03 Exhibitionary Complex

Please post your response as a “comment” for this post, and submit it by Feb 14, 4 pm. It will be based on the following readings:

Bennett, Tony. “The Exhibitionary Complex.” The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, 59-88. London; New York: Routledge, 1995.

Shaw, Wendy M. K. “Parallel Collections of Weapons and Antiquities.” and “The Rise of the Imperial Museum.” In Possessors and Possessed: Museums, Archaeology, and the Visualization of History in the Late Ottoman Empire, 45-107. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

12 responses to “03 Exhibitionary Complex

  1. Anish Gonchigar

    This week’s articles describe two different models in the formation of the museum as a new public space. Bennett’s article takes a more theoretical approach, drawing heavily from Foucault, to denote these early museums as part of an ‘exhibitionary complex’. The exhibitionary complex is presented in contrast to Jeremy Bentham’s famous conceptual prison, the ‘Panopticon’. The Panopticon features a single, centrally-placed guard tower that watches over all the prisoners along the circular walls. In Foucault’s ‘Panopticon’, the French philosopher took this prison model as an allegory for modern society, in which the state attempts to oversee society’s behavior and establish a normalized social order. Bennett argues that museums served as another state-run tool for maintaining social order, albeit through very different means. The exhibitionary complex, he claims, established societal parameters in the context of culture and education. Museums were used as an ‘objective’ means of letting people understand themselves and contextualizing society as a stage of progress. Where the Panopticon model alienated and made the members of the public the same, Museums educated them, retained their individual status, and reached out to great numbers at once.

    Shaw’s article focuses on Turkey’s early imperial museums as an alternative side of the museum movement. The Ottoman imperial museums were founded as a sign of participation in European practices, to reclaim many of the antiques and physical heritage that was rapidly emigrating to European museums, and as a self-validation in a broad historical context. The Ottoman rulers sought cultural legitimacy by linking to the Biblical heritage of the Near East and Greco-Roman antiquity (while avoiding its Assyrian roots). This campaign was catalyzed by the recent publishing of Darwin’s ‘The Origin of the Species’, as geographic placement of Biblical events was used to scientifically counter Darwin’s argument.

    Personally, I found Shaw’s article much more compelling. While I recognize the broader purpose of the museum, as Bennett’s article emphasizes, I thought this particular case study was much more informative about the specific goals of early museums. For the Ottoman empire, museums were a strategic way to redefine itself in a more European-favorable way. I found the combination of national pride and cultural insecurity very interesting. I would be curious to learn more about what effect the museums had on the self-image of Istanbul’s populace, in addition to their actual effect on the empire’s wider perception.

  2. Shaw describes how archeology was deployed in the Ottoman Empire to recover a sense of cultural identity and also gain entry into Western-style modernity through European methods of authentication. She writes of the “production of a modern present through the display of an antiquated past [. . .] the collected antiquities [bearing] more value as signs for participation in European practices than as aesthetic of historical artifacts” (58). The Helleno-Byzantine artifacts formed the material base for the “imagined community” of the Ottoman Empire; they helped construct a necessary past from which to begin the narrative of progress, which was then institutionally validated through exhibitionary practices. I found her quoting of Fanon particularly resonant: “to speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of civilization” (68). Still today, emergent nations use museums, world fairs, and other modes of cultural display to exercise power and authority, like China’s 2010 Shanghai Expo. The museum is a representation of modern power. A nation’s possession of a “modern” museum can connote a certain amount of political relevancy as a player on the global stage. Thus, it’s also interesting to read this history in the context of recent debates over cultural patrimony (i.e. the Elgin marbles). Shaw describes how ancient artifacts gained heightened meaning during the rise of Hellenism, where Europeans elected themselves as cultural heirs to Greek civilization. To what extent is this idea still being circulated by Western museums bent on keeping ancient artifacts – divorced from their geographic origins – under the universalizing idea that they belong to a common humanity? How might this attitude deny developing nations both a claim to power and a modern identity through the possession of precious objects?

