Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Museum as a Way of Seeing

The essay The Museum as a Way of Seeing by Svetlana Alpers proposes that museums establish their own way of seeing an object, dubbed the 'Museum Effect.' When an object is placed in a museum and put up for the display and contemplation of others, that object becomes estranged from its place of origin and its original cultural context. In this way, even mundane objects, such as a crab shell, become exotic objects that provoke the interest of its viewers. In her article, Svetlana Alpers believes this added interest, by which objects placed in a museum possess an importance and power that they might not have otherwise had outside of its display case, is what makes museums so special. Museums use this way of seeing to capture the interest of visitors viewing the objects in their collections.

Objects on display in a museum are carefully selected from their collections because they are of artistic or intellectual value to the public. When items are placed on display for the enjoyment of the community, all objects in a collection essentially become works of art. And, like art, some things placed in a museum can be strange or even controversial. The museum effect is perhaps strongest in the most unusual of objects of a collection. The strangest thing that ever caught my attention in a museum was a small replica of Stonehenge on display at the Experience the Music Project in Seattle. The object was a prop used in the movie This is Spinal Tap during one of its funniest scenes. By itself, the statue is a hunk of Styrofoam that is nearly worthless, but to those who have seen and enjoyed the film, the statue is elevated from a mere prop to an object of cultural value. When this little Styrofoam Stonehenge was placed in a glass case, the museum "encouraged one to look at it in this way" (Alpers 25).


  1. I have been to the EMP multiple times and I can't say I remember seeing that particular model, which just goes to show how much you can miss even after going to a museum many times. I agree with you that some objects lose meaning if the viewer doesn't get the reference (I most certainly wouldn't have gotten the reference to the movie from the styrofoam Stonehenge), but I guess I'm confused as to how you mean the "museum effect" would bring about that meaning for that object. I guess I see your point that the glass case would make it stand out more, but as for the cultural significance highlighted by the glass case, I'm slightly confused. At least in my opinion, the glass case would draw me to the object and make me think it was important, but I still wouldn't necessarily know why. It wouldn't really have any significance to me.

  2. I feel the same way about museums placing objects on a sort of inflated importance pedestal. With this technique, the most mundane of objects could be placed in an enormous glass case, be roped off, and have security guards surrounding it at all times, and would inevitably draw interest by on lookers, as well as have an artificial sense of worth associated with it. But isn't that what we are trying to, especially in art galleries and museums? The more rare, unusual, and the more people want or lust after an object, the greater the value will be. Because almost everything revolves around money, this is an ingenious tactic by both museums and art galleries alike. The only question is when will this inflation finally reach its peak?