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

6 November 2013

Transmutation #18 - Musealizing change or changing the museum: the case of the musical instrument museum

In the past thirty years, Judith Dehail says, museums have looked more and more at the visitors who come through their doors. But rarely are those visitors asked to participate in rethinking what the museum should be. The musical instrument museum is a case in point; the main focus of her work is about how the external work of the music lover is able to destabilize the notion of the museum, and act as a catalyst for change.

The music lover is not only an instrumentalist, but anyone who takes part in listening to music and making instruments, no matter how amateur or professional. She uses two institutions, one in Paris and one in Leipzig, to illustrate her thesis.

Usually, a musical collection is defined as a set of objects which have lost their original function and often their original place. Museum objects are elected to stand as witnesses to beauty, identity and civilization - expected to lose their use value, and transform into something symbolic. The changing significance of the object is represented in James Clifford's Art-Culture System: A Machine for Making Authenticity. In this system, objects circulate. In it, musical instruments in collections are freed from their own personal past and come to have a multivalency of potential meanings.

But the perspective of the visitors might force us to reconsider this idea. One of the most commonly shared reactions of visitors is frustration at the inability to interact with the objects. Sometimes they are empathic in their reaction; understanding how the use of the object might not be compatible with conservation and other requirements. Sometimes, a tension arises when a visitor does not see the latter values as comparable with their own desire to use and play the instruments. In the third form, the visitors do not understand the transformation of the object from used to symbolic; often, these people get to play the instruments.

Visitors, then, clearly perceive different values for the instruments than the museum does. This suggests that the transmutation of the object from used to symbolic thing enacted by the museum does not entirely work, and that the implicit rule of distance in the museum visit can be problematic. Jay notes that the in Western philosophical tradition knowledge must be gained before anything else, leading to the predominance of vision in modern knowledge. The museum has indeed often been seen as the ultimate in opticality.

But in the musical instrument museum, this is clearly challenged by the visitors. The 'fetishisation' of the symbolic object frustrates the visitor's normal relationship with such objects, and counters the very idea of music itself. Audioguides can help with this; but touch, too, would assist in a significant way with the visitor's ability to interact with the instruments. Musical practice strongly involves the body, and calls for a different hierarchy of senses than the museum usually requires.

It is particularly interesting to note the comparison between the display of none Western and Western musical instruments in both of these institutions; both relegate their non-Western objects - Leipzig gave their the to the neighboring ethnology museum, and the Parisian Museum presents them in a separate gallery outside of time. The white, male, Western, chronological narrative of classical music is privileged - and both are limited in their display of instruments of the pop culture of the 20th and 21st century. Musical visitors, however, often challenge the hierarchies implicit in this.

And the museums can respond; temporary exhibitions, for instance. And the Museum in Paris presents concerts on a daily basis, sometimes with informative talks about the music and the instruments that they play. However, in interviews Dehail conducted, she discovered that some visitors were in fact disturbed by the concerts, that some musicians found the space uncomfortable to play in, and that some visitors saw those musicians with pity; as objects on display, rather than people to be listened to.

The musical instrument museum is threatened by the deep and bodily relationships the visitor has with music outside the museum. They bring to light the hierarchies of power and the senses on which the traditional museum model relies. As such, they are prime sites for the rethinking of the space, attitude, and display strategies of the museum in the twenty-first century.

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