The museum as an ideological space

I came to learn, to search for what enchants me, or to do my duty towards norms? ”,   Paul Valerie in 1923 asks, expressing his enmity to museums, those“ stacks of frozen creatures ”that continue today to present themselves as cultural Muslims, and as institutions that guard History is made available to all with impartiality and objectivity, and it is far from reality. Museums may be one of the most popular and biased public spaces in our contemporary world.

The museum, especially artistic and archaeological, is a dual political place, on the one hand, it retrieves the purposes from its context and disrupts its original functions and narratives in exchange for a single narrative, is the narration of the museum itself, which, on the other hand, acts as a container to receive the narrative of the authority based on it, which passes Its agendas are through the process of selecting the pieces, and the two ways of presenting and presenting them.

By isolating the collectibles from their original context, the museum resorts them into fictional chains and assemblies, according to a logic that often contrasts with the logic of the works themselves. As in a supermarket, we find all the pottery pieces in this hall, and all the paintings that represent Christ in those, all items are inscribed on their shelves with numbers and dates as if they were made to be part of this group, not from their architectural and ritual context. Only in the museum can ten mummies or five Da Vinci paintings accumulate in a few meters, “rare items that their creators wanted to remain unique”, according to Valerie, each of which was a marvel of its time and place before it turned into just another piece: «Sometimes we say that “This plate kills all the other paintings around it.”

In addition, the museum imposes specific viewing angles by means of glass cages, bases and other barriers that reinforce the new role of these purposes as resisting meditation, after having other goals, and some of them were originally designed to avoid looking, such as Egyptian funerary masks buried with the dead or Gothic sculptures Which were placed high in the churches to remain invisible. To satisfy his conscience, the museum attaches orphaned objects to dry, interpretative texts, which serve as an obituary rather than as a stimulus to the visitor’s imagination.

The museum succeeds in silencing the ideologies and functions of the pieces at the expense of their value as a purpose for viewing, equal contexts, and it becomes easy to make free comparisons, for the God who will save the city, and the most valuable book for that monastery, and portraits that were a wedding gift inherited in the family salon, all turn into similar purposes, move around The visitor in front of her as he transfers between TV channels, with some numbness.

Instead of continuing to blame visitors for their indifference to the greatness of history, it is worth looking at the presentation in light of what the philosopher Jean Baudrillard calls the “propaganda paradigm”, [2]  who in his view invades all forms of cultural expression, which is the type of communication based on profiling and flattening the differences between Different messages versus the apparent effect of the same medium of communication, so that what the ad sells becomes less important than the advertisement, just as what the value of the piece as a museum object of the degree becomes more important than its original value as a utilitarian, religious, or symbolic tool. The blatant contradictions of human civilization are being reconciled in “language without contradictions, such as dreaming, of shallow density”.

The obsession with acquisition and assembly spread in Europe with the Renaissance, and by the seventeenth century it became commonplace for kings and nobles to possess huge artistic and archaeological collections, some of which began to be made available to the public as Louis XV in France or Catherine II in Russia. But the true birth of museums, according to thinker Bernard Cloche,coincides with the thought of lights and the birth of human concepts and human dignity. With the opening of the British Museum in 1753 as the first independent museum, and then the French Revolution nationalized royal and ecclesiastical properties, those holdings shifted from personal or divine ownership to public ownership, that is, they became humanity, and therefore each of us.

This transformation is at the heart of the museum’s ideology, which transforms the visitor into a legitimate heir of its holdings, demanding that it shape itself in one way or another as a continuation of it, having transformed it from an expression of aristocratic whims and personal tastes into references to universal and absolute values, into normative examples that tell the story of “civilization” and “ History ”,“ human creativity, ”and other concepts that are filtered out of their complexities to be presented as eternal castings,“ simplified,  with some temptation, and some consensus ”, according to Baudrillard, fundamental facts that are neither mortal nor old, nor even physical, where restorers work to deny Time for those purposes remains eternal, as are the constants that have become Although they represented. 