  3. Read in tandem, Shaw’s rendering of the Ottoman Empire in “Possessors and Possessed” and Bennet’s seminal analysis in “The Birth of the Museum” renders a tight network of cultural tensions, overlaps, and disconnects. One of the most fascinating aspects of both pieces (and one I believe warrants further discussion) is the role of the progress narrative in the museological imagination.

    Shaw’s discussion of the Janissary displays is particularly deserving of attention: by showing the development of uniforms and costume, the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire simultaneously celebrates the Janissaries and tries to manufacture a certain degree of historical distance from this controversial facet of the imperial structure. Here, the argument being made is a cultural and political one: the Janissaries are a part of the Ottoman past, but this is a past which is divorced from the present. Bennett shows how progress narratives can also make a disciplinary argument. In the nineteenth century, new fields such as “history, art history, archaeology, geology, biology, and anthropology” began to express their tenets as a “series of stages leading to the present,” a teleological or evolutionary view of history whose ramifications transcended academia (75-76). By showing one culture as being more “evolved” than another, i.e. one of the later stages in the display, a museum or show could make the argument for one civilization being more advanced than another (remember Bannister Fletcher’s “Tree of Architecture” we saw on the first day of class? Same thing!). From the nineteenth century onward, progress narratives suffuse museological thinking.

    Last week, several of the readings attempted to connect landscape and pleasure gardens to the modern theme park. I would like to propose a similar project regarding the perpetuation of progress narratives in themed environments of today. Do progress narratives remain entrenched in museums and exhibitions today? How has the digital age dealt with progress narratives (i.e. websites for museums, etc.)? Additionally, are popular culture environments influenced by this particular mode of historical thinking? How might mainstream phenomena like Disneyland be sustaining (either consciously or not) the notion of cultural Darwinism? For example, if Mainstreet USA lies at the heart of Disneyland’s identity, what does that say about the peripheral rides, zones, and attractions?

    I realize this line of inquiry seems like a move away from Bennett and Shaw’s focus on power dynamics, but I would argue that this need not be the case. The encoding of progress narratives in official and popular culture can deeply influence how national identities, power relations, and historical events are conceived of.

  4. One interesting idea to note about Bennett’s article is how a museum regulates through a sort of pretentiousness and also how it is similar to prisons. To give the people a sense of a power by having them watch over each other and to promote its space as a lofty, clean environment where the working class must present themselves in their best “Saturday night suit” seems to epitomize the bourgeoisie museum settings that various modern artists (namely the Dadaists) hated (Bennett 73). In both prisons and museums, there is constant surveillance. The fact that visitors were expected to dress a certain way is a depersonalization similar to uniforms in prison. In addition, somewhat like how inmates in jails are supposed to learn the ways of the better law-abiding citizen, the working class are “tutored into forms of behavior to suit them for the occasion” in museums (Bennett 73). It is interesting how museums are thus compared to prisons in their constant surveillance and conformity, yet how museums do this through its pomposity.
    On the other hands, fairs seen as “impediments to the rationalizing influence of the restructured exhibitionary complex” are shown as the opposite of museums and seem to relate to the theme parks of today (Bennett 74). Instead of being a place to “better” oneself and assimilate into a higher class as in museums, theme parks and fairs allow its patrons to revisit childhood and be free of worries and burdens.
    Whereas Bennett touches upon the imperialist propaganda displayed in Western museums, Shaw shows how other museums also have a political agenda. Through the Ottoman museums, “administrators maintained their ties with European culture” and promoted “the taste and power of Ottoman dynasty” (Shaw 46). Museums tried to glorify the empire’s past by displaying “relics of conquest” and linking the empire’s roots to the Bible (Shaw 49). Via its “collection and display of Helleno-Byzantine artifacts from Ottoman territories,” the Ottoman showed Europe that it “was a primary repository of the heritage…and thus automatically interjected [itself] into a collective, pan-European experience of cultural memory” (Shaw 69). The Ottoman museums served to both promote its empires own glory and also force itself into European history.
    One tactic of museum display that I found interesting was the use of mannequins to display uniforms and dress to humanize the past. Instead of shapeless clothes behind a display case, an exposition would use them “as both guards and hosts for the visitors entering the Ottoman exhibit,” thus increasing the connection the guests feel to the past (Shaw 58)
    Shaw notes that the central government used antiquities to “assert its territorial rights at the moment of conflict” and provincial administrations used them “to respond with a show of allegiance” (85). This is actually seen in the contemporary issue of a divided scroll whose two pieces are located in Taiwan and China. Recently, the Nationalist Party in Taiwan requested that the palace museum “help rebuild economic ties with China” by handing back its half of the scroll to China (http://blogs.reuters.com/fanfare/2010/03/29/divided-ancient-scroll-a-metaphor-for-china-taiwan/). This shows how important museums are in politics even today.

