survey museums and the global public

Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach observed in their 1980 essay that universal survey museums, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the National Gallery of Art in D.C., at their inception, “institutionalized the bourgeois claim to speak for the interests of all mankind”  (1.)  

I doubt that many people believe anymore in the role of such museums as loci of cultural authority.  But does it matter?  Perhaps belief is besides the point.  Whatever their roots in a discredited imperialist ideology, survey museums continue to thrive alongside newer, more specialized museums of all kinds. And however much their professed values might have changed, survey museums still attempt to narrate a global history through their collections and curatorial work.  Structurally, inevitably, they proffer a vision of global humanity through the spatial modeling of an “iconographic programme” (2.)

What effects these presentations have on the way people imagine their world is hard to say, for individuals and all the more so for any aggregate “public.”  In the present day, survey museums have tremendous competition in the art of building world imaginaries–from amusement parks to world news outlets–and their impact, it seems fair to say, is comparatively modest.  I can speak for myself though in saying that I do resort to a kind of metonymy, drawn in part from my very limited time at survey museums, when faced with the conceptually impossible span of global human experience.  I grasp for metaphor, and in my mind’s eye, objects that I’ve seen in museums stand in for vast histories and movements, whether I want them to or not.  

I often went to the Met Museum along Central Park East while living in New York, each time taking a slightly different path through the building’s numerous halls and wings.  In doing so, I discovered multiple spatial links between different exhibits.  In all events, however, one must enter the museum’s spaces through the Great Hall.  From there, one can continue straight to enter the European wings, turn left for the Greek and Roman collection, or angle right to the ancient Egyptian wing.  The spatial layout is suggestive, as Duncan and Wallach argue, of “the heritage of Greco-Roman civilization as an abstract and universal value” (3.)    

A memory map persists, and though it can be retraced by many routes, it is no less suggestive of a finite narrative universe–a broad but bounded epistemology.  As Hilde Hein observes and as my own experience seems to bear out, museums “direct thought from perceptible objects to the construction of plausible stories” (4.)  As I write this, some exhibits still rise spectrally to my mind’s eye.  A statue of the goddess Kuan Yin, for example, in a room of artifacts from a certain dynastic epoch in China, which still provisionally embodies, in my subjective imaginary, some vague feeling about the unknowable milieu from which it was extracted.      

What I am suggesting is that survey museums model a way of understanding the world. They cast a cognitive grid across space and time, and through curatorial practices, invest newly metonymic artifacts “with subjectivity that neither beauty nor endurance can guarantee.”  (5.)

Do survey museums embody a cultural authority?  Not for all people, and for none absolutely.  But it does seem, in my experience, that moving one’s body through such discrete spaces of representation imprints a geography of knowledge–a memory palace of sorts–that persists long after one has forgotten most of the art and artifacts displayed.  This attests to the pedagogical power of museums–again, perhaps belief is besides the point–and such power is “ethically freighted” to be sure.    

“Europe is no longer the center of gravity of the world,” as Achille Mbembe writes, and the civilizing mission of the survey museums’ founding patrons seems quaint if not perverse from a postcolonial vista (6.)  I would suggest, however, that this still-evolving institution may yet serve a critical function in the present age.  In the face of global catastrophes, it may provide one symbolic medium for a global public in desperate search of itself, a ritual space in which to encounter its own becomings on entirely different terms from those past.  What this begins to look like in practice I admittedly cannot say, but Hilde Hein’s conception of the museum as a form of public art might offer a fertile place to begin:

Yielding authority to the public, such art accumulates energy while denying the presumption of universality. Its appeal is temporary and conditional upon change. It does not promise unanimous approval, but no model can guarantee such an extraordinary effect. Art so conceived offers the relief of finitude. Its satisfaction is contemporary without disrespect toward the past or foreclosure of the future (7.)


  1. Duncan, Carol, and Alan Wallach. “The Universal Survey Museum.” Art History 3, no. 4 (1980): 448-69. Accessed September 25, 2017. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8365.1980.tb00089.x, 456.


  1. Duncan, 451.


  1. Ibid., 466.  Also cited in Barrett, Jennifer. Museums and the Public Sphere. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2012. Accessed September 25, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central, 98-99.


  1. Hein, Hilde. Public Art : Thinking Museums Differently. California: AltaMira Press, 2006. Accessed September 26, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central, 140.


  1. Hein, 51.


  1. Mbembe, Joseph-Achille. Critique of Black reason. Translated by Laurent Dubois. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017, 1.


  1. Hein, 161.

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