Museum: On Representation


personal opinion.headerThe word museum has been defined by the authorities in field of museums and art studies in countless ways. In its classical origins mouseion or mausaeum, it meant the “seat of the Muses”, the mythological goddesses of the arts. It also referred to a place of philosophical institution or a place of contemplation like the great library at Alexandria. Museum by the 15th century was attributed to collections of fineries of rich Italian nobles (Medicis). The term was also used during the Enlightenment to carry book titles denoting coverage comprehensiveness. It was also referred to as a collection of curiosities during the 17th century highlighted by John Tradescant’s collection in Lambeth (a London borough) with a collection catalogue titled Musaeum Tradescantianum, published in 1656. Still in England almost two decades later, the private collection of Elias Ashmole was bequeathed to the University of Oxford. A building was constructed to house the collection anda this structure was known as the Ashmolean Museum which opened to the public in 1683.

The idea of an institution called a museum, established preservation and display of collections was quite known in the 18th century England with the British Museum in 1753 and with Denis Diderot’s plan for a national museum for France in his 1765 Encylopedie. Museum during the 19th and 20th century conformed to the definition of a building that house cultural materials accessible to the public.

Today, we cannot define a museum with an emphasis on the building or structure given the anti-museum campaign during the 60s and 70s as it questioned the museum in its definition as an art space or a specifically reserved area for art presentation. The contemporary world now exhibits inside and out— intramural and extramural.

Then, what makes a museum a museum?

In its simple classical sense derived from the definitions above, it seems that museums are just repositories of antiquities and objects of fineries acquired through a bequest of a private individual or purchased for display and study which are accessible to the public. However, we need to remember that this is an overly simplified definition. We need also look into what makes up a museum? Collection is our focus and the dynamics of its beauty (aesthetics) and tale (context).

Oftentimes, objects inside the museum are primarily judged for their aesthetic qualities i.e. works of art inside art museums. An art object that has claimed a spot inside an art space has been noted aesthetically. According to Svetlana Alper, exhibitions bring out the “visual distinction” of objects with “greater visual interest”.

But for anthropological and historical museums, objects are judged for their authenticity and not for their physical beauty alone. Physical arrangements of these items are carefully planned as well to create the right emphasis, focus and level of importance among the pieces and to purposely educate the viewers using the display.

Moreover, objects that are part of a museum’s collection are not just manifestations of our material world judged for its quality of work, its originality and authenticity. There are debates about whether to consider the object alone underscoring the aesthetics of object at hand or understand its contextual value or the knowledge and interpretation it contains. Thus from this point of view, art theorists have arrived to two models of exhibition: (1) as a vehicle for the display of objects and (2) as a space for telling a story.

Museum of the Jewish Diaspora Tel Aviv, Israel:
“We exist to tell a story, not to collect objects”

I also want to tell a story… a story about my town, Silang.