The most important role of museums is not only communicating the past but also stating the present.
Similarly to how human beings structure reality into categories to formulate meaning, museums are built onto positive and negative comparisons which cooperate in shaping a coherent message for the visitors. ‘Museum-as-institution became a great field of comparison […]. [T]he museum’s comparison began to operate within a space neutralised by efforts to range and to classify: all objects of type A in one place, those of type B in another’ (Krauss, 1986 cited in Greenberg et alia, 1996).
When entering an exhibition space, the displayed objects thus loose singularity in virtue of a higher purpose, that is communicating to a specific audience a precise discourse and, in some occasions, display, through the past, a single version of the present. This phenomenon, as described by Malraux (1947), in the museum artworks exist only in relation to each other. While the objects of interest appear themselves to become ‘silent’ and to be trapped in the machine by getting decontextualised, the sum of them – the exhibition – strikes an aesthetic statement.
Accordingly, through their collections, cultural institutions can construct social, cultural and political representation: ‘they make statements about how the world and its peoples, histories and cultures are conceptualised’ (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000). By showing significant images portraying important actions or events, collections take also on a pedagogic and moral role. Through the persistent exhibition of specific pictures and exclusion of others, a state can control its identity and the way society and history are perceived by the citizens.
The history of the National Portrait Gallery is a perfect example of the relation between pedagogy, society and cultural institutions. At the opening of the National Portrait Gallery in 1856, when the collection was made of almost 230 (of which only 22 showing women) portraits, a precise picture of the state’s identity was given to the population: nationalism, elitism and masculinity were at the core of each artwork displayed. Its primary objective was, through the showcase of portraits of nobles and notable personalities, to ‘encourage and enable “mental exertion”, “noble actions”, and “good conduct”’ (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000).
Holding 195,000 portraits, the collection today also includes celebrities, symbol of how, through social media, the perception of ‘nobility’ has evolved throughout times. ‘Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze,’ curated by Dorothy Moss, is an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery which showcases, through various media (not only paintings but also video portraits, photographs and sculptures), the nobles of the 21st century such as Brad Pitt, Katy Perry or Britney Spears. David Ward ‘had been thinking a lot about what it means to be a celebrity at this current moment, and how important it is for all of us to be thinking critically about this constantly shifting and changing category called ‘celebrity’ in the age of social media”. “Eye Pop” is also an invitation “to think critically about the way celebrities can rise and fall […] People make mistakes. We have portraits of people in the collection who have certainly fallen in the public eye, but that’s part of history. So we don’t hide from that, we’re not celebrating that, we’re telling the story of reality. That’s why they’re there’ (Dorothy Moss, 2015 quoted in Goldstein, 2015).
Bringing objects together always creates assumptions on the present reality, and act as a visual statement on our society. Today, as we are witnessing the Information Age, where flows of data and knowledge are accessible at any time, and anywhere, collections displayed in gallery serve more as a mirror to our society and as an occasion to reflect rather than and a passive infusion of what being a good citizen should mean.
- Hooper-Greenhill, E. (2000). Museums and the interpretation of visual culture. pp.23-48.
- Goldstein, J. (2015). Who Gets To Be A Celebrity? National Portrait Gallery Exhibit Explores Star Power. [online] ThinkProgress. Available at: https://thinkprogress.org/who-gets-to-be-a-celebrity-national-portrait-gallery-exhibit-explores-star-power-34aad2df6e03#.d35l7u61a [Accessed 6 Nov. 2016].
- Greenberg, R., Ferguson, B. and Nairne, S. (1996). Thinking about exhibitions. London: Routledge. pp. 341-348.