Museums: A Visual Anthropology

I’ve always enjoyed museums. Places like the British Museum are spaces I can spend an entire day or longer. A few years ago I bought two textbook-like works about the history and structure of museums. Since then Mary Bouquet’s Museums: A Visual Anthropology has sat on my shelf. But I got around to reading it on vacation last month.

While it is a textbook, it’s also readable. Bouquet sets out to answer how museums gained their current prominence. And to look at what dilemmas they face and what lies ahead in their future.

It was interesting to learn that many academic disciplines were based in museums during the 19th century. It was only in the 20th century that these shifted to being based in a university.

She also does an excellent job detailing the role of a national museum; a place like the Louvre or Rijksmuseum. These emerged in the late 18th century. That’s right around the time when many modern nation states were solidifying themselves. At the time these states were an unfamiliar and abstract form of organization for people. National museums helped make the state real and concrete.

Early national museums were often in large, imposing buildings. That architecture, “helped to create a visible, tangible presence and cultural identity for the nation state.” The museum itself was a way of demonstrating the new state’s competence. Its ability to bring back objects from abroad (which is a whole problem in itself) was a way of demonstrating early competence and organization.