In November 2015, I participated in a live-coverage event around the Renaissance Society’s 100 year anniversary symposium with Karen Archey. You can read the whole stream here. Below is an excerpted capsule I wrote about Ranjit Hoskote’s talk.
Amazing talk by Ranjit Hoskote, “On the reconfiguration of evidence” examining the shifting role of museums in history and relationship between collection and narrative. I’m not going to be able to do justice to this, but in general I’m very interested in the question of whether or not the museum can support/contain a kind of instability. Hoskote, I think, presents one way it might happen through a non-collecting institution. Hoskote begins with The Alexandrian Museum or Temple of the Muses — what is etymologically the origin point of museums and becomes a kind of institutional muse or paradigm. Although The Alexandrian Museum was a site dedicated to learning with a library, it did not collect objects or artifacts.
Hoskote then calls out three figures from the Enlightenment period, describing how their appetite for totality — to capture, edit, and convey a comprehensive (singular) worldview — shaped the agenda and identity of the museums collections. First Johann Joachim Winckelmann — who, Hoskote points out, gathered most of what he knew about Greek antiquity second hand. Hoskote notes that Winckelmann “removed everything that was polychrome and hybrid to produce the Neo-Classical,” an interpretation that was largely imaginary Second, Denis Didero who founded the Encyclopedia, and thirdly Alexander von Humboldt’s five-volume text, Kosmos, which as the title suggests, tries to capture and convey a Total view of the universe, the planet earth within it, and the microecologies it contains. Embedded in their desire to to create such exhaustive projects, Hoskote notes, “is the desire to subjugate one’s material” — what is also evident in Humboldt’s action to collect specimens over the course of his travels abroad and bring them back to Europe to index and classify. Like Humboldt the museum collection is inherently tied to a colonial approach, whereby a nation goes out into the world to collect the objects and artifacts of other nations to establish its national (or global) superiority and stability. In those museum collections, it is as if time stands still at the behest of a given nation state.
(I think of the Market Gate of Miletus in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, though of course there are many examples)
Hoskote quotes Akeel Bilgrami:
“How and when did we transform the concept of human beings into citizens? How and when did we transform people into populations? How and when did we transform a knowledge to live by and concept of expertise? How and when did we transform the concept of nature into the concept of resources?..” (I found a link to this quote here , though I don’t know if it is the one to which Hoskote refers)
Ultimately Hoskote suggests the non-collecting museum as a possible relief or antidote from the colonial authority and history of the Museum Collection. The non-collecting institution can bypass the baggage of collecting and potentially revisit the original Alexandrian Museum as a collective library, or site of performative and collective engagement. Because it doesn’t espouse the desire to possess the objects it exhibits, art works can stop functioning as fetishes and instead remain as reserves to-be-activated (presumably by a visiting public). Similarly, it is not invested in presenting a stable, cohesive past that would otherwise justify its collection. Within that new paradigm, the non-collecting institution can assume a new ethical position, encouraging a (possibly participatory?) trusteeship.