Marie-Béatrice Vulin


Museums stand as both cultural data banks of society, made of material remains of the past, and theaters of history's reconstruction. Conservation of collections and their public presentation put museums at the interface between cultural past and a contemporary public which is not only spectator but also often unconscious actor in his/her own culture. Even modern art museums must find the connection between objects and public. In fact, the representation of modern reality may seem meaningless since people are not used to distancing themselves from their environment. Certainly it may be shocking for the average person to see a TV set in a museum transformed into and artwork serving a different purpose from which the visitor is used to. The puzzled visitor needs explanations to link this transformed objet to his/ her modern environment. He/she would ask the museum to make authority and reveal the historical sense of this artwork.

As past keepers, museums hold the knowledge of cultural origins and the meaning of societies' transformations. Based on the historical time assumption, museums have already chosen the criteria which qualify objects to enter History. Hence museums turn the object into a cultural past worthy of preserving as a symbol of its time. The object loses "its innocence" to join the well-organized "labelization process" of time. This selection of information and communication affects the perception people have about their culture and about the world since museums have the ability to transform a selective and partial history into "absolute truth". Indeed the Past is always present in museums where restoration of cultural artifacts maintains the illusion that material objects are eternal. Consequently the display of these objects in museums is supposed to represent what history is made of. Objects are turned into information for the representation of historical time. However, what do we know about the human being who may have stood for hours in the painter's cold studio while the artist was drawing his/her portrait? Neither the painter nor the subject were fully aware of his/her posterity. Even though ordering a portrait serves to mark visually one's place in one's descent. Nevertheless, the cultural phenomenon of the museum has made this man or this woman the ancestor of his/her whole cultural group. People are supposed to recognize a part of their cultural heritage in these anonymous characters from the past. In addition if painters are famous, the cultural context of the paintings becomes completely absent. The paintings become a Titian, a Manet etc., regardless the identity of the painted subject and the original purpose of the painting. Light and composition of these paintings are studied to determine which works are worthy to enter Art history's pantheon. Nowadays who will make the sign of the cross while viewing Raphael's Madonna in a museum?

Nevertheless objects in museums collections appear to be playing out an historical drama in which the public witnesses as spectator "the confrontation of metamorphoses" as André Malraux says in a Museum without walls. Context and meaning need to be revealed in order to connect the public to this "confrontation". It is a matter of criteria choice of information and communication media. Meanwhile both need to be related to the contemporary times. In fact if museums hold the past and its meaning, its representation to the public is influenced by the perception of the public itself on its culture and its assumptions about the world. Furthermore the media of communication museums use reflect the type of information the public is used and allowed to receive regardless the limits of the media. Hence museums serve a political and relative knowledge rather than an absolute truth.

Adam, in his Civic value of Museum (1934), pleads for a museum of "good taste". In fact advertisement, the new demiurge of communication at this time, took an artistic form for commercial purposes threatening museums' authority over imagery and information. Adam suggested that educating the "ignorant mass" to "good taste" would help people to distinguish fine arts from trivial objects of consumption. "Their improved judgment would over time influence the outlook of their neighbors and with the prestige of museums behind they would be more able to resist the blandishment of misleading advertisements in matters of everyday taste". Adam banished the colonialist manners of advertisement which weakened museums' power over culture. He even suggested that museums educate designers to good taste and fine arts. According to him a wallpaper should be as artistic and tasteful as is a watercolor. He did not define his criteria for good taste, though. As a matter of fact, Adam noticed that industrialization cut workers from the whole process of production. Their life lacked sense and they were losing their cultural identity in the belief of advertisement information. What Adam proposed was a very limited diffusion of information aimed at educating people to the proper and meaningful way to behave at his time. Communication was used to give a cultural identity to people based on the belief of the progress. The traditional values of good taste would freeze diffusion of new information and would frame cultures according to its established standards as if new technology did not have a direct cultural impact on societies. In Adam's view museums became the social model for all the communities of society.

Pop art reversed the discourse and espoused advertising as a new art, the art of people. Therefore art was everywhere and democratic. The power of a society of good taste was excluded for a democratic purpose. Kellogg's Corn Flakes card boxes were exposed in galleries and are still found nowadays in museums. Marilyn Monroe, duplicated in hundreds of copies, became the unreal woman available for everybody, the democratic star. Pop art went to the extremes of consumption advocating: "you are what you consume".

Criteria of selection changed and advertisement has brought a new culture of information communication . This new culture of images built a new community based on the new cultural values of consumption. TV and advertisement have been diffusing uprooted information in real time under the cover of reality. While consuming information as a commodity, people have learned to submit to the language of the medium rather than questioning it. Although images can tell a lot without words, their frame presents only a piece of information. Consequently images are limited media. This process has introduced truncated information to society, and turned information into mass believes. Often one hears this comment:" It is true, I saw it on TV." The reality of the world is seen through a TV screen diffusing fragments of it, hence shaping a virtual reality for the sake of the spectacle and the information industry. Cultural identity, multiculturalism are uprooted from their context.

