Overview :: Staging Meaning

This paper aims to theorize the role of performance in museums, an allegedly recent and disruptive development. I will argue two primary points, first, that rather than ensuring the unmediated and contemplative encounters between viewers and objects that have been at the root of their cultural authority, museums have always been elaborate stagings; and second, taking conscious account of its performative dimensions can open up museal experience, rather than simply disrupt the closed contemplative circuit and so diminish viewer relations with objects.

This article was published in TDR: The Journal of Performance Studies, by the MIT Press, Fall 2005.


It is, in a word, the literalization of the conditions of living that masters the otherwise insoluble antimonies, and it is in the theatre of the unbridled debasement of the word - the newspaper - that its salvation is being prepared. [...] The author as producer discovers - in discovering his solidarity with the proletariat - that simultaneity with certain other producers who earlier seemed scarcely to concern him.
- Walter Benjamin (1934: 225, 230)

In his 1965 work, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, artist Joseph Beuys covered his head in honey and gold leaf, and for three hours whispered explanations of his artwork - hanging on the adjacent gallery walls - to the dead hare cradled in his arms. In this piece, Beuys emphasized the productive potential of the animal consciousness to reach spiritual transformation. In explanation, Beuys claimed, "A Hare comprehends more than many human beings with their stubborn rationalism. [...] I told him that he needed only to scan the picture to understand what is really important about it" (in Jones and Warr 2000:77).

I cite Beuys's work in the context of this study of museum representation for two reasons. First, the piece plainly critiques the received conventions of staging relations between viewers and objects in the art industry, specifically in the gallery or museum. Beuys challenged the over-rationalized art world interpretation and appropriation, and the resultant expectation manifested by the viewer. [1] However, even as Beuys calls for a more pure, visual experience, the dead hare appears quite literally as a marker for the viewer in the museum - an anesthetized and flaccid figure to be carried and directed, supplied with the prosthetic vision of curatorial interpretation. How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare depicts a network of representation - a system of willing participation - that describes the negotiation implicit in visuality and the far-reaching intervention by the art industry.

Beuys's work is situated in a larger field of performance art that critiques the economies and politics of the production and distribution of art. Like the activities of the Dadaists, Fluxus, the Situationists, Happenings, and the work of Robert Rauschenberg, Carolee Schneemann, Chris Burden, and Robert Smithson (among others) since the 1950s, Beuys's art sought to expose and invert the system of art making to elicit cultural change. [2] While performance art spans multiple mediums and forms, the common component throughout the work is activity, the live element, where the artist's physicality confronts onlookers and the audience's presence becomes a spatial constituent implicated in the work. The subjective quality of the audience and their antagonistic relationship with Beuys is a continuously active part of the art-making process - audience and performer become the artwork.

Beuys's work, and performance art in general, offer insight into the role of performance in museums, an allegedly recent and disruptive development. This insight reveals two primary points: first, rather than ensuring the unmediated and contemplative encounters between viewers and objects that have been at the root of their cultural authority, museums have always been elaborate stagings; and second, taking conscious account of its performative dimensions can open up the museal experience, rather than simply disrupt the closed contemplative circuit and so diminish viewer relations with objects.

PERFORMANCE IN THE CONTEMPORARY MUSEUM Ongoing museological debate revolves around the relationship between objects and their viewers. Concerns about post-colonial portrayals, native ownership of art and artifacts, and preservation and conservation of authentic materials fill the pages of theoretical journals and professional publications. The underlying tenor of these discussions is the conception that the contemporary museum is in crisis. [3] Contemporary emphasis on "edutainment" and immersive tourist experiences appear to be at the expense of aesthetic and intellectual encounters esteemed in the traditional museum. Prophesied by market researchers Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, the "orchestrated esthetic experience" has not only entered the museum, but provides the very core around which contemporary museum interaction occurs (Gilmore and Pine 1999:27-43). [4] As museum visitors become increasingly experience-oriented, the modes of representation used in museum practice are more reliant on consumer economy cues to guide display strategies. Today's museum installations give greater attention to the visitor's perceptual and aesthetic experiences in the context of other consumer experiences, rather than the former attention given to presenting an authoritative cultural narrative, either of art or science. The spectacle that satiates the contemporary experience-oriented audience privileges a structured and narrativized object, preferably with the theatricality of a theme park or Hollywood film. In this context, the performativity of the museum object is directly in proportion to both the space in which it operates and the viewer's willingness to participate.

Performance is a productive frame for my analysis because it locates the viewer and the environment as vital elements in the making of the art object. While charting performance in the modern museum, I stray from the parameters delineated by some performance art (Happenings specifically referenced space over narrative, dramatic elements over the traditions of theatre). Instead, my exploration focuses on the power of the performance in the museum to call attention to the boundaries of subjectivity and ultimately to invite the viewer to self-reflection. I trace three significant categories in modern museum practice to illustrate that the museum has always been a performing space, since the inception of the modern museum in early-19th-century Berlin. In the dramatic Altes Museum, the value of art and artifacts was legislated, by which I mean handed down unquestioningly. With the Altes Museum, architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel produced this modern museum precedent as a theatrical space where both viewer and object perform. In the late 19th century, as museums became taxonomically divided by art and science, the legislating mode of curatorial practice shifted to interpreting - objects were used to demonstrate ideas and themes rather than as displays of their individual characteristics. This use of object collections within exhibitions is exemplified at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The third transformation of display and representation occurs in the modern "living" museum, where space, object, and viewer converge in a highly refined theatrical performance. In this orchestrated museum, the techniques of representation are made visible through their excess, and the visitor registers the spectacle created. Analysis of Colonial Williamsburg demonstrates the workings of this quintessential orchestrated museum and its production of a new kind of museum viewer. [5]

