chapter  3
22 Pages

Civic laboratories: museums, cultural objecthood and the governance of the social

My primary purpose in this chapter is to explore how far methods developed in the field of science studies for the study of laboratory practices can be applied to the processes through which, in museums, new and distinctive forms of cultural objecthood are produced and mobilised in the context of programmes of civic management that aim to order and regulate social relations in particular ways. I pay particular attention to current attempts to refashion museums so that

they might function as instruments for the promotion of cultural diversity. In addressing these concerns, I also further elaborate the more general set of questions, introduced in Chapters 1 and 2, concerning the relations between specific forms of cultural expertise and processes of social management, and the historical configuration of the relations between culture and the social in those societies we call modern. There is, of course, nothing new in the suggestion that museums are usefully

viewed as machineries that are implicated in the shaping of civic capacities. To the contrary, in the late-nineteenth-century debates leading to the establishment of the Museums Association museums were commonly referred to as ‘civic engines’ to be enlisted in the task of managing a newly enfranchised mass male citizenry (Lewis 1989). The value of viewing them specifically as ‘civic laboratories’, then, depends on the light that such an analogy is able to shed on the modus operandi of museums as technologies that, by connecting specific forms of expertise to programmes of social management, operate in registers that are simultaneously epistemological and civic. Nor is the suggestion that there is a kinship – a family resemblance, say – between museums and laboratories a new one. It informs two recent assessments of the distinctive qualities of the modern art museum. In the first of these, Donald Preziosi characterises the nineteenth-century art museum as ‘a laboratory for the education and refinement of bourgeois sentiment’ (Preziosi 1996: 168) in view of its role in providing both a setting and an occasion for a new set of practices of inwardness that, in turn, were connected to the fashioning of new forms of civic virtue. In the second, Philip Fisher argues that art museums furnish a context in which what he calls portable objects – easel paintings is

the case he mentions – are ‘open to resocialisation and resettlement within this or that cluster of what are now taken to be similar things’ (Fisher 1996: 18). It is, however, the laboratory that serves Fisher as the epistemological model for this form of portability, in view of its ability to replicate experimental arrangements of objects from one laboratory setting to another and so make possible portable, and hence generalisable, results. That these essays should have been written by art historians is not entirely

accidental. There is now a quite extensive literature in which a number of art institutions have been likened to laboratories. Although concluding that it does not fit the laboratory case as well as she had thought it might, Svetlana Alpers nonetheless finds that laboratory practice provides a useful means of probing the respects in which the artist’s studio provides a means of withdrawing from the world for the purpose of better attending to it (Alpers 1998). Latour’s remarks point in the same direction when he compares attempts – including his own – to free science studies from its epistemological past to the work of those who have struggled to free art history from aesthetics. Science studies, he argues, has learned a good deal from the new material histories of the visual arts that have formed a part of this severing of the aesthetic connection, especially for the light they have thrown on the multiplicity of heterogeneous elements (from the quality of the varnish and the organisation of art markets, through the history of criticism, to the organisation of the studio and the operations of art museums) that have to be brought together to make the work of art. It has also, he suggests, a good deal more to learn from the respects in which these new material histories of art have helped to displace dualistic constructions of the relations between ‘the representing Mind and the represented World’ (Latour 1998: 422) by demonstrating the extent to which each of the poles of such dualities is the effect of the material instruments and practices through which their relations are mediated. While acknowledging the force that the art museum/laboratory connection

has thus accumulated, I shall argue for a broader approach. This will involve, first, drawing on the perspectives of science studies and actor-network theory to look at the processes through which different types of museum are able to fabricate new entities as a result of the distinctive procedures (of abstraction, purification, transcription and mediation) through which they work on and with the gatherings of heterogeneous objects that they assemble (Latour and Woolgar 1986). It will also involve considering how the ordering of the relations between objects, and, to bring the visitor into the picture, between objects and persons, that such procedures give rise to mediate the relations between particular forms of expertise and citizens in the context of programmes of social and civic management. I shall, in pursuing these issues, distinguish the role that museums play in these regards in liberal forms of government from those associated with their role in more directive forms of rule. I want first, though, to probe more closely how far and in what respects museums are usefully likened to laboratories.