New media of information affect the cultural identity of society not only in its perception of the world but also in its structure. In the blossoming information age, people receive a lot of information from different sources but also participate to the flow of data. The Western societies have the ability to consume and produce information. The social structure seems more mobile, people seem more free to interact with information. The ascent of new technologies of information give the illusion to the society that a wide access to information is having access to power. Consequently people become more dependent on information and on the technologies of communication since reading information becomes more and more complex due the continue flow of data. Digitized information in different forms is carried up on the air in real time under different forms: pictures, text, videos, data bases, video-conferencing; one speaks of electronic interactive networks, the real two-way communication... Despite the variety of media, communication of information relies on only one ubiquitous support: the virtual electronic matter. Information becomes less and less selected but more and more disembodied from its original context. Cloned in thousands of copies, information belongs to everybody and nobody. Electronic circulation of information lacks context. These centripetal moves towards different parts of the world, hence towards different cultures, need centrifugal forces to keep the roots and meaning of these cultural exchanges. As a result, the effect of these interactive communication devices turns people into senseless users of information. They believe to be as powerful and armed as warlords are, but they have never learned to fight; that is to say to question the limits of the media.

In fact what kind of authenticity do we get from this impalpable data? How do we make sense of it?

Modern societies are far from contemplating inanimate objects for the sake of the objects even though it might be also a very fruitful experience. "Inanimate objects, do you have a soul?" wondered Mallarmé.

An eloquent example about the treatment and the perception of information as contemplative experience is the Ethnological Missionary museum of the Vatican. No labels are posted under the tribal artifacts from the "new worlds", only yellow arrows give the sense of the visit. Is silence better than ignorance? Or is universality of symbols satisfying communication ?

Being citizens of the world, a contemporary ideology, may seem an attractive utopia but if it were applied in reality cultural identity would be lost. Information age imperialism would take over from old colonialism, building new rights upon cultural possession.

While using information, people need to be connected to the cultural context of information to link it to the world. According to Mr. Kelly visitors express intellectual, sacred and social needs. They want to know and understand, do cultural pilgrimages to their past and feel part of the society.

Therefore facing society's requests, museums are forced to turn into cultural centers of communication. Confronting information, they need to commit themselves socially rather than hiding under the cover of prestigious knowledge. They offer to see their collections as "material remains of the past as a sort of yardstick that people could use to evaluate cultural mythologies" said Mr. George Mac Donald, Director of the Canadian museum of Civilization, during a conference in 1990 on Museums and Communities, (held at the International Center of the Smithsonian Institution).

"In underdeveloped countries, the reinforcement of the cultural identity is one of the deepest popular aspirations-perhaps the most important after shelter and food- and museums need to assume wider responsibilities and change in order to serve all communities." said Ms Lorena San Roman, General Director of the National Museum of Costa Rica during a Museums Association Conference on the future of museums (held in London in 1989).

These two speakers point out the notions of community service, cultural connection and moving towards people's cultures as the contemporary roles of museums. The museums would give a sense of cultural reality to communities, a context. To serve this purpose the traditional visit becomes "an experience", in the curator's conception, where people confront different pieces of information which are displayed and diffused through different communication tools. From the real objects of collections to several sources and forms of information visitors use data to read history and interact with culture and knowledge according to their own interest rather than reading pre-established criteria by the museum. But at the same time the role of a museum exhibition is really to give a curator's point of view of how all these pieces of knowledge fit together. So the responsibility of museums is helping people to use information tools in their quest of knowledge. Meanwhile it is giving to the public controversial critics. A museum of arts may have scientific data and a museum of sciences may have artistic data for example. After all, these two activities comprise the same human quest for truth. Hence it may start a real dialogue between the public and the choice of criteria the museum exhibits. Furthermore museums would have a personal identity, because known for choosing such or such angles to their exhibitions. They would be openly engaged.

Often a new identity marks its change by showing a new image of itself. For instance the construction of a new building may match better its new definition. Nowadays architecture of museums is transforming into a more organic structure than a succession of rooms and hallways. The MOMA of San Francisco, le Musée de la Villette at Paris, National Canadian Museum of Civilization, to name a few, offer new structures which allow a smoother circulation where intellectual, spiritual and social "experience" can be met. The space tends to be divided into movie theaters, concert halls, CD-ROM installations, several galleries for permanent collections and others for temporary exhibitions. Restaurants, cafes and stores fulfill the social needs for consumption and sometimes these places set up live communication among visitors.

Connecting and confronting people to their culture and others', museums are becoming real communities, centers of communication and multiculturalism.

Hosting collections and organizing exhibitions are still matters of selection criteria. However, being connected to other museums' networks would allow a wider outlook and communication on the treated topics. Confronting cultures' memories, museums have to go out into the "real world" to collect information. A policy of conciliation in the expression of modernity would unify contemporary cultures, modern communication tools and museums. The role of museums in society would reflect the transformations of communication and cultural values but they would contribute to the consciousness of modernity. They would question it allowing a cultural context to the modern society, a heritage.

For instance, noisy Manhattan sounds like music to John Cage. He connects this urban reality to its very contemporary sense. He reproduces this reality in his music using modern tools which themselves are an expression of his time. With his work, Cage connects our contemporary being to its very reality.

"Tradition and innovation are not opposing ideas," said Peter Sellers, "a tradition allows a context in which to process new information."

Marie-Béatrice Julienne Vulin
(term paper for Howard Besser's class: Impact of New Information Resources )
Spring 1994
Berkeley University.

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