Category Archives: Week 3

Museums as Mediators & Mirrors

         Throughout history museums have played a large role in mediating communication on multiple levels. The process of in-depth critique and analysis museums constantly face as a part of on-going dialogue around content, programming, design, etc – continue to promote unity and change. Is it possible that Museums serve as a good mediator because of the criticism that they are subject to? McClellan points out despite critics who claim museums are rigid in their structure, the high amount of criticism from activists and academics beginning in the late 1960s lead to important dialogue and concerns being addressed and attitudes have evolved (11).
         In today’s constantly evolving high-tech world, the need for unity and peace is stronger than ever. As noted by McClellan, art museums “extend hope for mutual understanding grounded in the common traits of world art traditions” (10). Due to this, it is no surprise museum attendance rates are growing as people are desperate to seek an escape from current reality, as well as gain understanding from history. The museum is serving a function as mediator between observer and noise of the outside world.
           Keeping the outside world out – is a concept in the Art System. Galleries (as well as other art spaces throughout history) strive to detach the viewer from the concept of time entirely. O’Doherty explains that the white cube represents “a transitional device that attempted to bleach out the past and at the same time control the future by appealing to transcendental modes of presence and power” (12). Removal of the concept of time creates an idea of the art space as sacred, unattached, or transcendent. What is interesting about the idea of the white cube as a transcendent space, is the opposing idea of the black mirror (technology). When we look at art today in museums (as we discussed last class) we are not looking at it alone. We are accompanied by our phones which attach us to another space. The technology space also drastically effects how we perceive time in that we subconsciously spend more time in the online world than the real world. Can the idea of the white cube really exist as long as we have the black mirror attached to us?

The Re-Mediation of Museums in a Virtual Space

Museums are cultural time machines, effacing the past and the future and causing the art viewer’s gaze to zoom in on the artwork, and allow it to transport the viewer through time. As O’Doherty writes, “The outside world must not come in” (p.15), disrupting the visitor’s experience with the artwork. The Google Cultural Institute – a virtual space that makes cultural heritage accessible to the world – share the same functions of museums, and can be a hub that allows others to be educated in art history.

The Google Cultural Institute platform is an interface that imitates the museum functions in two ways. First, The design of the user interface is extremely accessible as it divides artworks into art movements. The organization here replaces the art of curation for museum exhibits and galleries. The fact that the interface is published online mimics the the idea of inclusivity and accessibility: rendering artworks and cultural heritage available and accessible to all through the Internet and digital platforms. Similar to O’Doherty’s White Cube, by showcasing the works of artists online, it strips the primordial layer of aestheticism and historicism associated with the artworks when displayed in a museum exhibit. Unlike museums, the Cultural Institute takes away the social aspect of going to the museum and the crowds passing by, offering their own interpretions of the paintings. However, by offering a neutral virtual space, Google’s Art Project allows for the display of  a variety of cultures in a pure form.

Second, the layout of screen “pages” seems to require less work on the viewer subject’s behalf to engage with his environment. In other words, the viewer’s mind works less to perceive the aestheticism offered by museums, galleries, and frames that display the installations. Here, these “pages” function as galleries, cornering the painting in one room alone for viewing and inspection. The art viewing experience becomes more intimate and more detailed – on the singular level of the painting. Connections and relationships cannot be physically made, as seen at the National Art Gallery, by displaying two paintings next to one another for a compare and contrast. Rather, these “pages” allow for an in-depth interaction with a singular painting rather for an in-breadth one.

Perhaps, the Google Cultural Institute is only a continuance of modernism in the sense that “The art is [one step closer to being] free, as the saying used to go, ‘to take on its own life’.” (p.15). This lack of context truly lets the art to speak for itself.

Mediating, interface and the art world

At first, I don’t really understand what does the mediating function of the museum really means. Then after read the assigned reading, I think museum serves as mediating function in the art world, connecting the art itself with the given environment of display which is the art museum, and deliver the desired information and understanding of the artwork to the wider audience.