  5. I had never truly realized the extent to which museums could represent such means of power struggle and territorial dispute. In my mind, museums create a safe space in which I could explore its content to enhance my own understanding of the world. Though as a student of education, I keep in mind to constantly question the information provided. Nevertheless, I always find myself utterly amazed and dazzled by the impact-full presentation and unusual content of the space created by the museum. It is a dazzlement somewhat similar to that experienced when visiting an amusement park. Though, I wonder if this dazzlement is constructive or destructive to the nature of the museum. A museum, in theory, is supposed to present information in a straight, objective manner, without bias and prejudice. Though as in the Ottomon Museum and the supplementary building, sometimes the building of the museum itself (the Hagia Irene and the remodeled Tiled Pavilion), leans strongly toward a certain history inseparable to pre-molded emotions and perceptions. The mighty corinthian towers decorating the main entrance to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, even before walking inside, creates an atmosphere and feeling of classical supremacy and intelligence. On top of this, with the advancement of technology, museum exhibits have upped their presentational embellishments, further dazzling the audience with animatronics and digital 3d light shows. Though, if we take all of this away, we would probably not be as interested in visiting a museum. Such elaborate adornment has become (or perhaps was from the beginning) tightly intertwined with our interest levels in the principle learning materials within.

  6. Bennet’s piece connecting Foucault’s Discipline and Punish to the world of exhibitions and museums was thought provoking. He examines the idea that exhibitionary complexes are pure institutions of confinement, in the way that prisons are. Both institutions organize space so that they become organs of the state, imposing a specific vision of public instruction. The piece traces the shift in prison as a form of punishment from something that was once intended to be an exhibit in itself—a public system of representation (63)–, to a private confinement, where reform or correction became the goal rather than a public display of state power. Similarly, museums have a role to play in “the formation of a rational public culture” (70), providing their participants with a controlled vision.
    Museums allow the state to provide a set narrative of representation and observation, glorifying national objectives in relation to a constructed other. The state, through museums, reaches down towards popular culture and has an “ability to organize and coordinate an order of things and to produce a place for the people in relation to that order” (67). This is apparent in the Ottoman museum, in Shaw’s piece, where explicit connections to Greek and Roman archaeology were presented with the specific intent of linking themselves to cultural practices in Europe. Conversely, artefacts gained through archaeological digs in Turkey and then displayed in Western museums are displayed without any mention of the process of their acquisition. In either context, the museum has the immense power to create an effect of representation and otherness (67). Bennett writes of the totalizing order present in museum exhibitions, where collections were represented in order to boost a nations image of development, arranging other cultures as evolutionarily backwards in order to confirm their own imperial superiority (79).
    Unlike correctional facilities, however, exhibitionary complexes display a peculiar mix of surveillance and the ability to survey, democratizing state power sense. Museums open to the public allow the exhibit to be subject to inspection and visibility, so that “a sight itself…becomes the site for a sight, a place both to see and be seen from,” (84). Exhibitionary complexes open the sphere of observation to participation, so that the masses are “accessible to its own inspection” (86). Museums thus share with prisons their intent to mold the public to a set goal, or imbue them with particular characteristics, yet by allowing the public to participate and survey itself, a wider network of power relations is formed.

