People visiting museums expect to gain experience about certain historic events through conceiving the history of artistic objects. They attend various exhibitions and events to learn more about collections relating to a specific historic period. However, it is often difficult to understand what kind of knowledge is received through these collections, as well as which functions are performed by museums. In addition, much concern arises in regards to the analysis of authenticity and objectivity of the items gathered in one collection. The point is that the collections gathered by individuals bear a specific subjective tone because the collectors are sure that the items from the collection provide an objectified outlook on the memory of the past. At the same time, museums often introduce modern technologies and devices to account for historic events and attract the visitors’ attention. The encounter of the present and the past is another reason for doubts concerning the objectivity of the museum’s collections. To better understand the role of museums, as well as their functions, specific emphasis should be placed on the analysis of the type of memories that are delivered to visitors. More importantly, the connection between the political underpinnings and the historical past should be found to explain why some of the expectations of the visitors about historical works of art are distorted.
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Understanding the Role and Function of Museums as Places for Preserving Memory
Despite the obvious role and functions of the museums, the scholar fails to express a unanimous opinion concerning the definition and purposes that museums serve. According to Crane (2004), “a museum is a cultural institution where individual expectations and institutional, academic intentions interact, and the result is far from a one way street” (p. 319). Therefore, the museum is not only a place of collision of objectivity and subjectivity, but also a site where the analysis of historical consciousness takes place (Crane 2004). Such a definition also explains the phenomenon of daily visits to museums in western societies. In fact, museums as historical establishments allow people to become part of the historic memory. However, because museums are also places where individual expectations and academic intentions are interconnected, there is always a chance of distorting visitors’ expectations. The museums are not only institutions exhibiting items from the past, but also the sites where is an active interaction between modern trends and historical undercurrents.
With regard to the above-presented definitions, museums can also be regarded as public institutions that respond to the expectations of the community. To enlarge on this issue, Hein (2000) defines a museum as “a non-profit making, permanent institution in the service of society and of its development and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits, for purposes of the study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of man and his environment” (p. 3). In addition, the scholar attains much importance to the role of museum collections as the ones that enhance the value of the institution. In particular, Hein (2000) states that a collection as a set of entities united and gathered by an individual has much greater value rather than a set of historic objects represented separately. Apparently, such an assumption is logical because it testifies to the fact of conceiving works of art as organizational devices complementing a historical conception rather than explaining the historic memory as a set of physical objects reflecting reality.
Place of Object in Historic Consciousness and Modern Interpretations
Authenticity and Distorted Expectations
As it has been previously mentioned, the collection is a set of objects united by historic consciousness. However, collection cannot be regarded as an objective combination of facts and historical meanings because its subjective representations have been affected by current perceptions of history (Hein 2000). Their subjective opinion can influence the collective representation of objects and, therefore, they cannot be regarded as objects that directly relate to objective history. Such a problem correlates strongly with the idea of a genuine and authentic exercise of facts and details. In this respect, Hein (2000) places an emphasis on the impossibility of removal of historically cherished and authentic things through substituting them with more conceptual representations. Reigl (1998) agrees with this statement and asserts, “…that every work of art is at once and without exception a historical monument because it represents a specific stage in the development of the visual arts” (p. 622). Alternative variants of the historical object representation can be explained by the distorted expectations of visitors. The point is that most visitors attending museums rely on information interpreted by the devices and tools exposed to them. In this respect, if an exhibition bears other than educational and representation functions, it can create new meanings and distorted expectations. Certainly, museum visitors have the right to think over personal interpretations of the exhibits, similar to the interpretations reflected in the collection. However, such an understanding can negatively affect the authenticity of historic analysis.
Historic vs. Artistic Value
While deliberating on the historical value of exhibits, specific attention should be paid to the role of artistic value. However, it is often hard to define which of the values is prioritized. On the one hand, historical and artistic values are interconnected in terms of their memory representation (Reigl 1998). On the other hand, both categories can rely on their independent significance. In addition, much controversy arises while considering artistic value in historical and modern contexts. In this respect, Reigl (1998) argues, “in modern view, the art-value of a monument is established by the requirements of the modern Kunstwollen but these requirements are even less well defined and…can never be defined because they vary from subject to subject and moment to moment” (p. 623). In other words, modern interpretation has a negative impact on understanding the genuine artistic value because external social and political environments interact with the historic meaning of an exhibit.
When it comes to creating historical monuments at present, it is hard to connect their historical value and artistic values due to a number of complex factors. The point is that many monuments are largely predetermined by the system of knowledge and experience possessed by architects, artists, and sculptors. Unlike genuine historical objects, monuments embody a combination of current interpretations and perceptions introduced by the collective mind. Once again, spatial and temporal characteristics, similar to museums, influence significantly the meaning of the memorials due to the different social and cultural expectations embedded into a historic and artistic object. According to Young (1993a), “…memorial provides a uniquely instructive glimpse of the inner workings – the tempestuous social, political, and aesthetic forces – normally hidden by a finished monument’s polished, taciturn exterior” (p. 324). The process of creating memorials, therefore, is determined by the ideals of those who inspired it. More importantly, it will largely depend on the contested memories of the individuals involved in constructing the memorial.
