are applying and debating critical theory in the service of creativity and cultural production. Herein, the institution, activities, politics and even pre-colonial histories of museums become as much sites of observation, critique and action as do the nature of the exhibits themselves.

The study presents a diverse field pointing to the ever- expanding conceptualization of what constitutes a museum and its aims and content. These include conflicts, tensions and anxieties within tangible and intangible heritage industries including community museums, slavery and holocaust museums as commemorative contexts for expressing grief, national parks as spaces of death, colonization and opportunity, Disney-ification and the neo-liberal Bilbao-effect and much else. Despite this profusion of materials, a singularly powerful thread is woven intermittently through the text, namely the conceptual work performed on Bennet’s notion of the exhibitionary complex in developing the related notions of experiential and the expositionary complexes as deftly considered by Barbara Kirshenblatt —Gimblett. Extending this, and almost by way of epilogue, Fred Myers, combines Bourdieu and Bennet proposes an "exhibitionary field of cultural production" and explores revelatory Aboriginal regimes of value and the way in which academic seminars complementing exhibitions highlight the dislocations that exist between the various participants. This adds tension to Howard Morphy’s prior questioning of the very notion of the exhibitionary complex in which he proposes that exhibitions might more accurately be understood in terms of complex motivations and negotiated and highly motivated outcomes used by individuals, institutions and communities in order to achieve their different objectives.

Critique and extension of the Habermasian notion of the public sphere aside, similarly fascinating ideas and instances stand out such as the new term "tactical museologies", the refusal in cases to include specimens or originals, the use of originals to magnify the aura of the copy and the simulacrum, the use of auto-critique to limit the inevitable controversies which result from exhibitions and even the destruction and removal of specimens to honor the intent or cultural logic and mores of the creators. From all these fascinating instances to the surprise and wonder in the Lucky Market in Phnom Penh and the transgressive flexibility of micro-museum circuitry in Peru, Frictions provides a radically opened up notion of what museums are and what such institutions can achieve — particularly in post-conflict and/or in disenfranchised and aggrieved communities.

In the spirit of the book, it is important to highlight at least two theoretical and philosophical frictions that exist within the text, firstly between Tony Bennet and Martin Hall over globalism’s assumed power, and secondly, between the ancestral figures of Walter Benjamin and Andre Malraux over the power of the image versus the "authentic" object. As I see it, the ideal result of such intellectual frisson in this volume would be for activist-scholar-practitioners currently outside of this privileged community to generate applicable insights and energy out of these internal frictions. By transferring such tensions and knowledge from one context to another, they could empower themselves to use museums as democratization and educational machines and in the embryonic case advanced below to engage the apposite visions of Benjamin and Malraux in which photographic (now digital) imagery can vastly extend rather than destroy the power of the aura of the original and thus the reach of the local.

In Banda Aceh today, there is a smoldering if largely unknown debate amongst intellectuals engaged in civil society initiatives over a proposed Tsunami museum, in which photographic imagery would presumably constitute much of the museum’s collection. Arts activists in the organization Epicentrum critique the planned museum as a perverse diversion of reconstruction funds considering that the Aceh museum built in 1914 survived the tsunami completely intact and is poorly funded and greatly under-used. Simply put, the frictions addressed and theorized in this publication remain to be tested in future applied activist settings such as these which exist in the extreme periphery of the international museum community. And there, especially in such emerging democratic environments, without the benefit of reading this book and becoming familiarized with these tactics and theories, professionals in museums and those interested in the museum world will not be able to conceptualize just how important, how exciting and how potentially productive the use of museums in promoting civil society initiatives is proving to be.



Updated 1st September 2007

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@sfsu.edu

copyright © 2007 ISAST