The Anthropologist in the Museum: What Is a Museum?

The Burlesque Hall of Fame

Believe it or not, there is no readily accepted definition of a museum. The American Alliance of Museums officially throws up its hands, stating in its handbook National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums that the term “museum” describes “an organization that people can identify intuitively but that cannot be neatly packaged in a definition,” and continuing on to describe a “big tent” approach, saying that “If an organization considers itself to be a museum, it’s in the tent.”

In other words, we many not be able to define what a museum is, but we know one when we see it.

Sure, there are other definitions of museums, legalistic jargon-laden definitions that serve to define museums in relation to tax codes, property law, fair use protections, and so on, but basically its a reflexive signifier. Museums are museums.

For me, a museum is a social institution where knowledge is communicated through the display of objects. Other things go on in museums — stories are told, texts are offered up, performances are… um, performed, and so on, but unless somewhere in the institution objects are being displayed to communicate knowledge, it’s not a museum. It’s a library, a theater, a performance art space, or something else, but not a museum.

Of course, “objects” is a tricky word. Technically, zoos are considered museums, so objects don’t have to be inanimate. And of course, there’s a long tradition of displaying people in museums, like Minik and his fellow Inuits at the American Museum of Natural History in 1897 and the Yahi Indian Ishi at the Phoebe Hearst Museum in the 1910s. And there’s another hitch: some museums exist solely online, with collections consisting solely of digital files.

Nevertheless, it is the display of stuff that makes a museum a museum. The nature of the stuff isn’t the thing, it’s the act of display, and particularly the act of display in the service of communication. I can tell you about some historical event or personage, I can write a book about it, but until I show you some stuff associated with the event or person (or idea or environment or…), you’re not in a museum. Even if the stuff I show you is just photos or digital scans of photos.

In that sense, there’s something of the Benjaminian aura at work in museums. There’s something we get from an idea embodied in a physical object that’s somehow more satisfying than other forms of representation. And here’s something Benjamin didn’t catch — there are even certain representations that better capture this aura than others. For instance, a photograph of a historical room is somehow more satisfying than a photograph of a reproduction of that room. Maybe if Benjamin had known about photocopiers, he might have had a better metaphor to understand with, he might have seen how a photocopy was better than a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, and thus how the aura of an object dilutes and spreads through its reproductions.

I don’t pretend to understand it completely. All I can say is that people seem to get a thrill out of standing in front of a photograph of a burlesque star that they don’t get seeing the same photograph reproduced in one of the many coffeetable books and other works of burlesque history — even though that photograph on the wall in my museum is almost surely a publicity shot copied hundreds or thousands of times.

Or maybe it’s this: museums make their own auras and lend it to the objects they display. It’s hardly groundbreaking for me to declare that museums take on some of the nature of a place of worship. Voices drop, physical attitudes shift, behavior is subdued when a person walks into a museum; day-to-day habitus is replaced by a sort of reverent awe in the museum, a respectful openness not unlike the way we approach the divine.

Of course, it takes a lot of symbolic work to make a museum function as a museum, and that work can surely fail — but as far as I can tell, the word “museum” itself does a good part of the work before a person ever even enters.

But let me come at this from another angle. Because frankly, for all the romaniticism of the paragraphs above, my working life is hardly romantic at all. The exhbition hall where all that magic takes place is cocooned inside a working organization, a legal entity subject to tax codes, professional standards, budgetary constriants, and so on. If I can get all Weberian up in this post, a functioning museum binds a charismatic side to a routinized, bureaucratic side. Or, to borrow yet another metaphor, this time from the art critic Dave Hickey, museums are equal parts pirate and farmer.

While the museum’s pirate self goes Indiana Jonesing around the world bringing back treasures and tall tales to regale our audiences with, its farmer self — slow-moving, future-oriented, essentially conservative, and always careful not to upset the gods, or for that matter, the pirates — deals with filing the annual list of officers with the state to maintain its corporate standing and preparing 990s for the IRS. Most museums need a collection to continue to exist as museums, but if you have a collection, you also likely have insurance on that collection, and that means getting an appraiser to render the value of everything in your collection to hard dollars and cents. Speaking of insurance, you also need general liability and D&O (Directors and Officers). Are you swooning yet?

Of course, you don’t get to have a collection OR insurance if you don’t have a budget. Museuming consists of a surprising amount of bookkeeping and accounting — and to be honest, keeping track of the collection isn’t all that much different from keeping track of expenses and donor transactions. There is, in short, quite a bit of data entry in the museum world.