This explains the reverence and silence that prevails in the museum, because in its semi-religious nature as a temple to history and humanity, the museum assures those who enter it that everything that humanity has done and will do will spontaneously and calmly in the big story that tells the greatness of man. Therefore, it is not uncommon to love a piece in the museum in an intimate personal way or to hate it and want to dispose of it as we do with other purposes in life, our relationship with it is limited to a one-way link: respect.

If the museum’s ideology is to flatten the differences between works to insert them into a monolithic narration of absolute and immortal values, then this lack of historical depth for the works themselves ends up serving as a container filled with a new ideology, the ideology of power.

This is especially evident in the major national museums that were founded in the nineteenth century with the aim of presenting the best produced by human civilization, a slogan that often camouflages national and class vanity, appearing in the path imposed on the visitor and in the museum’s own architecture. In the central section of the Louvre Museum, for example, which is organized back to the days of Napoleon I, the visitor crosses a foyer inhabited by Greek and Roman statues that leads it towards the “ Great Gallery ”», The museum’s center and center of gravity is reserved exclusively for Italian Renaissance art, which in turn leads to a geometrically and morally parallel space, this time reserved for French art for the 18th and 19th centuries. This organization is not due to the absence of Italian art after the seventeenth century or French before the eighteenth century or the lack of the Louvre of these holdings, but rather to the desire to reinforce a narrative in which the visitor sees with his own eyes the transfer of civilization from the East (the Egyptian section) towards the West, via Athens first, and then to Rome Old and then modern and from there to Paris. An anecdotal present in all the contents of French life since Louis XIV founded the French Academy in Rome to transfer and possess that knowledge, until Napoleon invaded Egypt and Italy and plundered hundreds of artifacts and artifacts, so the museum does not create it as much as it shows material proofs of its authenticity.

In exchange for the obsession with Latin countries to strengthen their connection to classical civilizations across Rome, the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon countries fabricated a parallel relationship that passes through Athens, so the King of Bavaria created the Galipotec Museum   in the form of a Greek temple, just like  the British Museum , as part of campaigns to convert Munich and London into a new Athena, In its universities, banks, and government buildings, it is a way of packaging the past and the present with the same Greek cover.

As for the Prado Museum in Madrid, it was prepared in conjunction with the Louvre with similar architecture and narration: a large gallery dedicated this time to Italian and Flemish arts, and another parallel dedicated to Spanish art. While the northern museums followed a different arrangement, we see the Museum of Ancient Teachers in Brussels dedicating side rooms to French and Italian artists while celebrating in its largest areas Flemish and Dutch art, the same art that the Louvre cuts into the small rooms of the last floor.

Even far from identity issues, politics extends to norms that define what is “art” and what is essentially “precious”, standards that remain the heir to aristocratic and bourgeois norms, which justify the dedication of the Louvre to wide halls of  these terrible porcelain plates,  while the National Gallery is still in London, Like most Western museums, it is considered that the personal portraits of the Kingdom’s nobles constitute a public artistic affair, that the public must continue to look towards them and be fascinated by their clothing, jewelry, and presence.

Even without clothes or jewelry, the naked body is a political space in itself. After Hitler, for example, transferred his favorite statue,  the  Greek-origin discus , to the Munich Museum, he stated that “we can talk about progress, not only when we reach a similar beauty, but when we excel.” In the same year, the Nazi propaganda film  Olympia  literally translated the idea, opening the film with a group of Greek statues, the last of which is the discus ramie, who turns into  a  contemporary German athlete embodying the superiority of the Aryan race, the heir of Greek civilization. Even beauty can be a political issue.

European museums live in attempts to deal with these historical burdens, as tourist trips entitled ” uncomfortable art ” appeared in London , as an attempt to develop a critical relationship with some works that go beyond blind respect and expose their imperial, racial or masculine ideologies while the Louvre tried to alleviate the arrogance of the Napoleonic legacy With the opening of new departments of Islamic, African and other arts, it remained meager in front of the original group due to the lack of space and the lack of ability to acquire huge collections that were always obtained using armies and fleets.

