Museums as Neutral and Objective Repositories?

Tanya Yorks


Museums have traditionally been regarded as institutions that display factual, accurate, unbiased representations of culture, if not because the sheer force of the physical space and the relationship between museum and ritualistic power have been emphasized since the institution became a more public entity. Something about mightily displaying otherwise inaccessible objects, complete with label placards and curatorial description, seems to scream attentiveness to actuality, furthering the idea that the museum is neutral as a displayor. Regardless of any attempt to remain unbiased, the fact remains that all exhibitions were created by individuals with their own cultural past, and despite the honest and good intentions used in producing an unbiased, neutral exhibition space, aspects of this personal culture, however small, will always factor into the curatorial process. Therefore, it is almost intrinsically impossible for a museum to be a “neutral and objective repository” of art and culture.

Svetlana Alpers discusses in her article “The Museum as a Way of Seeing” the ability of the museum to draw scrutinizing attention to otherwise ignored objects, simply by placing them in the revered space of the museum. If it is on a pedestal, it must be culturally important, or so the theory goes. This theory alone, however, raises questions on the influence of the museum over what constitutes art or artifact, both of which do not simply present themselves for exhibition, by are chosen by an individual, already reducing the museum’s neutrality at this early decision-making process.

The increasing commercialization of the museum and the political undercurrent that sometimes invisibly surrounds an exhibition also undermine the neutrality of the museum; with the advent of corporate sponsorship (BMW sponsoring the Guggenheim’s The Art of the Motorcycle) and foreign relations (the U.S. searching to strengthen ties with the Middle East through the King Tut exhibitions), the museum is becoming less about the museum in the traditional sense (the collection of curiosities intended for a single individual, which slowly became increasingly more public – which, too, in its very nature is laden with biases) and more about the museum as a sponsor of its own identity of grandeur and credibility, negating any remaining sense of objectivity and neutrality of display.