Daniel Buren mentioned three role that museum has, the museum preserve the artwork and frame it to be display in the museum. When the author mentioned there is two different ways that the museum operate the artwork, divided by group or individual (Buren 191). By which the group work display considered the given context, and the framing of the concept, and reflected by the choose of collection. This remind me the Vermeer’s exhibition that we saw in the National Gallery of Art, in which the exhibition included Vermeer and the other painters’ artworks at the same place, there are certain connection between different painters’ works, and they are interconnected with each other.

Buren phrase the museum as refuge, that shelter the art works and preserve them, “select, collects and protects” (Buren, 191). I think the museum as a mediating function here has connecting meaning between the place of displaying the art and the art itself. Here I am wondering if the artist themselves has the same understanding and meaning about the artwork as compared with the intended framing and selection by the museum. Museum in this sense not only serve as the mediating function of bring the artwork to the front, but give the new meaning to the art.

In professor Irvine’s article, I gained more understanding about the artworld term and the relation with the institutions of museums. “The artworld is a social system or network, whether the network system involves human roles and actors, capital, media, information or network technologies” (Irvine, 1). I agree that the artworld create an authority and level of highness that heighten themselves from the normal audience, while on the other side, it created the impression of art as pure and meaningful, and such respectful attitude from the audience that give the superior meaning to the art.
I also like the idea that artworld does not only provide the physical and tangible format of art, but it provided “conceptual and symbolic context or framework” (Irvine, 2).

Artworld distributed through the institutions including museums, and created a global interactive system of networks for art, I think this is the trend that is on going now in today’s world. In which the art itself could break the boundaries, and create interfaces with the other form or styles of art.

Daniel Buren, “Function of the Museum.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Martin Irvine, The Insitutional Theory of Art and the Artworld, Georgetown University CCT.

Purposes of museums

This week’s papers mainly talk about the history and the purposes of museums. The word museum originally comes from the Greek mouseion, it meant “seat of the Muses” and denoted a place or temple designed as a place of contemplation or a philosophical institution. The traditional mission of a museum is to collect objects and materials of cultural, religious and historical importance, preserve them, research into them and present them to the public for the purpose of education and enjoyment. When I read about the case of National Museum of Iraq in The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao, I love the saying that the museum is civilization and a place for cultural heritage. At the same time, I could not help thinking about the ethical dilemma of preserving world cultures. There are hundreds and thousands of priceless historical artifacts have long been stolen, traded, sold and passed through uncountable hands to be shipped away from their original countries and displayed in foreign countries museums. More than 150 years after British and French troops sacked and razed the Summer Palace, almost every year around the anniversary of the sacking of Beijing’s Summer Palace in 1860, come calls for the return of ‘stolen’ antiquities. By last year, the China Cultural Relics Academy was estimating that 10 million Chinese items were overseas. Should these museums return art or not? Who should own indigenous art? How can these ‘universal’ museums (mostly western) obtain and display artifacts without stoking the illegal art trade and reproducing colonialist narratives? Andrew McClellan regards museum as a place of refuge and dialogue. Some scholars focus on the enlightenment virtues and educational potential of museums and regards that museums should be universal. As far as I am concerned, in order to honor and nurture the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples and to foster the understanding and the cross-cultural communication, those stolen artifacts should be returned to their hometowns.

Beautiful and priceless’ ancient treasures stolen from Afghanistan on show at British Museum

Professor Irvine defines museums as “mediums with a message” in the paper The Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld. What I understand is that museum is a space that mediates for other media, the collection and the senses, the ideologies, and also a mediator of time, history, and memory. For example, different types of museums mediate their ideologies in ways that serve distinct purposes. Museums can function as a symbol that represent the identity, power, and wealth of a nation. The art museum utilizes an aesthetic approach to ordering knowledge, utilizing art objects to mediate national pride, sophistication, and elitism. The natural history and science museum served as a platform for showcasing man’s domination over his surroundings through classification, description, and the establishment of hierarchies within nature. The museum can also mediate time by compressing the exhibition narrative in a way that conforms to the physical limitations of the exhibition space or the visiting time. In this way, the museum has the power to “re-present” history.

