Contextualization: The Museum Effect

In my History and Theory of Museums class we have been discussing contextualization of artifacts. How when you remove an object from its natural surrounding (context) and place it in a museum you are giving the object an entirely different contextualization. After talking about it and writing it down as I just did, it seems elementary to what we do as museums, but I’d never really thought about it that way before. It brings up several interesting points about learning in museums.

Referred to as, “The Museum Effect” in the article Museums as a Way of Seeing by Svetlana Alpers, it includes three main parts.

1) Take an artifact or work of art out of its original context.
2) Kill the object’s social purpose (why it was or what it was used for).
3) Put objects into a new context, i.e. museums take cultural objects and turn them into art objects.

Take for instance a religious alter. It is a social/cultural object kept within a church/chapel etc. It is a practical object used as a place to worship and pray, but when removed and placed in a museum its social purpose is dead, it becomes purely aesthetic. With small exception, artifacts in museums are NOT used; a person does not go up to a religious alter on display in a museum and kneel to pray. Typically in a museum setting, this artifact will become an art object; people will view and appreciate it for its inherent beauty i.e. intricate wood or stone work.

Besides changing an object from a practical/natural context to a purely aesthetic one, another layer of contextualization can occur. The meaning or thoughts generated about an artifact may be altered by the larger theme of an exhibition. My professor used the example of how one may view paintings differently when they are arranged in assorted ways. You may take something different from a painting when it is viewed in a chronological exhibition versus a thematic one. In a chronological layout, Van Gough’s “Water Lilies” would represent the impressionistic movement and would be viewed with other similar paintings of that time. When viewed with other art in a themed layout, specifically about painting nature, one might notice entirely different qualities about that work of art.

Again, when reading/hearing/writing about contextualization in museums it all seems so obvious, but is something I think many of us haven’t stopped to think about. Museums allow us to view/study/enjoy objects we might otherwise care to ignore. Another of my professor’s examples was that if you see a big ugly spider in your room you scream and want to kill it, if you see it in a museum you want to get right up close and count its eyes. By putting objects and artifacts in a different context, museums allow us to enjoy and learn from items in a way we may choose not to in our everyday lives.

One response to “Contextualization: The Museum Effect

  • Jenni Schwartz

    Not true! About the spider that is… I am so in love with the gigantic orb weaver outside my front door. He makes an awesome brand new web every day and he has been there for a week. (And guess what? No mosquito bites since!) LOVE him.

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