The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

28 March 2011

Hop the Ninth - Now, smarten yourselves up and wash your face.

Jennie Morgan, The 'Cleaning Wars' - Change and Everyday Practice at the Museum

Kelvingrove, as a 'memorable' and powerful space, a place of wonder recently overhauled and redisplayed, to enhance access to the building and its collections. But it still contains aspects which have often been perceived as mundane. Cleaning maintains and sustains the new museum. It creates status, and simulates newness through the manipulation of surface images. Analysis has focussed upon transformations and redisplay, but those more mundane museum activities have just as powerful a role in cultivating the high status of an institution.

Visitors, and use, bring with them what Taussig has termed 'transgressive subjects' - dirt, in other words - which threaten to undo that position as a world class heritage site which the museum can attain. Comparing this to other heritage attractions, the nature of the museum is very different. Dirt, in the museum, can really threaten that patina of newness, which heritage sites of other kinds do not necessarily see as so problematics. Museums are afeared of becoming 'Victorian dust-traps' - are they, perhaps, afraid of the acts of time? I wonder what the acceptance of entropy would mean for the museum and its status?

Newness is valued for its ability to dazzle, to create an event, created through novelty and redisplay. What, however, is the role of cleaning in creating that sense of newness? It figures it in a very different way, for it does not mitigate the impact of entropy and change, but works with it. Yet it, critical as it is, seems to occupy a rather neglected position in institutional bids for capital projects. But cleaning has to be done - and this act brings with it it's own problems. Professional territories are demarcated through methodologies and the claiming and definition of tools and substances. Claims to knowledge, skill and experience make the act of cleaning a particularly social one, and the need of people to establish different roles for this particular part of museum maintanence, and reflection upon those roles when lost, raise particular issues about relationships with others, and self-representation.

Cleaning, of course, permits a different vision of objects - it can make them more visible, though perhaps the operation itself can so often be made invisible. The mundane, as much as the spectacular, can dazzle and evoke. The complexities of change are made apparent in the everyday, and allow the new and not so new to co-exist. What is newness, who is it performed for, and how might it become enmeshed with the old? In foregrounding these everyday practices, we can see an underlying vitality in their interpretive and creative roles. In cleaning, as Bachelard noted, we can bring an object into being.

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