Museum as a Space of Exchange

In Museum In Motion, the Alexanders quotes Stephen Weil to suggest that museums have become “institutions rooted in interpretations in its broadest sense, actively seeking to provoke thought and the exchange of ideas between the museum and its visitors” (10). I agree that there is always an exchange of ideas between an exhibition and its visitors, and it is always influenced by the curator of the exhibition. The viewers’ interpretation of the artworks would be unavoidably directed by the curator’s thematic design of the exhibition and the spatial arrangement of the artworks. Take the Vermeer Exhibition for example, the curator, using the synchronic method, separates the paintings into several groups with different themes, then puts them into different spaces in the exhibition halls. It in this way prevents the visitors from understanding the artworks with other methods (such as taking each painters’ works as a unit, or studying the paintings chronically), but forces the viewers to make comparisons between genre-paintings of the same theme by different artists. As the curator subtlety exerts influence on the way in which the viewers study the artworks on display, they also have the autonomy to read the narrative of a single painting on their own. Thus, the exchange of ideas happens both between the museum and the viewers as well as the curator and the viewers.

To go one step further, I also suggest that the exchange, behind the viewers’ direct interaction with the artworks, happens on a larger scale in terms of cultural transmission. The nature and the function of the museum make it one of the most efficient places for cultural exchanges, because the museum displays artworks from all over the world, and attracts visitors with different backgrounds. For example, going to the Vermeer Exhibition is for me the experience of a Chinese student studying and appreciating Dutch paintings in an American institution. The art gallery in D.C. gives me access to artworks from places that are inaccessible for me for the time being. Andrew McClellan rightfully points out that “Museums are inherently ‘cosmopolitan’ institutions.” The National Gallery of Art could borrow the artworks from Europe; it can also attract local as well as international visitors. It seems to me that the process in which the viewers appreciate the Dutch paintings is a form of cultural studies that promote some sort of cultural exchange in the global context, which in a way gives the visitors a cultural experience that is normally unrealizable in their immediate environment. I, therefore, agree with McClellan that “As globalization draws the world closer together, the art museum prepares the way for a deeper understanding of our differences and commonalities.”

Another case that may help illustrate my point regards my visit to an art gallery in China. During the winter break, I went to the Sackler Museum of Art in Peking University in Beijing, and visited an exhibition titled “Enchanted Nature – Deforestation and the Environment.” It displayed more than 70 drawings and paintings by the Latin-American artist Nicolás Herrera. The paintings were bought and brought to China by his American patron (philanthropist? collector?) Dame Jillian Sackler. Herrera’s paintings address to the environmental problems in the Amazon forest caused by the deforestation. It introduces the Caribbean modernism to China, and also promotes the Chinese viewers’ understanding of the environmental problems in the Amazon Forest. The transcultural communication is especially meaningful, because the deforestation would cause environmental problems that involve every country in the world, and the force of the global capital that caused the deforestation can only be resisted most efficiently by the joint effort of countries in the global system. What the exhibition does is to raise people’s awareness through cultural shocks that the artist aims to achieve through his artworks. The museum as an institution makes the cultural transmission possible on a global scale.


The picture was taken from:

The screenshot was taken from: (More about the exhibition can also be found here)

Andrew McClellan, The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.

Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, Second Edition. Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press, 2007.