And so on. I don’t mean to overplay the quotidian nature of most aspects of museum administration, but to make a point: in most of its operations, a museum is no different from any other nonprofit or, for that matter, from any other corporation. The main difference is that every now and again, instead of designing a new iPhone or creating a new investment package or writing a new software-as-a-service, museum workers organize an exhibition, fundraising event, or educational program.

My museum is tiny. We have about 200 square feet of exhibition space in a downtown Las Vegas arts center. We weren’t always tiny – for 15 years, The Burlesque Hall of Fame existed under the name Exotic World in Helendale, CA, on an old goat ranch. There are several thousand pieces in our collection, and most of it was on display in Helendale; today, only a tiny fraction, maybe half a percent, is on display, with the rest housed in a facility across town, waiting for us to find a suitable new home for the museum.

In that tiny space, I have a permanent exhibition, documenting the history of burlesque in the United States from 1860 to present; a 6′ display case that acts as our gift shop; and about 14′ of wall reserved for temporary exhibits. Currently, we are showing an exhibition about burlesque in Las Vegas, from the ’50s on. I’m working on several other exhibitions to fill that space over the next couple years — one on minorities in burlesque, one on the troubled relationship between burlesque and the law, one on “nerdlesque” (a recent trend of shows celebrating “nerd culture” — Doctor Who, Star Wars, the Joss Whedon oeuvre, comic books, and so on), and a couple other less-developed ideas.

Creating an exhibition is hard. And, as countless theorists have pointed out, fraught with power. Take every critique of ethnographic representation you can think of in the post-Writing Culture world and yep, we’ve got that, too. Fossilizing living culture in the ethnographic present? Check. Using the power of authority to construct representations of others? Check. Imposing narrative or other explanatory devices that may not jibe with the understandings of the people who lived the experiences depicted? Check.

And so on. I try to keep my exhibitions at least partially open to interpretation. I don’t label everything, and I don’t always explain why I put a particular piece where it is. Let them wonder — and supply their own answers. I try to involve my subjects in their own representation. For instance, in a show I put together for our annual Reunion Weekend in June, I invited the Legends (a term that’s taken on its own meaning in the burlesque community, effectively signifying any performer or ex-performer whose career pre-dates the ’90s burlesque revival) to select costumes from their careers to put on display, and I invited the ones who chose to participate to spend time in the exhibition space and talk with visitors.

But mostly, I rely on the nature of the things themselves to mitigate the challenges of representation. I think that’s what the aura is, actually — the power of the thing to speak for itself. It is a matter of resolution: a dress on a mannequin (or better yet, a person, and better still, the person whose dress it is) can be examined minutely, and every stitch, every sequin, every stain tells a story. A photo of that dress eliminates huge chunks of information — not only can you not examine it closely, but you lose the backside, you lose the changing reflections off the sequins as the dress is turned this way and that into the light, you lose the sense of weight and heft of a few yards of cloth dripping with crystals or the lightness of a panel dress crafted from the gauziest of fabrics. The experience of authenticity, then, has to do with the surplus of information presented by the original object, a surplus that is stripped away to greater or lesser degrees by different forms of reproduction.

This, then, is a museum: a place for concentrating auras into stories. As a curator, I can certainly shape that process, but I can’t determine it — there’s always plenty leftover aura overflowing whatever “container” I might devise. And that’s fine, because I’ve entirely neglected an aspect of the museum that is actually pretty much essential: the community it serves. The community a museum is. Which will be the focus of my next post in this series.

2 thoughts on “The Anthropologist in the Museum: What Is a Museum?

  1. Pirates….farmers….a place for concentrating auras into stories. Nice. Very nice, indeed. Will you be saying anything about exchange networks that link museums? How objects get borrowed, circulated, returned?

  2. John: Probably not. Not because it’s not important — there’s a whole Maussian *thing* going on there — but because I don’t have much experience with loans. I’ve only worked on two loans in my career (with a third coming up), maybe a couple hours altogether out of 2+ years as a museum professional (and another year+ as administrative staff). Basically, I don’t have much interesting from my own experience to say about museum lending practices. I did catch a panel on circulation of museum objects at AAA in NEw Orleans the year before last, but… I can’t say it was super-interesting. Maybe in a couple more years I’ll have some more scintillating insight to offer than “there’s a lot of paperwork”.

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