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

5 November 2013

Transmutation #8 - Metamorphosis as Dialogic Discourse

David Francis takes Ovid as his frame to explore the myths that are left behind when change takes place in the museum. There is often an equation between changes in practice and display with changes in thinking - Eilean Hooper Greenhill's adoption of Foucault's episteme in the context of museum history is an example.

Here, Francis choses to use the heteroglossia - the multiple dialogues - of Bakhtin to characterise the museum. How, then, do contemporary voices and historic heteroglossias come to light today and how do they let us dispell myths?

The first myth to be dispelled is that of progress. This myth is very apparent on the facade of the British Museum, where statues document the movement from savage to scientific civilized man. Whilst the British Museum is often seen as a secular institution, it had a religious background, but always with an interest in the natural world as the glory of God.

Francis shows us the original plans for the museum, which over time changed significantly. Today, 33% of the galleries are dedicated to Greek and Roman objects - less ethnographic, less natural history. How did this happen? During the early 19th century, there was a race to collect objects between England and France. There was also, inherently in the British Museum, an aesthetic spirit, an idea of the Platonic ideal of art in the Greek form: a chain of art. James Stephenoff's An Assemblage of Works of Art showcases this hierarchy, as did the layout of the British Museum. In theories of art, a cultural relativistic approach replaced this chain. Now there is no key to unlock the code of arrangement: the visitor lost in a wilderness of things.

Ethnography is one of the lost voices of the British Museum. It was almost apparent in the original displays, and became more obvious when cook returnd from the seas. But the objects are often labelled in terms of the collectors, and many were dispersed, sold in Vienna in the 1800s. Yet they were one of the most visible parts of the collections.

When the natural history collections left, there was more room for the ethnography collections. From the 1860s, objects were organized according to the principles of type and social evolution: another progress narrative. The creation of the Museum of Mankind in 1970 was the next big change for the ethnographic collections. Here, the exhibitions didn't attempt a huge typology, but a small example of all cultures with a series of small displays.

In 1997, the British Library outgrew the British Museum and gained its own site - and then the ethnography collections returned. They were returned to an aesthetically minded typography, given little context and historical discussion. The Living and Dying gallery is a prime example of their contested status.

The new episteme of cross cultural analysis is displayed predominantly in the British Museum's temporary displays. A History of the World in 100 Objects, however, exemplifies this paradigm, and shows how to contextualise objects you need not change their display, but change the media in which you talk about them. History of the World stressed the voice of communities in the collections, and placed the objects in their contexts and histories of collection.

The voice of the curator, then, is still there, but in dialogue with an arena of voices, contesting and supportive; the museum as heteroglossia.

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