The Ever-Changing Roles of Museums

      Since the inception of the institution, museums have mediated the story of humanity by offering society to connect to the past, present, and future. The Artworld delegates to museums the task of creating a place where society can make interpretations and meaning from the Art. While the functions of any museum – to collect, conserve, and research – have remained resolute for many years, the roles that the institutions play have varied from forums, gatekeepers, amusement, escape and education to “platforms for international dialogue and oases of beauty” (Alexander & Alexander; McClellan, 10). These ever-changing roles reflect the ever changing society in which museums inhabit. Just like pulling a tensor in Tomas Sacareno’s installation, the interconnected tensors of museums, society and politics react to one another (Latour, 10).

       Throughout history museums have been tied to authority and politics. Burren alludes to this authority when he describes the museum as a “privileged place” (189). From the Romans, the Medici family, Napoleon, to Hitler, art collections symbolized power and civilized society (Alexander & Alexander). As collections grew, democracy spread, and public access granted, the museum became a place where all could engage and share a nation’s cultural capital. Public participation was encouraged through the placement of museums, for example, the National Gallery located in the easily accessible Trafalgar Square, and museum-going became a shared cultural experience (Alexander & Alexander). It became an escape for the hardships of poverty and war, a place to transcend, to learn, and to connect to a national sense of pride.

        But what happens when the tensor connecting the museum and the nation’s political system is yanked? With the political activism of the 60s, the Civil Rights movement, and massive globalization, power and injustice become face-to-face with museums. Hans Haacke’s MoMA-Poll directly linked the museum with a political campaign with actual ballots to be cast for or against a candidate. How does the museum’s role change when the subject of the art actually is political? Do the museums actually hold the power? Regardless, museums continue to collect, preserve and research, but as society changes new challenges face museums and the messages they chose to mediate to the public. Museums are a place where cultures intersect and one can find similarities and differences with the world around them (McClellan).  They must adapt with time and remain like “a cultural coral reef, always growing and changing” (Alexander & Alexander, 38).

Andrew McClellan, The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. Berkeley, CA: University of California

          Press, 2008.

Bruno Latour, “Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist,”

          International Journal of Communication 5 (2011), 796–810.

Daniel Buren, “Function of the Museum.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard

          Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and

          Functions of Museums, Second Edition (Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press,


The Mediating Functions of Museums

When I think of mediating, I think of efforts being made to resolve disputes (as a “political mediator” might do). This can be achieved if people learn more about each other’s cultures and make a greater effort to understand why people feel and act the way they do. To what extent are museums capable of doing this?

The world’s first great national art museum? It’s been disputed.

Certainly, museums serve as important introductions to global cultures. Museums in Motion outlines many examples of this quite well. To begin with, the Renaissance was a time in which Europeans regained interest in ancient societies after having largely forgotten them during the Middle Ages (a period which was mostly museum-free). The modern concept of museums gained traction during this same period, as scholars, collectors and royal families took great interest in foreign and ancient cultures, and wound up gathering artifacts from those societies to put on display. Notable museums that were products of this movement include the Uffizi Gallery, the Habsburg collection in Vienna, and the palaces at Versailles and the Louvre (which became “the first great national art museum” when it opened to the public during the French Revolution).

Museums in Motion repeatedly promotes museums as positive outlets of cultural discovery, calling them “centers of education and public enlightenment.” The authors note that James Smithson pushed for the Smithsonian to be built “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men,” and they also remark how the beauty of art can “inspire and uplift the lower class.”

James Smithson never even visited America, yet he helped found the country’s most famous body of museums.

In turn, Professor Irvine’s piece on The Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld describes museums as “mediums with a message,” and praises the collective activities and meaningful collaborations that emerge from art. He also argues that art helps to make society more “nodal,” meaning that the different parts of its network are now better connected. The long, though incomplete, list at the end of the essay of all of the people and groups that combine to form the “Artworld” really illustrates what power art has of bringing people of all different backgrounds and professions together for a common purpose.

Lots of discussion awaits over this topic, I’m sure.

