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Transmission: Traditional history museums, including the NMAH are dominated by transmission functions over communication functions. This distinction comes from Regis Debray’s formulation. He understood the study of “communication” to be focused on contemporaneous speech acts, only as long as a single moment, ephemeral sounds that disappeared on the wind. Debray thought the real effort of culture went not into communication, but into transmission –or passing meaning and ideas over time. Transmission imagines the future listener/reader/user and invokes past writers/producers/creators. A history museum is a conscious, deliberate transmitter. It is a cultural institution that acts as a translator and interpreter of objects from the past. In fact, perhaps nothing fits so well into Debray’s framework as the history museum.
Conveying Distance: As reiterated by Constantina Papoulias’ discussion of his thinking, at the end of Transmitting Culture, Debray bemoans the transparency and immediacy that our current moment in history so values in cultural objects. Debray’s example is the illusionist piano player who plays a Bach composition with such vibrancy that people feel transported; they no longer are aware of the distance of time that separates them an Bach. Our culture’s desire for immediacy is also evident in how we build computer and internet interfaces –we’re in awe of Google Art Project (discussed last week) is largely because we feel so close to the artworks; they are hyperreal. Whether this is a good thing (as our culture seems to think) a bad thing (Debray’s opinion) or a more complicated, ambiguous thing with pros and cons (my opinion), there is no doubt that a traditional history museum display retains the distance, the evidence of its mediation in a way Debray would approve of. A visit to a history museum is framed off as a special ritual act. The history museum’s architecture is meant to be the opposite of transparent. Admittedly, some display choices (such as when curators recreate a full scene with a mix of historic objects and objects newly fashioned to look authentic) try to be more immediate. Nonetheless, the overall museum experience never lets the visitor forget that they are looking into the past.
Material Traces of Meaning: Because of his interest in transmission over time, rather than ephemeral communication, Debray puts an emphasis on the materiality of ideas. Our ideologies manifest themselves in material ways and these materials (objects, institutions, documents etc.) cannot be untangled from ideology. Debray is not a dualist, but a monist, a firm believer that mind and body, ideology and technology, are not independent of each other. Unlike other intellectual institutions in our culture, such as libraries, newspapers and universities, museums have always privileged objects as carriers of meaning. Like Debray, museums see ideology as embodied. These objects carried particular meaning about the past, and could be used and organized by curators to transmit a particular meaning to visitors.
Analyzing an institution from a mediological point of view means taking note of the invisible grounds and conditions, the political-economy and the ideology that embeds the institution. These few paragraphs about history museums hardly scratches the surface.