Museums and Philosophy--Of Art, and Many Other Things. Part 2.

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Museums and Philosophy--Of Art, and Many Other Things. Part 2.

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Title: Museums and Philosophy--Of Art, and Many Other Things. Part 2.
Author: Gaskell, Ivan
Citation: Gaskell, Ivan. 2012. Museums and philosophy--of art, and many other things. Part 2. Philosophy Compass 7(2): 85-102 .
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Abstract: This two-part article examines the very limited engagement by philosophers with museums, and proposes analysis under six headings: cultural variety, taxonomy, and epistemology in Part I, and teleology, ethics, and therapeutics and aesthetics in Part II. The article establishes that fundamental categories of museums established in the 19th century – of art, of anthropology, of history, of natural history, of science and technology – still persist. Among them, it distinguishes between hegemonic (predominantly Western) and subaltern (minority or Indigenous) museums worldwide. It argues that relations between hegemonic and subaltern museums are often agonistic, and are compromised by claims of universalism on the part of proponents of the former. The article observes that most discussion of museums focuses exclusively and misleadingly on their public exhibition function, and contends that scholarship – not exhibition – is central to all museums. However, that predominantly taxonomic scholarship, while innovative and central to a dominant epistemology based on the observation of tangible things in the 19th century, was compromised by the epistemic shift to abstraction and experimentation in the 20th, which resulted in a loss of initiative and authority. Although epistemological changes currently in progress favor a renewed attention to tangible things as complex matrices to which museums ought to contribute significantly, the fundamental taxonomy of museums by collection type is a clog on the ability of museum scholars to engage with and themselves produce big ideas. In order to function well as sites of scholarship in the future, museums will have to be far more adaptable and attentive to a wider range of things and ideas (including Indigenous ideas incompatible with Western assumptions) than their existing collection divisions permit.

Museums and philosophy do not seem readily to go together. Few philosophers have attended seriously to museums, and few museum scholars have explored philosophical issues. Philosophers have only occasionally set foot in museums in such a way as to leave a trace. In 1990, Jacques Derrida curated the exhibition Mémoires d’aveugle: L’autoportrait et autres ruines (“Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins”) from the holdings of the Department of Graphic Arts of the Musée du Louvre. It was the first in a series entitled Parti pris (“Taking Sides”) organized by curator Régis Michel, but the only one by a philosopher.1 Even so, Derrida’s focus was the blind, visionaries, and the European mythical foundation of drawing, not the museum or museums as such. In “Museums and Philosophy – Of Art, and Many Other Things Part I,” I broached the issue of why philosophy and museums should have so little to do with each other, avoiding one another even when scholars from each institution, such as Derrida and Michel, chose to work together closely. I suggested that perhaps in the 19th century museums were too self-evidently sites of scholarship to attract philosophical attention, whereas in the 20th and beyond their precipitate fall from epistemological grace has rendered them irrelevant. Among museum scholars, devotion to a governing discipline from among an A to Z of appropriate fields – from anthropology to zoology – has precluded any serious involvement with philosophy in all but a very few cases. I explored these matters, and why philosophers might have good reason to engage with museums, under three headings: Cultural Variety, Taxonomy, and Epistemology; and continue the exploration here under a further three: Teleology, Ethics, and Therapeutics and Aesthetics.
Published Version: doi:10.1111/j.1747-9991.2011.00469.x
Terms of Use: This article is made available under the terms and conditions applicable to Other Posted Material, as set forth at
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