Is that power enough to make art “mediating,” however? Not everyone quoted in these articles appears to be on the same page. Museums in Motion offers a dissenting view provided by Canadian anthropologist Michael Ames: that by “museumifying” cultures, we limit our insight into them, because museums can only tell us so much (and usually only the highlights) about the topic which they are presenting. “Museums by their very nature limit their audience’s abilities to make sense of collections and place them in broader social contexts,” he writes.

This sentiment is echoed in Daniel Burren’s essay Function of the Museum, in which he suggests that museums can limit our appreciation of the fine arts by boiling down the wide variety of works out there to only the chosen few which are put on display– for reasons which are “obviously economically motivated,” moreover. He describes this as a “flattening effect,” and calls the museums that participate in this process “an enclosure in which art is born and buried.”

“Cultural Theft”

Furthermore, the readings describe instances in which museums led a lot of cultural theft, most notably during the Napoleonic era in France. So perhaps museums are not always the great cultural mediators we would like to think of them as being? And since many art museums “are aesthetic rather than educational” and  “allow the viewer to experience beauty, rather than convey information” (according to Benjamin Ives Gilman), perhaps the impression we have of them as providing limitless insight into societies around the world is somewhat overstated?

I see where Burren and Ames are coming from, don’t think that museums should really be faulted for their limitations, since of course they’re restricted by how much can physically fit in a single building. In order to satisfy these two, I think museums should clearly encourage their visitors to study the material which they have on display in greater depth once they get back home, so as to learn the story more thoroughly. Lots of museums I know of emphasize this quite well.

Paintings like “Guernica” prove what great a role art can play in historical commentary and political protest.

I would also argue that art can have more educational value than Gilman gives it credit for: the memory of historical periods such as the American Revolution, the Spanish-American War and the Iberian Invasion have been kept alive in large part thanks to famous works of art like Washington Crossing the Delaware, Picasso’s Guernica and many of Goya’s paintings, respectively. Also, I think we have learned our lesson from the thievery of the Napoleonic era and now make much more proper arrangements when transporting precious artifacts from one country to the other (no more wrenching away big obelisks from Egypt and planting them in the middle of Paris, like the one in Place de la Concorde).

Overall, we’ve learned a lot from the mediating functions of art. We’ve seen how they have introduced many visitors to new cultures and ideas, contributed to intellectual advancement and fostered important communities worldwide. We’ve also had to think about the limitations of such a concept and how they might be overcome; in general, I think that this can and has been done many times. It was nice to get a lot of great insight into these topics through these readings.



What are the values of the Artworld?

Museums mediate not only artworks—through exhibiting them, with all that exhibition involves—but also Art itself. Buren describes the mystical role of a museum, which lifts works and artists to the status of Art; in doing so, the museum defines and reinforces the cultural understanding of what Art is (189). Putting certain pieces in the hallowed halls of a recognized institution defines them as Art, and in doing so defines everything not included in museums as not-Art. The museum, thus, is not only an interface to artworks but also to, as our prompt describes them, “the ideas, concepts, and values of the Art System.”

One of the values that seems to be most in flux is that of the museum as a place of respite or a place of engagement— should a museum take us away from everyday life, or, as Newark’s John Cotton Dana would insist, force us to contemplate it? Edward and Mary Alexander describe these two modes as the museum as a “temple” or as a “forum.” They write that the forum model now dominates, but McClellan seems to suggest otherwise, with vignettes spanning from outrage at the Metropolitan Museum’s “Harlem on My Mind” exhibit (53) to a surge in attendance at that same museum following 9/11 (59). He writes that “Politics compromise the quality of disengaged aesthetic contemplation that the public has come to value and that the museum’s sponsors are content to pay for” (61, emphasis added).