  7. I find it interesting to consider Bennett’s discussion of the implications of the exhibitionary complex for the formulation of the other to a society in the context of the political interaction shown through the museum-related activities of Western Europe, Ottoman, and Greece. For Bennett, the exhibitionary complex seeks to perform a function similar to the tours of Paris sewers and infrastructures (B, 65-66): by offering a view of power from within and throughout, of power as a beneficial structuring principal for society, the institutions situate the viewer/subject in a productive relationship with power.

    B, 67: “And this power marked out the distinction between the subjects and the objects of power not within the national body, but … between that body and other, ‘non-civilized’ peoples upon whose bodies the effects of power were unleased …”

    And so we have this exhibitionary complex and the new relationship between power and its subjects linked to imperialism. This is quite different from the sense of Ottoman museum practice presented in Shaw, where these museums are externally politically motivated to begin with (i.e. aimed directly at that very other that Bennett’s formulation creates implicitly). But what confuses/interests me is what it means for Greece if exhibiting antiquity in Western Europe can be written into Bennett’s formulation of the exhibitionary complex. Greece bears a European/Hellenistic projection of “living ancestor” (S, 66) and, as it seems through the various archaeological expeditions discussed by Shaw, has provided fuel for the exhibition of antiquity to run on in western europe. What are the differences between the conceptions of this relationship on either side? What side of power does would modern Greece fall on for Bennett?

  8. forgot my name on the above post. sorry!

  9. Tony Bennett conceives of the “exhibitionary complex” as a sort of spectacular analogue to Foucault’s theories about governmentality. Not being that familiar with Foucault’s work, I can only critique the content of Bennett’s argument. While I agree that many museums’ interior spatial arrangements and classificatory typologies have historically engendered the instruments of liberal governance and incubated the self-regulatory subject, it turns out this supposition seldom holds true in actual situations. And that’s a problem. What are we to do with a concept that has greatest currency only when conditions under which it is being examined remain sufficiently abstract? To be more specific, Bennett believes that museums are civic institutions which facilitate contact–providing an interface, if you will–between visitors and the state, and which enroll this hodgepodge of persons into a manageable, unitary whole (aka citizenry). As a result, he effectively reduces culture and community to affects of government. If this were the case, then community and government interests would coincide, which they often do not. In the last three decades in the US, museums have become increasingly contested territory, the latest and greatest flashpoint involving the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition on sexual identity. Although I don’t assume that US museums are emblematic of their counterparts elsewhere, I think it’s clear that their political authority is being increasingly questioned by groups whose cultures are represented, as well as those whose haven’t been. Moreover, governments’ escalating levels of accountability betray a diminishing faith in these institutions’ contributions to society. Far from being all powerful, museums’ continued existence is highly contingent on catering to numerous competing interests. I’m sympathetic to the productive potential in the engagement between citizens, variously constituted, and cultural institutions like museums. Rather than thinking about this relationship as unilateral, whereby agency is the exclusive reserve of government and governmental outlets, it may be more accurate to situate the relationship along a continuum of unequal power relations. After all, for Bennett’s “exhibitionary complex” to hold water, museums must remain stable sites for the operation of dominant interests. Since public museums were established to mitigate social instability, it would preclude that such an immutable rationale existed in the first place.

  10. One strong reaction I had to Bennett’s argument was that due to the exhibitionary complex, starting with the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace of Hyde park that led to the paradigm shift in museums that came thereafter, museums took certain ideals of panopticism into the social sphere of society to create a “constantly surveyed, self-watching, self-regulating, and consistently orderly public” (69). I found it intriguing that the museum (which I’ve always considered as a place of education) is actually an engineered place of social regulation. However, if the argument that neighborly-eyes would create peace and regulation in crowds, then would this not apply to any social space created for the public where the ‘show and tell’ of objects would be visible, such as in opera houses (where opera is exhibited), libraries (the exhibition of literature), and even the sidewalks (where storefronts advertise their latest products)? Or is the limiting factor the actual disciplines that are displayed? Either way, I find it hard to believe that citizenry is achieved through exhibition-styled education, especially since the museums in question may not all be controlled by the government anyway, as many are private institutions; I find it even harder to believe that museums can be categorized as a whole, especially when one considers the diversity of exhibitions that exist and the agenda/goals of those behind them. Can democratic and free governments truly dictate exactly what ‘culture’ it desires its citizens to assimilate to through the exhibitions of museums? While the idea of museums pushing political and imperialistic agendas is clearly evident in history, I believe it is more of a category of museums and rather than a rule for all museums.