The museum pulls objects out of context and dedicates them to watching, giving them the illusion of absolute and sacred values ​​that in fact act as a mirror of the power agendas.

If European museums succeed in camouflaging their political agendas in selecting and styling objects, an Arab museum like the Jordan Museum does not expressly display its agenda. Between the Stone Age and Bronze Age halls, the visitor stumbles to  the Bedouin and Migration Hall , where he can rest on contemporary pillows and see the images of sand and camels, a movement enveloped in an anthropological tone, of course false, with evidence presented to the Bedouins in a stereotypical and eternal manner instead of tracing their historical transformations through time (until the path implicitly indicates They have not changed since the stone ages), and due to the fact that these “interactive sites” do not include, according to the designation of the museum, neither the cities nor the countryside, so they end up as a folkloric entertainment for foreigners, and as a reminder of my identities of the locals with the superiority of some components at the expense of another.

Like other museums, ideological conflicts between the disgrace of Hellenistic deity, the Jewish Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Bedouin host add up all to appear as in a textbook, as mere evidence, not about themselves, but about  “the story of the land and man of Jordan”,  a story that does not fundamentally concern them, since its existence is limited Itself is a reminder of the fragility of states, their stories, their geographical and cultural borders.

In comparison with other national museums in the region, we see  the Palestine Museum  in Birzeit presenting itself as a “transnational political and geographic institution” of its goals “to produce narratives of the history of Palestine” (collecting, as opposed to “the story of the land and man of Jordan”, alone), while the Damascus Museum, The oldest in the Levant (1919), which does not have a position to present itself mainly, so the authority takes over the presentation of it, especially since its recent reopening and its use of the media as an additional occasion to  glorify the army and confirm the superiority of the Syrian person . These degrees reflect the difference in the dependency of the museum, between a direct tool in the hands of a military authority (Damascus), an independent institution named in the form of government support (Amman), and a non-profit organization in a country without a government or essentially clear borders (Birzeit).

The museum therefore pulls objects out of context and dedicates them to watching, seeking the illusion of absolute and sacred values ​​that in fact act as a mirror of the power’s agendas . The article may have touched on that authority as a state, and therefore the large national museums concerned mostly with arts, antiquities and political history, but the authority in its broad sense may be social or scientific, and thus affect anthropological, environmental and other museums in various degrees and shapes. Having the ability to open a museum and owning large possessions is in itself a sign of authority, and evidence of the desire of that authority to talk about itself and its vision of things, even if it claims otherwise.

This may be one of the reasons for the aversion the museum raises for some who see themselves compelled to be interested in collections that they can not communicate mainly with, without talking about its appreciation and acceptance as “normal” axioms. The museum “turns history into nature,” as the artist Daniel Burin writes, [4]  who, like other artists of the twentieth century, is best known for his criticism of art museums. However, most of his works have ended in museums (and, ironically, a week ago a visitor  attacked and tore up one of his works  at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, one of the frequent reactions to read as a reflection of the frustration of visitors and their alienation in a violent and unhealthy space).

It is easy for an Arab article on museum criticism and the mentality of museums to seem like a catch in murky water, since Arab museums do not need additional reasons for neglecting them than they are originally, governmental and popular. But the bottom line is not the call to abandon or reject museums, but rather, the urgent invitation to visit more and more and try to invade them intellectually and see their holdings as funny, annoying, beautiful and amazing. As for the smartest solution to confront the domination of museums, it may be with its heart on its own: with the museum’s museum, that is, by presenting it not as a neutral institution that protects history and preserves it from a superstructure site without submitting to its rules, but rather as a historical purpose similar to what it contains, i.e. our awareness that the Louvre does not tell the story of human civilization but rather the story of Imperial France, and that the Museum of Jordan does not tell the history of the people of Jordan, but rather the history that the present system hopes for its subjects at the expense of their more complicated individual date

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