Getting to know Duncan’s work

Museums as Ritual Sites both celebrates and critically engages with Carol Duncan’s Civilizing Rituals. Inside Public Art Museums (1995). My first interaction with this book was during an undergraduate summer course on Museum Studies at University College Utrecht. As an art history major and frequent visitor to museums, Duncan’s book opened my eyes to the fact that museums are never neutral spaces. Between the museum architecture, curatorial decision-making, and communication strategies, a whole lot of worldview and ideological issues are at stake.

Until then, for me museum visits were about admiring artworks and learning about their historical (or contemporary) contexts. Duncan instead focused on the setting in which these artworks are displayed and the message communicated by the selection, order of display, and provided information. It made me acutely aware of how such institutional choices had the power to directly impact my experience as museum visitor – choices which I had previously not necessarily noticed or taken for granted.

By now, it is many years, graduate school, and a curatorial job later. For me, it has become learning by doing in uncovering the workings of the museum in relation to how visitors perceive what is on display. Duncan’s proposed lens of ritual is of crucial importance here. Its main implication is that museums offer ritual scenarios in relation to notions like capitalism, nationalism, and gender. Although Duncan only studied the institutional side of the coin, her argument also implies that when visitors enter the museum they become ritual performers. Key questions, then, are whether visitors always perform the scenario offered by the museum. Or if they deviate from the offered paths and perform their own rituals within the context of such scenarios.

Much has changed between the museum world that was studied by Duncan in the 1990s and the museum world in its current state. One of the main transformation museums have gone through is that these have changed from institutions of presentation to – aiming of being – institutions of representation. Within this transformation the ritual character of the museum site remains powerful, although it may function in wholly different ways from the past.

While in the nineteenth-century state museums were then founded to convey a national story to which its citizens should relate, such museums these days are much more oriented at displaying diversity. No longer primarily oriented at canonization, museum displays become increasingly opened up to previously ignored or undervalued voices and their artistic and material culture. Does this also allow for different types of rituals to be performed in the museum?

Such questions, and many more, will be discussed within the project Museums as Ritual Sites. As project coordinators, James Bielo and I hope you will enjoy the site as it grows over the next years. If you want to share your own ideas about, or experiences of, the ritual function of museums today, do get in touch!

Lieke Wijnia
Curator, Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht

Image: Refter, Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht.

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