Pedagogic objects, clean eyes, and popular instruction: on sensory regimes and museum didactics
In opening his essay ‘Museums as contact zones,’ James Clifford transports his readers to the basement of the Portland Museum of Art to eavesdrop on a meeting that had been arranged between Tlingit elders, the museum’s curators, and himself to discuss the future of the museum’s Rasmussen Collection of Northwest Coast Indian artifacts. The curators, Clifford tells us, had shared his own expectation that the elders would want to focus their attention on, and to organize the discussion around, the objects in the collection – but this proved not to be so. Although the artifacts were referred to from time to time ‘as aides-mémoires , occasions for the telling of stories and the singing of songs’ (Clifford, 1997: 189), it was the stories and songs that took center stage. The objects were left to keep pretty much to themselves, lying undisturbed ‘on the museum tables or in storage boxes’ (Clifford, 1997: 189), for the most part unheeded and, indeed, unseen, their role eclipsed by the cross-cultural exchanges – in stories, songs, and conversation – that they had occasioned. In Clifford’s telling, the museum thus emerges as primarily a scene of conversation rather than one of exhibition.