Part 4 of Chapter 3 of the book by Hall is titled “Captivating cultures: the politics of exhibiting” (184). It revolves around the concepts of knowledge and power and describes ways in which the former becomes the latter in the context of colonialism. People nowadays are used to the practice of exhibiting cultural objects in museums, and little attention is paid to exhibiting as a political tool. Hall (185) explains that museum exhibitions transform cultures into objects of exploration and examination: therefore, what is presented as knowledge turns out to be an instrument of strengthening and promoting power.
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If one asks a random person why things are exhibited in museums, the answer that he or she will receive will most likely contain the motivation of learning (and letting others learn) more about different cultures, i.e. what people used to (or still) eat, how they lived and survived, what they wore, whom they worshiped, and so on. This is the general rationale for promoting knowledge. However, further consideration allows differentiating between objects that are used by people, e.g. for preparing food, hunting, crafting, or praying, and objects displayed in museums.
The former is functional and applicable; they are part of a living culture. The latter are non-functional, and they are not used for the purposes for which they were designed and intended but only used as objects of inspection or contemplation. It can be further argued that people who used those objects are regarded in the exhibition context as objects of inspection, too.
This transition from an attitude toward material objects to an attitude to culture as a whole and toward all the people who practice it was explained by Hall with the use of the Foucauldian model (187). According to this theoretical approach, the world of knowledge cannot be separated from the world of politics and power.
It should be recognized that a certain culture is a subject, as it produces both material and non-material things; the former include objects, such as utensils and equipment, while the latter include intangible things, such as discourses or folklore. However, when a culture is exhibited, especially in museums in the context of promoting knowledge about it, it becomes an object—an object of knowledge, i.e. something that is studied. The culture is deprived of its active characteristics, i.e. of the features of a subject, and becomes passive.
The author pays particular attention to explaining the consequences of this transformation. First of all, it creates an abstract distance between the explorer and the explored: the former becomes the subject, and the latter becomes an object. It can be argued that this separation and this differentiation between them cause dehumanization of the explored. An example of this process can be considered in the context of colonialism: colonists regard the colonized as curiosities and willingly display material objects from the culture of the colonized in museums, thus promoting their (colonists’) power over people whom they objectify.
This explains the popularity of exhibitions in the 19th century when major empires expanded by conquering new colonies. It is easier to conquer an ethnographic object than a human subject who is equal to the colonists. The author is uncertain about whether the process was the colonists’ conscious intention or unconscious effort, but the combination of knowledge and power for the reduction of other cultures to objects was confirmed to be a powerful political instrument.
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Hall, Stuart, editor. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Sage, 1997.