Yet isn’t being “apolitical” inherently a political choice? People of all backgrounds are certainly capable of enjoying the work of Vermeer or Pollack, but it takes a certain kind of privilege to say that it is inherently apolitical to show primarily works depicting white, upper-class men and women and/or created by a white male pool of artists—that is, the kind of works that still make up the vast majority of art in most museums.* Or to take a recent example, consider the two exhibitions that the National Gallery of Art recently cancelled after the artists involved were accused of sexual harassment by multiple women. Ignoring the allegations and exhibiting the work of the two men would have been “apolitical”; it would have kept Art separate from more worldly concerns. But it would have sent the message that women’s discomfort is less important than artistic achievement, which is itself a political statement.

Certainly some things are clear about the values and functions of the Art System. There is clarity from within the system: museums are meant to provide the public with access to Art and to educate both future artists and future art enthusiasts. There is clarity looking in at the system: Art is, in itself, defined by the Artworld; there is no inherent “Artness” that exists in some works but not others (Irvine). But the role of politics, or lack thereof, demonstrates that there are some values of the Art System that are less stable, for better or worse.

*Interestingly, the Harlem exhibit McClellan describes as being too political for its time was also protested, among many other reasons, for not being diverse enough—the exhibit included no art by Black photographers and no writing by Black art historians in the exhibit catalog.

Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, Second Edition (Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press, 2007).

Andrew McClellan, The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to the Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld.”

Daniel Buren, “Function of the Museum.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Speculation, Symbols and Space

In O’Doherty’s “Inside the White Cube” and Alexander’s “Museums in Motion”, both authors speculate on the concepts, ideas and values surrounding galleries and museums in general. Alexander states that a museum is a “shared cultural experience”, a “depository of curiosities” while O’Doherty likens galleries to sacred spaces, “constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building a medieval church, where the outside world must not come in” (Alexander, p. 1, 3; O’Doherty, p. 7). Both authors highlight how the function of museums is nothing new to today’s world, where such spaces that housed objects of importance dates back to “greek temples with hoards of votive offerings” to “Egyptian tomb chambers” and even back to Paleolithic times where paintings graced the walls of Lascaux caves (Alexander, p. 2; O’Doherty, p. 8). Indeed the function of museums and galleries is to collection, conserve and research various items that are deemed culturally important and aesthetically pleasing. Yet such a description neglects the invisible function of museums to “secure financial stability, work that may involve local philanthropies, politicians or leaders or other cultural institutions” (Alexander, p. 10).

Alexander further extrapolates on the value of museums, citing the famous anthropologist Franz Boas to accentuate how museums circumscribe art and beauty as aesthetic entertainment to all those who are privy to enter such spaces (p. 11). Boas was working at the time when imperialists were collecting and cataloguing various “primitive” forms of art such as totems, ceremonial masks, pottery among other things. Yet such discoveries were not housed in a museum compared to famous masterpieces of the Renaissance. So how would Alexander define a museum when these art forms were “rejected” as art in the western sense? Were museums still considered depositories of curiosities? Shared cultural experiences? How does one value a system that looks at art through a western perspective?

O’Dohnerty looks at museums as a kind of tabula-rasa, where the “communal mind of our culture went through a significant shift that….leaves the slate wiped clean” (p.11). Reducing a gallery to a white cube looks to semiotics to make meaning of such a reduction. In my opinion, a white cube is anything you want it to be, creating an interface for a viewer or visitor to explore their ideas of art, beauty and aesthetics. As O’Doherty explains, “the object frequently becomes the medium through which these ideas are manifested and proffered for discussion” (p. 14). The concept of space and art can be seen in Morse’s Exhibition Gallery at the Louvre” where masterpieces are hung like modern-day wallpaper, creating a dynamic relationship between painting and the wall. How to define such a relationship with a “white cube” of space? Such an idea likens to “0.10” Zero Ten in St. Petersburg in 1915, where Malevich’s Black square hangs in the same place as would a traditional icon from the Orthodox Russian church would hang. How to describe the religiosity of space that Alexander and O’Doherty expounds upon when a mundane symbol such as the black square eclipses an icon? These questions and ideas changes the inherent function of museum and the value that we place in art and the “artworld” system as described by Professor Irvine.