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

27 March 2012

A Fourth Sounding: The Museum As Retrotopia

Pop culture, some argue, has an addiction - a nostalgia for - to its own past. It's almost, perhaps, as if the past is speeding up, and soon there will be no more past for us to revive. This, at least, is the starting point for David Francis's presentation.

Here, David argues that our obsession with all things retro is an opportunity for museums to engage in the development of contemporary - and future - culture. Long have we looked back to the past - utopian thought has engaged with this since the time of Hesiod's Work and Days. Utopia, then, questions and looks to both the past and the future.

Looking to the past has also been seen as the basis for cultural movements forward - in the architectural ideals, artistic practices and social theory of movements such as the Gothic Revival, Ruskin, the Pre-Raphelites, which were inspired by medieval designs. This gained a subculture, with a distinctive dress code and style of speech; Aestheticism, which saw the realisation of utopia as the improvement and physical perfection of the individual.

Retrocultures have had a huge impact in society throughout the twentieth century - we might think of the Teddy Boy, for instance, who took from the fashions of the 18th century to make their own style. Sometimes, these subcultures have been hugely powerful in museums - and their presence has, at times, obscured the art and objects on display. A display of Aubry Beardly's work at the V&A in 1967 was attended by huge numbers of early members of the psychedelic movement.

Museums themselves have looked back to their past - the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum is a prime example. A return to the imagined wonder of the Cabinet seems, too, to be a reaction to the white cube, didactic space which became so prevalent in the 20th century - perhaps, I might argue, a return to a more subjective, individualized and 'writerly' environment than the somewhat homogeneous institutions which we risk creating in a context bound by strictures and rules.

But the 'retro' has been seen as a negative thing - evidence of the increasingly simulated nature, and the loss of reality, as propounded by thinkers such as Baudrillard. Is the revitalization of the past evidence that there is no present, that there can, therefore, be no new future - in the strictest sense of the word. In speaking to the retro, are we as museums contributing to this? Are we creating a new future, is this a progressive thing, or are we part of an atrophy of cultural development? Is Baudrillard's criticism of lazy indulgence correctly directed?

Perhaps not - David ends by discussing the discourse between subcultures and the 'Participatory Museum', in which museums, visitors and artists can feed off each other to create new and positive experiences - and perhaps, then, new futures. New Utopias.

In S/Z, Barthes wrote that every new reading is a reading for the first time. When we re-read an old favorite book, when we visit a site which we loved as a child several years later, we read it through altered eyes. When we revisit an aesthetic, a style, an architecture, a mode of speech, a display style, individuals and museums do the same. Perhaps, in the participatory engagement of visitors and artists, the collaborative projects of museums, can mitigate against this sense of atrophy: we can move on from pure nostalgia into a joyous remaking.

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