Dubious Sites of Vague Human Activity: Museums and The Exotic

A (history) museum is definitely an interesting place to examine. Putting it simply, every artifact and painting is neatly placed to form a narrative of a historical story. The lighting, the colors, the music, the labels, the orientation of showcases etc. are methodically organized to create an atmosphere in which the observer not only learns about a story but embodies it with all the different elements speaking to the different senses. But is a museum all about fulling the aforementioned task and ‘educate’ people? Or is it a very modern site in which one particular form of narrative is not only imposed but is paradoxically isolated and exoticized?

I had the privilege of doing a month-long internship in a museum. However, as a person training in anthropology, what interests me more is not the museum work itself but what it represents in society, how a person conceives it, and what kind of an experience is constructed for the human and for what reason it is done. I have also been able to be in close contact with ‘office work’ which has always been a foreign site to me and continues to be so. Day by day, I came to realize the inconceivable setting of offices which act as the powerhouse of the capitalist economy which is draining away human consciousness of living for a purpose. Hence, I will be further writing about my observations in the coming posts, which will hopefully provide a holistic view at the end.

To go back and touch upon the previously raised questions regarding museums, I believe that museums (ones that are involved in representing history, to be more specific) are not innocent institutions which aim to educate the public but are paradoxical sites which construct history.

Firstly, it is paradoxical because museums claim to provide an experience that allows observers to re-live and learn more about history; while completely alienating the subject from the displayed objects with the usage of glass cases, distanced podiums, or raised platforms, which exoticize the displayed objects. Hence, an attempt of ‘immersing one’s self in a historical narrative/story’ stands contradictory to the experience of walking among extrinsic and exotic objects which are close in distance yet so far from our grasp and feelings. As an example, let us look at Asli Gur’s article ‘Stories in Three Dimensions: Narrative of Nation and the Anatolian Civilizations Museum‘ in which Gur describes her work on Anatolian Civilizations Museum in Turkey which accommodates artifacts from various Mesopotamian civilizations in order to create a sense of unity of ‘an Anatolian culture’ by portraying a coherence of developments in the region throughout different ages, via artifacts. However, while doing so, the practices done and the tools used by various ancient Mesopotamian people are visualized as ‘authentic’ through traditional museum practices of presenting material, as was mentioned. Hence, a visitor to the museum is expected to feel a connection to the past people of the lands that he/she lives in; while looking at the belongings of the ‘other’. I use the term ‘other’ because the display of any artifact starts belonging to an imagined humanity distant from us precisely once it is put for exhibit.

Secondly, such paradoxical sites construct history because museums not only present one specific narrative of history but claim to be the representative of history, as a legitimate state-backed non-profit institution which depends on its ‘attractiveness’ when receiving funds from the government and the (bourgeois) elite. Since museums are most of the time non-profit organizations which are only partly-funded by government, they ought to survive by other means of income such as visits or private funding. And this ultimately leads museums into neat-picking specific stories or narratives which are skillfully molded according to the needs brought by the political situation. Hence, museums act as a sites of impactful propaganda of the nation-state. As an example, if we look at Gur’s mentioned article, we witness how a sense of ‘national identity’ is being constructed through binding and unifying historical narrative which not only relates every Turkish citizen, but every past people of significant empires in Anatolia; and attempts to construct a national identity consisting of ‘Anatolian-ness’.

This piece of writing will hopefully be only the beginning of an unending thought-journey along a road that is paved on the incoherence of modernity and the disciplinary construction of space.

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