Views and Reviews


JAMES CUNO, ‘ENCYCLOPEDIC MUSEUMS IN THE POST-COLONIAL PRESENT ‘

Tuesday, 13 March, 2012 by Nadine Loach

Currently President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust and previously Director and Professor of the Courtauld Institute, Dr James Cuno was warmly welcomed to a full lecture theatre of academics eagerly awaiting his discussion of the issues surrounding the encyclopedic museum.

Current debates often attack encycopedic museums as imperial in their approach to the display of cultures; that they are symbols of state power and control and merely stagnant repositories of knowledge and culture. Dr Cuno’s counter to this argument began with the world-famous example of the British Museum founded in 1753. An encycopedic museum from its very beginnings, the BM offers a diverse collection that aims not at the specialisation or control of knowledge but rather its accessibility. The idea of an ‘Enlightenment vision’ with freedom as a human right is thus introduced and is something that must be considered throughout Dr Cuno’s discussion, after all, how free is a museum experience, and if it is not total freedom, is this a repression of a basic human right?

On a very basic level in museums, objects tell stories when positioned next to other objects. The difficulty comes in finding the right balance between focusing on each individual artwork and their presentation both aesthetically and in relation to the surrounding objects. This brings us to Dr Cuno’s suggestion that museums should never have a spine so to speak, but instead act more like a sponge. The intenton being that visitors are not under the control of the institution, but rather explore museums as they wish, creating their own path. But how true is this in a controlled space? We are led think deeper into Dr Cuno’s suggesion of free-will more generally: with the encyclopedic museum acting as a sort of microcosm for life, are we ever free to make our own interpretations?

This issue is problematic in light of contemporary debates which instead tend to raise the issue of the ‘scripted’ visit: the museum as a subject containing a pre-subscribed state ideology that unknowinlgy restricts our freedom of thinking and experience of objects. Dr Cuno however, remains somewhat idealistic. He believes that museums ‘disarm’ us to allow us to think in new and profound ways, to forget ourselves and create our own story through interacting with each object and collections of objects.

We then move on to Dr Cuno’s case study: a blue and white ceramic jug. We are asked to consider how the display of the object changes visitors’ and our own interpretations of it. We are provided with a detailed history of the object from all angles, certainly making us consider the significance of the level of information available beside an object. The important thing, Dr Cuno asserts, is that any level of research begins with the object, before the discourse.

Another interesting idea that was put forth is the idea of visitors as travellers through encyclopedic museums, perhaps as explorers of culture and knowledge, with the action of walking between objects and making connections opening our eyes to cultural relations and art. Dr Cuno does tackle the legacy of empire that such thinking implies, but asserts that there is evidence of empire in almost every object in encyclopedic museums and questions whether this should necessarily be the focus, let alone the aim being to search it out. The important thing is that museums respect individual agency so as to ensure no prejudice or priviledge in the way cultures are presented, and thereby to promote an understanding of difference.

Earlier this term I discussed the debate that was organised by the MA Curating students, Museums without Walls: Showing Art in a Digital Age. As a topic that is so current, Dr Cuno passionately argued that digital doesn’t offer the confrontational and conversational approach to objects and public speaces, as well as the meditatory aspects, that a physical museum does. Instead, the encyclopedic museum offers a source of experience of a ‘larger’ world and its diversity, something that he feels is especially important in times of conflict. His aim for the encyclopedic museum is for a democratic approach to the ownership of objects and thus the non-secularisation of objects through focusing on their multiple accessibility. Clearly Dr Cuno feels the aim of the encycolpedic museum is to counter any ‘mono-view’ of the world. And to provide a certain freedom of encounter with objects. The question still remains as to whether this can ever be possible in a museum’s articulation and display of cultures other than its own.

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