The writings of Jean Baudrillard are overflowing with great quotations, but one specific one resonates in regards to the museum and its place in American society:
“It is never too late to revive your origins. It is [America’s] destiny: since they were not the first to be in on history, they will be the first to immortalize everything by reconstitution (by putting things in museums, they can match in an instant the fossilization process nature took millions of years to complete). But the conceptions Americans have of the museum is much wider than our own. To them, everything is worthy of protection, embalming, restoration. Everything can have a second birth, the eternal birth of the simulacrum. ” – America (1989)
There is so much going on in this quote, and to abstract it not only from America (though, to be fair, the book is written in a style that you could conceivably compare to a blog or a Twitter account) but from Baudrillard’s work as a whole is to in essence do the thing he ominously foretells, to create meaning where none was intended, and thus build a house on a foundation of nothing, a simulacrum. For this specific blog at this specific time, however, I want to ignore that possibility and instead isolate the quote and look at reconstitution and the museum.
The great social theorists of the late 20th Century (Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, & Baudrillard…and I’m certainly leaving some out) were fascinated by art, and their writings would seem to be a necessity for anyone studying the field. Baudrillard, focused on the creation of meaning and how such creation often builds not from authenticity but from idealized notions of authenticity, wrote numerous articles and chapters on classical art, modern art, and the museum as a house for these items and other “culturally significant” memorabilia. He understood that every move, every decision, every placement of an artifact in conjunction with another artifact would create a new meaning, a meaning unintended by the artifact’s original creator (I think of the quilts in Alice Walker’s Everyday Use as an example). Curators determine significance, arrange and place items in a real space, and deduce a narrative for the space — a story of a time, place, thing or person.
I am coming back to Baudrillard after a long time off, and I am making an assumption here, but I believe that some of what Baudrillard is trying to say about Man’s search for Meaning is that idolizing objects and creating significance where there was none will lead Man away from Meaning and to fabrication. If true, the museum has an important yet arduous balancing act — how does a museum create opportunities for individuals to interact with content, while at the same time not allowing the content to stray too far from its intention?
If you ask, “What’s wrong with straying from original intention? Items can create new meaning!” that’s the next step in this journey to reconsider the role of the museum and its visitors.