What is a museum for? Pre economic meltdown, the West was preoccupied with cultural representation and the celebration of newness. The commissioning and building of new museums were both instrumental and reflective of the notion of culture as being the ‘industry’ to positively encourage - leading to wealth creation, tourism, economic growth etc. Oh how things have changed since those days of easy money.
Kylie Message’s book New Museums - and the making of culture was published near to the climax of the cultural party season (2006) and aimed to decode what was going on - whilst everyone was still dancing. An academic book through and through, post-modern theories from the likes of Barthes, Baudrillard, Jameson et al are utilized to help reveal the deeper insights of the times. The search for meaning through the analysis of the buildings themselves, rather than their contents and collections, reveals much about contemporary notions of understanding the self in a global cultural marketplace.
A variety of museums are therefore utilized to illustrate recent ideas and meaning. Whether it be a cultural ‘apologist’ type museum in the form of National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC, the ‘revamped’ Museum of Modern Art in New York, or the ‘spectacle’ Museo Guggenheim in Bilbao, the actual building itself is (was) the message.
Each iconic architectural project reflected our recent postmodern obsession with the desire to celebrate the new, rather than previous searches for the you (i.e. attempts at understanding ourselves through the artefacts contained within the buildings themselves). Essentially the renaissance project’s notion of illumination through modernity was ultimately subsumed by subsequent postmodern simulations of our sense of self. As such, the new museum it seemed, had ‘evolved’ from the function of exhibiting collections as its raison d'être and instead aimed at becoming a cultural centre, signifying diversity over singularity. Their primary focus now was to blatantly act as a cultural signifier for the host city and nation. Multiculturalism and cultural diversity then, is something Message concluded as being the potential next new thing, and as such a way out of 'the now passé trend for postmodernity' (p202).
Ironic perhaps, that only 2 years after this book was published, the economic collapse of the West turned everything upside down and an alternative to the new (no money) has taken the shine off all those inclusive museums of the naughties. These days those not-so-new iconic buildings by celebrity ‘starchitects’ seem oh so passé, representative of a time when (fake) money was abundant, before we had to pay it all back. Already then, many of these buildings, as reflectors of cultural identity, appear to have consumed themselves (and their ideologies) in a fitting tribute to postmodern irony.
Perhaps now it falls on another medium, like the internet, to help us construct our ideas of sense of personal self, breathing new life (and meaning) back into the act of collecting in yet another new era?
Message, K. (2006) New Museums and the Making of Culture. Berg
Review by Graham Powell of Obsessionistas