Exhibitionary Complex

Wendy Shaw’s work on the rise of the Ottoman Imperial Museum and Tony Bennett’s more theoretical account describe two different processes at work in the birth of the museum. Bennett’s work argues that nineteenth-century museums, dioramas and panoramas, national and, later, international exhibitions, arcades and department stores, were in fact linked through shared practices of representation. He calls the cumulative work of these institutions as the “exhibitionary complex.” Included in these  new public exhibitionary institutions he cites public (history, natural science, art) museums, dioramas and panoramas, national and later international exhibitions, arcades and department stores.


Combining the panopticon with the panorama, the crowd becomes its own spectacle (e.g. Bon Marché).

The title of Bennett’s book, The Birth of the Museum (1995), in which the essay on the exhibitionary complex appears, reveals his Foucaultian take on the “formation of the museum.” Foucault’s  Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) uses panopticon as a model of disciplinary power. Panopticon (“all-seeing”) is a prison model proposed by Jeremy Bentham in 1791, to withdraw the spectacle of punishment away from the public eye and the prisoner from the dungeon, into the compartmentalized space of the prison cell where he would be subjected to the imagined, permanent gaze of his jailer. This architectural machine would induce subjective changes in the inmate, principally making him docile. Foucault suggests that the crowd was replaced by a “collection of separated individualities” through instruments of disciplinary power.

Bennett narrates a simultaneous development, but of the opening up of the museum to the general public. He argues that while the “carceral archipelago” of the “asylum, penitentiary, reformatory, the approved school and the hospital” was developed in response to the problem of order, the exhibitionary complex worked differently in seeking to “transform that problem [of order] into one of culture” “winning hearts and minds as well as the disciplining and training of bodies.” And that is why, he suggests, nation states garnered the popular support they had. The gallery of progress and the period room became rhetorical strategies of power (a la Gramsci) that turned the museum into an instrument of nation state.


The collection of the Ottoman Imperial Museum began in the Basilica Hagia Irene. It was organized into Magazine of Antiques and Magazine of Weapons.

Imperial Museum (Müze-i Hümayun): A new building to house the sarcophagus collection was designed by Alexandre Vallaury and opened in 1891.

Shaw explains that Ottoman museum practice developed in response to European imperialist infringement to which archeological excavations provided a pretext. Ottoman statesmen of the late 19th century were aware of the negative perceptions of the Ottoman Empire and wanted to counteract conceptions of the Ottomans as “others” by forming a museum that focused on archeological finds of their territories, passing legislations, and initiating excavations. While under the directorship (1881-1910) of the educator, painter Osman Hamdi, the Museum grew from a small collection to an institution with empire-wide reach, acquiring in 1891 a new purpose-designed building designed by Alexandre Vallaury with a neo-classical facade. Shaw argues that “Like colonized nations gaining their independence, Ottomans had to fight against the supposed objectivity of the scientific practices of archaeology and reinsert their presence into the narrative of civilization that this science helped to write… Archaeological activities helped to justify European hopes of imperial possessions in previous Ottoman territories. Europeans often disguised their activities of antiquities collection as a form of altruism without political motivations. In light of this, Ottoman archaeological expeditions responded to the European incursions in order not only to reclaim artifactual rights, but, more important, territorial ones. Thus the development of the museum and the legislative practices associated with it spoke not only verbally in the language of heritage and history but also physically in the language of conquest and territory.” (p. 106-107) In contrast to Bennett’s account, the intended audience of the Imperial Museum was not the general “populace” but European visitors. Its collection lacked the taxonomic, evolutionary ordering because the main motivation was to “impress the museum audience with the fact of Ottoman ownership rather than to participate in the positivist ordering of knowledge in vogue in Europe,” (p. 82) and “to reposition the people of the Ottoman territories as the most direct descendants of the people who had made these objects…” (p. 158).