  11. When I wrote a story last semester on The Big E, New England’s state fair, I saw Bennett’s exhibitionary complex in full force. The fair is an interesting amalgamation of many of the institutions Bennet refers to—the Great Exhibition, side show, department store. There are fair rides, curiosity tents such as “the world’s smallest horse,” agricultural competitions and exhibits, and a shopping pavillion inside. This last component is what I want to look at here, as a way to understand how consumerism and spectacle work together. The pavilion is basically a warehouse full of booths demonstrating and selling every TV infomercial product you have always changed the channel on. Officially, it is called it the “international” tent, a name saccharine in its multiculturalism. You can buy soap from the Himalayas, butterfly jewelry from the Amazon, or the word “Ireland” printed onto every scrap of clothing possible. Yet this name is also a kind of relic from the days of the Great Exhibition and subsequent world fairs, who displayed “zoned racial groups” (Bennett). Both kinds of fairs present collections that reify places as objects, in the first case for an imperialist/nationalist goal and for the later case a capitalist one. The consumer wins at the Big E, as she able to immediately possess whatever curios object fits her “niche” desire, be it a hi-tech Swiffer mop or a alpaca fur teddy-bear. Another example of this individualist model of “exhibitionary” consumerism is the mall, where the shopper chooses to enter booths or stores based on her personal style. Though mall-stores are usually not “place” or “nation” themed, they are branded with ethnic and cultural references to create a shopping environment that fits a particular type of person’s self-image. Middle schoolers don’t just go into Abrecrombie and Fitch for the faded denim—they go for the music, naked posters, etc.

    Such spaces of contemporary consumerism have evidently adopted the “exhibitionary complex” of 19th c. museums and fairs. They have also caused the concept to evolve. Today consumerism is a part of most all spectacle experiences, even those that in the 19th century were unrelated to shopping. Museum gift shops are a great example—after having seen a famous painting, the spectator purchases a souvenir poster of it. These shops not only sell objects, but an experience of participation in knowledge. Buying an art book or even a “design” object like a MoMa tote-bag that seems somehow to match the style of the institution gives the buyer a feeling of agency, as well as of participation in the “niche” or brand that the museum literally curates.. She can purchase the didactic experience that has impressed her, and perhaps in this way feel closer to it. Gift shops are a way of integrating the pleasures of private property back into a public sphere dedicated to preserving and communicating collective knowledge.

    Here’s the Big E story if anyone’s interested.

  12. Reading the three texts, it was interesting to see the different functions that museums or imperial museums served in the society. In Bennett’s text, the imperial museum is initially described as a private collection of imperial property which eventually becomes more open to the public. The transition is rather gradual, and is parallel with the oppositional development of the “carceral archipelago.” According to the text, the museum or the “exbitionary complex” plays a big role in the education of the new middle and working class.
    Similarly in Shaw’s texts, along with serving as a means to integrate the history of the Ottoman empire in the European history and context with archeological objects, the imperial museum also serves the purpose of educating the people of the state. What I found most intesresting is the educational role of the museum and the self-regulation and self-surveillance which happen at a museum environment. Does the self-regulative nature of being “seen” as well as being the viewer in a museum setting add to the education of the actual content of the museums in the contemporary era? or by having to be self-regulatory in the environment, does that provide a feeling of uncomfort and distract away from the actual content of the museum or “exhibitionary complex?”
    In my opinion, it will be interesting to further look into the role of self-surveillance and self-regulation in the contemporary setting, and look at how it contributes or detracts away from the educational role of the museum.

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