Book Review: New Museums and the Making of Culture by Kylie Message (2006)

A book review by one of our guest bloggers, Christa Lohman, follows. Christa is a recent graduate of the MA Museum Studies programme at the University of Leicester. Her research interests include examining the role that museum education plays in the development of self- and group-identity. Her research to date has focused on the role of outreach in community regeneration through work done at The National Gallery and Tate Modern.

Thanks Christa, for allowing The Attic to publish your review! N.B. To our readers: If there is a book you would like to review on The Attic, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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Kylie Message. New Museums and the Making of Culture. Berg: Oxford and New York, 2006. 256 pp, 60 illustrations (b&w), bibliography, index. ISBN 9781845204549.
£55.00 (hardback); £19.99 (softback).

In this book, Kylie Message states that ‘…equality can only be achieved by the integration of diversity within all organizational levels of the museum…and [the museum should] seek engagement with all communities and individuals that constitute the nation in more practical terms.’ (Message: 2006, 183) This idea of practicality in the context of museums and their changing role within their society is a key issue for academics, government officials and museum practitioners alike. How do museums influence the making of cultures with respect to their communities and national governments? Is any discussion of postmodernism within cultural institutions purely rhetoric? Are museums developing a “dressed up” authoritarian voice to reflect the era of globalization? Are they still displaying what those in power (government and dominant cultures) want us to see, think and do?

This book does what any good museum exhibit should do - it makes us question what we have been told is the ‘truth’. Message questions the efficacy of the post-modern or ‘new museums’ that have been directly influenced by academia and government policies. Although academic rhetoric about the effectiveness of new modes of display and narratives in cultural institutions is vast, there has been little analysis of how these new museums are effectively changing the role of museums within their communities, if it all. This volume presents 8 chapters in which Message explores her view that the propagandistic techniques and nationalistic displays of the modern museum, that focused on social reform and nation-building, are still prevalent in the tenuously named ‘global museums’ that have been developed in the past quarter-century. Message uses iconic and controversial examples such as The Museum of Modern Art in New York City (MoMa), the banished International Freedom Center (IFC) at the World Trade Center site and The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa as well as smaller, ethnic museums to illustrate her examination of the global trend of traditional, didactic museums becoming ‘cultural centres’ for their local and global communities. Terms such as “community forum”, “dialogue” and “multicultural”, now increasingly prevalent in current museological discourse, are analysed thoroughly to examine how these ideas are being played out and causing tension within new museums.

The introduction and first chapter provide a quick, yet essential, background of the main theoretical concepts that have guided the study and development of museums. These chapters are clearly geared toward academics and although the language is at times laborious, it lays the groundwork for the museological theories which underpin Message’s research. The following 5 chapters explore these ideas through practical observations and descriptions of museum practice and the governments and cultures that influence it.

Chapter 2 looks at the use of architecture to develop a nonlinear, accessible exhibition space in new museums. Message suggests that modern architectural approaches may lead to superficial displays which continue to be hegemonic and modernist in nature. This use of architecture may be indicative of a shallow reading of how postmodernism can be realized within the museum. She uses the example of the new MOMA to demonstrate how museums that appear to be democratic and pluralistic can still reflect a singular universal narrative. What is particularly interesting in this chapter is the discussion of the commodification of culture which is roughly equated with ‘Americanization’ or ‘globalization’ trends in the economy and how this trend affects the architecture, display and amenities of the new museum.

Chapter 3 segues into an exploration of the economic, social and political aspects of globalization that are influencing how museums are interpreting and displaying their collections. Message’s main thesis is that globalization is simply a reframing of postcolonial thought. She questions the use of this current cultural, political and economic trend as providing a new theoretical background to exhibits that continue to convey the values of the affluent classes and serve as an important means of social reform which can be used by the state to educate the ‘masses’. In addition, she exposes the strong links that new museums and cultural centres still maintain with local and national governments and questions their ability to be truly post-modern in content if they are bound to the rules and regulations set up by dominant groups. Here she gives an historical background to the development of the modern museum and uses it to defend her view that the post-modern, globalized museum may just be a re-framing of postcolonial thought.

The main body of the book takes us through the tenacious real-life relationships between museums and the nations and diverse cultures they represent and serve. The author raises the question of whether or not museums are equipped to handle complex issues of interpreting and commemorating politically charged historical/current events. Two 9-11 exhibits are used to help define the components of the new museum or cultural centre as ‘a space between the realm of the state and the private sphere of its subjects or citizens where critical discussion of cultural and political matters can take place’ (Message 2006: 124) Through the examination of the spontaneous memorials and discussion that sprang from a national tragedy, she examines what components of display and interpretation can be considered to be essential when designing the exhibits of new museums. In this section she provides practical examples from museums in affected neighbourhoods, such as the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in Chinatown, New York, which served in the two pivotal roles that demonstrate what Message believes to be essential components of New Museums: firstly, they provided a space for communication and secondly, they have changing exhibition techniques to effectively represent a diverse public.

Chapter 5 turns the reader’s attention to the Pacific region by examining two eco-museums, or tribal museums: The Centre Culturel Tjibaou in New Caledonia and The National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, both of which aspire to post-modern strategies of representation and display in their mission statements. Here we see how regional and local politics can strongly influence the representation of cultures within a community. A discussion of the tensions between international and local political mandates, involving the appropriate political engagement of cultural institutions, serves as an interesting point to discuss how museums can effectively represent the unique cultures in their communities, while simultaneously representing a global perspective.

The historical, national and local perspectives of national and personal identity covered in this volume are deeply complex and interconnected. The ideas and practices questioned here are valuable for a variety of academic disciplines, as well as museum practitioners and city planners. However, the dense nature of the book can at times be overwhelming and it becomes a challenge to get inside the author’s mind and understand her thought processes and, more importantly, how they relate to the practice of museum exhibition and education. This leaves the reader with the feeling that this research could be more effectively translated to museum practice if organized in a less complex and more practical manner. However, it is perhaps a seemingly impossible task to simplify such politically and culturally charged issues as those presented here. This text provides a solid foundation for future research in this contested area of museum and cultural studies which may lead to a re-examination and re-defining of the term ‘new museum’. It leaves a gap open for more empirical research within these institutions that may help museum practitioners develop best practice techniques. A clearer focus on educational initiatives within museums and how their implementation can affect self/community identity may also prove necessary as more research is conducted.

Message states in her conclusion that “the discourses of the new museum—of access, democracy, the recognition of cultural diversity—might break with the museum’s traditional project of civic reform and succeed in offering an alternative and effective framework of cultural production and engagement.” (Message: 2006, 202) This volume will leave the reader questioning the next exhibit that they view. Who has funded it? What is it trying to convey? What influence will it have on the viewer? How will this influence be translated into the daily lives of its audience and how will it eventually play out in their social, economic and political communities? With this thorough and inquisitive research, Message is encouraging us to step back and analyze what these new museums are truly accomplishing. inspiring us to take the initiative to work through the rhetoric and develop museum practice that is truly inclusive and representative of our multicultural communities.


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