Public Image II: Back to the Future

In a museum someone steps between us and a painting to snap a photo. But it’s not just that our view is momentarily blocked, our sight-line is constantly interrupted by something or other in crowded galleries. It’s only with the sound of the shutter that we feel something more intangible and more disturbing has been interrupted; it’s the sound of the silent convenant of proper etiquette being broken. Even the shushed child implicitly understands: museums are temples for looking and contemplation, for the mystical experience of Art. We see the sign outside the gallery, photography prohibited, and we give ourselves a nod because are glad to see the museum enforcing our own sense of propriety.  We have forgotten it wasn’t always like this.

The early public museum would have been unrecognizable to today’s audiences. Not only were the earliest 18th and 19th century museums arranged in ways that now seem ridiculous (e.g. all landscapes, regardless of style, crammed side-to-side, floor-to-ceiling, in the same room), they were often imagined as extensions of academic or princely studios meant for use by working artists. For example, the Louvre, the first public museum, reserved first fifty and then seventy percent of its operating hours exclusively for artists who wished to copy from the collection (c. 1790s).

In a widely circulated letter from 1792, J.M Roland, the post-revolutionary French minister of the interior,  described similar political ambitions for the newly founded museum: “The museum ought to be open to the whole world and each [person] should be able to place their easel in front of whatever painting or statue in order to draw, paint, or make a model to their liking.” Founded on the rhetoric of the French Revolution, the public museum’s task was to manifest the most literal, material metaphor for the transfer of power from the Royals to the citizens and their republic.  The Louvre, of course, had been the palatial residence of the previous Bourbon Monarchy and the early museum’s collection was made up entirely of the artifacts they had collected (the next substantial era of acquisitions was only under another pseudo-Monarch, Napoleon I). More precisely, the founders of the Louvre imagined the public museum as a democratic version of the exclusive painting academies that had come before it. Copying was to be understood as the simplest and most obvious way by which the public could realize this abstract rhetoric of public ownership. Physical possession of the art objects was entrusted to the people’s representation, the State, but virtual possession of the images they depicted was intended to be freely distributed amongst its viewer-copyists.

Hubert Robert, Imaginary View of the Grand Galerie in Ruins, 1796, Oil on canvas

In what is probably the most famous painting of the early Louvre,  Imaginary View of the Grand Galerie in Ruins (1796), the director of paintings, Hubert Robert depicts a fictional post-apocalyptic Louvre empty except for a few forlorn scavengers and a single, heroic copyist who sketches what appears to be the last remaining work in the collection: the famous Apollo Belvedere sculpture. Through what would become the genre of the Sublime Ruin in the Romantic Age, the painting works as a didactic fantasy that projects an idealized version of the present into a sort of paradoxical, what-will-have-been future (the grammatical term for this tense is called, appropriately, the future perfect). That is through this imaginary looking-back onto the future, Robert is very clearly trying to say that the artist-copyist, the person who makes use of the museum like a studio, is the heir apparent to this new institution, and that they alone can sustain its future.  Whether it be new interpretations, or slavish copies, whether for academic purposes or in service of commercial demands, the early public museum, as embodied in the Louvre, was a place less for works of art than the work of (making) art. So what happened?

I think the two most important factors that worked on our collective understanding of the “purpose” of a museum began to crop up relatively soon after the turn of the 19th century: the maturation of Idealist Aesthetics and the birth of various public consumer spaces. Idealist Aesthetics maintained, for the first time, that works of Art could be thought of as perfect and complete representations of the human spirit, or nature. Accordingly, the emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic qualities of a work of Art could impart true and integral meaning that was separate from and beyond the everyday sensory experiences of life. The prevalence of these ideas, in the artists, museum administrators, and audiences of the time created the widespread belief that the museum was to be regarded as a place for the passive absorption of Truth from these extraordinary objects. The public no longer shared the museum with the metaphysical guru, the (male) Genius Artist, now they must come to it like parishioners to the church to hear Gospel.

In what would seem to be a paradox, museums were also being influenced by new forms of public commercial display and consumption. This was the era of the first World’s Fairs, shopping arcades, departments stores, and mail-order catalogs. And there was a remarkable amount of cross-pollination between the burgeoning museum and these co-developing commercial institutions: commercial catalogs frequently called themselves “Museums”, Museum administrators would proudly point out the price of works in their collections to visitors, the glass vitrine was invented in the arcade and transplanted into the museum as was gas lighting, ect.  Were visitors to Grand Expos and World’s Fairs touring museums or commercial conventions? Here factories showed off their new machinery next to motley displays of artifacts from the colonies; geological specimens shared floor space with marvels of urban architecture. In its own way then, public commerce display also encouraged a new type of passive museum spectator based not on the pilgrim but the window-shopper. These new figures of art appreciation must have felt strangely alienated from the material wealth on the display in the museum. On the one hand, they were presented with objects as if they were for sale at a store, that they could be owned for a price; while on the other, they were being persuaded by Republican rhetoric that they already owned these things.

I think this contradiction, which persists today, came about from the shift in the self-presentation of the museum as a space for seeing-copying to one for strictly seeing. While the museum remained happy to cloak itself in the Revolutionary Louvre’s ideal of the publicly shared studio, it increasingly re-orientated its practical structure to serve the interests of the passive, alienated consumer. And it’s my argument that photography offers contemporary museumgoers an unique opportunity to return to the historical, hybridized seeing-copying museum. Put another way,photography,more than any other medium, could allow the general public to reassert their shared ownership over the museum’s material wealth.  I think this is because Photography’s minimal definition is as an act of hybrid seeing-copying. Unlike drawing, painting, sculpture, ect. photography necessarily unites the act of looking with the act of representing. You can paint, draw, or sculpt something you aren’t looking at–something that you haven’t even seen, or may not be seeable, but the normal definition of photography requires the artist to make their representation precisely by looking and little else. Additionally, photographic representation can (but doesn’t have to) incorporate a relatively perfect, and infinitely reproducible copy of the image what it regards. Photography can be employed by anyone who looks, and it produces a potential infinity of reproductions.

It’s worth mentioning that though photography is usually either prohibited or severely restricted in today’s museums, almost all museums still theoretically allow visitors to draw, if not paint, from the collection (theoretically because–confirming the above history–almost no one does this or is explicitly encouraged to do this any more). What can we make of this implicit distinction? Especially when photography is technically much closer to the passive activity of seeing than any of these other mediums. I believe the line reveals a hidden institutional mistrust of the political threat of photographic reproduction hinted at above–the last remainder of the museum’s historical prejudice against a medium, whose (other) novel (aesthetic) premises have now been fully incorporated into the canon. Museum photography is the splinter in the eye of the museum’s incorporation of photography. In next week’s post, I’ll explore the reasons for and consequences of this institutional anxiety through a case-study of one museum’s abortive attempt to stifle digital photographic reproduction.


Some relevant sources:

Bennett, Tony, The Birth of The Museum: History, Politics, Culture. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Photography, a middle-brow art . Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. Museums and The Shaping of Knowledge. New York: Psychology Press, 1992.

Poulot, Dominique. Une Histoire des Musées de France. Paris: Decouverte, 2005.

Poulot, Dominique. “La Naissance du Musée”  in Aux Armes et Aux Arts! Les arts de la Révolution, 1789-1799, ed. Philippe Bordes et Régis Michel. Paris: Adam Biro, 1998.

de Quincy, Antoine Quatremère. Lettres sur les préjudices qu’occasionnerait aux arts et à la science le déplacement des monuments de l’art de l’Italie, Paris 1796.