Political and Social Influence on Memorial Presentations
Memory depends on a complex of political, social, and environmental circumstances under which an individual perceives the meaning of a historic artifact. Therefore, spatial and temporal dimensions have a potent impact on understanding history, particularly historic objects. More importantly, the memorial presentations are largely affected by public challenges, educational opportunities, and governmental interest in representing historical monuments. Once again, the visional perception of the memorials is differently represented among the historians due to the discrepancies in interpreting historical facts and events. In particular, Young (1993a) assumes, “the process, if not the monument, would be interactive, it would remind that community as often as possible how much memory depended on them and not on the space” (p. 327). The passage emphasizes that the monument construction incorporates memories and recollections of historians, the community, the government, and other socially and politically predetermined institutions. Therefore, it is possible to assert that ancient monuments and memorials were also the products of subjective representations of memories about specific historic events. The memorial also embodies visitors’ interaction. Their opinions and outlooks on memorials are also reflected in forms and conceptual meanings of memorials.
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Conceptual frameworks of all monuments are confined to the subjects that are embraced by the knowledge and logic of architects and sculptors. In particular, Young (1993) explains, “the memorial design…recedes from form and mystery, loss and regeneration, technology and nature, the ordinary and the sacred” (p. 330). About these deliberations, the issue of historical meaning can also touch on personal opinion, social circumstances, political situation, and artistic vision.
Representations of Memory and Collective Knowledge of History
The exhibits of the museum collection, work of art, memorials, and monuments expand on the value of monumentality, as well as political, social, and economic values of historic memory. The concept of mediated memory closely relates to the various means of perceiving reality. Therefore, it is impossible to consider historical objects like the one that cannot be combined with the present reality. Such an assumption, however, challenges the established idea of memorials. According to Levine (2006), “The specificity of the monument is therefore a direct function of the way it acts on memory…mobilize[s] and engage[s] memory through the mediation of affectivity, in such a way as to recall the past while bringing it to life as if it were present” (p. 123). The argument is enhanced by the idea that museums and monuments are specifically created for exploring new realities and meanings. Examining these dimensions allows people to understand the functions of memorials, as well as the importance of memorializing. At the same time, new options for constructing memorials are also challengeable in terms of adequacy and objectivity of monuments creation. In particular, the problems of memorializing lie in “unwarranted politicizing of the memorial process – the co-option and subversion of consciously articulated purposes of memorials for political, commercial, and other reasons which have nothing to do with memorialization itself” (Levine 2006, p. 125). Despite the emerged controversies, memorials contribute significantly to constructing and understanding the social reality, which can later be impregnated into historical consciousness.
Memorial Value of Museums
From the viewpoint of collective memories, museums both spatially and temporarily represent meanings and realities of the past that are adapted to modern social and political conditions. Such an idea is congruent with Crane’s (2004) vision: “A range of personal memories is produced, not limited to the subject matter of exhibits, as well as a range of collective memories shared among museum visitors” (p. 319). The connection of museums with the memories of the community is evident because the majority of visitors do not bear responsibility for the historical memory introduced in museums. Similar to the influences on exhibits by collective memories, museums also enable individuals to practice social patterns of behavior, as well as introduce new cultural and historical landscapes (Crane 2004).
Museums are also responsible for instilling visitors with values of history, art, and science. In this respect, public represented as a collective mind should expect to exercise shared understanding while approaching the museums. However, the difference in museum memories affects the construction of historical consciousness. According to Crane (2004), “…historically conscious art is in fact competence for a performance of history in the museum, thus further complicating the interaction between the personal and the public, the historical and the historically conscious, the excess memory and the experience of the museum” (p. 324). In fact, visitors never duplicate experiences about a specific exhibit, including memory, time, and change –to produce different moments and people in the same person’s life. In other words, museums are created to build over time, and reproduce memories and expectations in visitors. In addition, attending museums implies permitting the visitors to furnish their memories and create their personal outlooks on the historical events.
Understanding the Textures of Memory
Memory cannot be perceived as an isolated notion because it is not created in a vacuum. Importance of contextual meaning is especially huge while constructing memorials and understanding their functions. Thus, the main purpose of museum exhibits and memorials is not to represent objective reality of the past but “to educate the next generation and to inculcate in it a sense of shared experience and destiny” (Young 1993b, p. 2). In this respect, both historic monuments and artistic works are characterized as institutional forms of remembrance. More importantly, memorials are necessary to make the viewers change their attitudes and perceptions, as well as share their experiences with others (Young 1993b). Combining expectations and experiences, therefore, is the main purpose of exposing monuments and constructing memorials. At the same time, though experiences differ, the monument itself remains unchanged, which allows the visitors to endow the exhibit with personal perceptions and understanding.
Architecture and sculpture from a historical perspective serve as a powerful tool for exchanging memories and expectations among individuals with various outlooks on historical facts. Therefore, the monuments, exhibits, and memorials should be pure representations of historic events for the visitors to build their attitude to history and share it with other individuals. Museums both spatially and temporarily conform to the events that happened in the past to make the visitors understand the actual meaning and value of the exhibits. In addition, memory itself is an inherent component of representing historic objects because they endow them with historical consciousness and expand their contextual meaning.
Crane, SA 2004, ‘Memory, Distortion, and History in the Museum’, in SA Crane, Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts, Blackwell, Malden MA, Oxford. pp. 318-334.
Hein, HS 2000, ‘Introduction: From Object to Experience’, In HS Hein, Museums in Transition: A Philosophical Perspective, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington. pp. 1-16.
Levine, MP 2006, ‘Mediated Memories’, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 11(2), 117-136.
Riegl, A 1998, ‘The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Its Origin’ In KM Hays, Oppositions Reader: Selected Readings from a Journal for Ideas and Criticism in Architecture, 1973-1984, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, pp. 21-51.
Young, JE 1993a, ‘Introduction: The Texture of Memory’, In JE Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning Yale University Press, New Haven, pp. 1-5.
Young, JE 1993b, ‘Memory and the Politics of Identity – Boston and Washington, D. C.’, In JE Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. Yale University Press, New Haven, pp. 323-349.