THE ALTES AS DRAMATIZED SPACE Schinkel's design for the Altes Museum established three crucial traits of modern museums: monumentality, spatial hierarchy, and, as a result of these, cultural authority. Schinkel's architecture - its neo-classical facade punctuated by freestanding ionic columns and the rhythmic repetition of solid and volume through its cross-axial symmetry - monumentalized the cultural institution. Its scale and historical references nourished the conception of the museum as the embodiment of cultural aspirations. Next, the Altes' split-level central staircase provided a model for the space-based, hierarchical organization of the museum collection. Early taxonomically organized museums did not apply divisions of objects by chronology, but instead by their style and geography. [6] Schinkel's design profoundly altered the way objects were seen and valued based on a very literal spatial-temporal organization"antiques resided on the bottom floor, and paintings and contemporary objects were on the top. [7] Monumentality and spatial hierarchy combined to generate cultural authority by originating the almost sacred processional sequence of art and artifacts in the Altes grand colonnade and central rotunda. The dramatic sweeping gesture of the rising staircase within the building's core formalized the ennobling effect of the museum on its inhabitants. [8]

Altes Museum, Berlin

Schinkel's roots as a scenographer heavily influenced the development of the dramatic in his architecture. While known for his eclecticism, the common thread throughout Schinkel's work was his interest in the theatre, and particularly, in what architectural historian Kurt Forster describes as "the aesthetic displacement of the viewer" (1994:21). Schinkel sought to dislodge the museum visitor from his culturally conditioned place through the design of a profound physical environment that would renew the viewer"s perception. The logic of the Altes space, its permeability between interior and exterior, and its continuous flow enable the museum visitor to transcend the material realities of the building and revel in the visual experience. Schinkel's design gestalt conjoined the art and artifacts of the museum with its architecture, creating a "poetic suffusion" of scenography and artistic experience in his theatre of the aesthetic (Forster 1994:27). [9]

A founding principle in Schinkel's work was the integration of the idea of the proscenium stage, which prescribes a specific relationship between audience and performers - in this case, between the museum visitors and the objects themselves. [10] A common theatrical form, the proscenium stage separates the audience from the action, but also emphasizes the notion that the action has begun before the viewer enters the space, and will continue after they leave. French philosopher Denis Diderot theorized the proscenium as if the "fourth wall" containing the action had been removed. Viewers eavesdrop on the drama as they move through the space (Diderot 1994).

Schinkel's distinctive temporal program for moving viewers through the Altes Museum inaugurated modern audiences into the ways of seeing in the museum by providing a voyeuristic staging for their experience of museum objects. Schinkel's sketch of the Altes interior demonstrates his intention to orchestrate the museum space as theatrical. He depicts the grand architectural institution as one which dignifies the passage of the museum viewer. Through the posture and positioning of the figures in this illustration, Schinkel reflects the visitors' self-awareness and mindfulness of both the objects they behold, and their own visibility to others. At the far corner of the sketch, there is a figure of a child peering over the railing, apparently looking for the "back stage" of this theatre - but there isn't one. The city, visible through this open atrium, is the great urban drama that provides the preconditions for performing appropriate museum behavior.

Schinkel's sketch of the Altes interior

Schinkel envisioned an integration of architecture and art that would be experienced through movement - the museum design required active participation by the viewer within the space. [11] This ambulating subject was imagined by architectural historian Siegfried Giedeon who argued that to properly experience architecture, the subject must be mobile. According to Giedeon, one cannot comprehend architecture as a static observer because "quite literally it is a construction in space-time" (1941:440). [12] Spatial sequencing and interventions are created not just for aesthetic ends but so the exposure of the space and its contents occurs over time, in pieces or fragments. The dynamism of the museum is in its separation and relationship of spaces, which are then layered with the cultural and social effect of object encounter. Unlike the city street or boulevard that offers an expansive view of its contents, the galleries in a museum envelope the viewer in its spaces, closing off what rests behind and offering only a hint of what lies ahead. [13] Schinkel's dramatic momentum of revealing and concealing throughout the Altes harmonizes space and time, and offers a particular "frame" for the museum"s objects. [14]

Like the displays of the early Wunderkammer, the modern museum's design structures a particular way of seeing and experiencing. [15] The technical condition of the display is manifested through architectural procession - the museum space invites personal reflection as it propels the visitor through a tectonically defined path. [16] This works in an almost dialectic reversal - the processional space suggests the freedom of the individual while actually delimiting the visual through architectural direction and object display. The dramatic procession through the museum is a performance by the individual, not only because the architectural conditions shape that social behavior, but also because those conditions construct the way object collections are seen. Through the design of dramatic procession in the Altes, the modern museum legislated cultural value and status, creating a precedent for the particular constructed relationship between object, space, and viewer (Bauman 1987). [17] In the museum, the appropriate behavior is taught tectonically (the structure dictates the path), and practiced through the reverent aesthetic experience of the object.

INTERPRETING MEANING While the Altes provided the model for the dramatized modern museum, the archetype is complicated further by the changing nature of object representation. Because the legislating museum deployed authority through objects and spatial drama, it created a specific experience of the object. In contemporary times, the role of the museum in legislating meaning through its objects has changed to "interpreting" that meaning. [18] This practice was popularized in the late 19th century through the emergence of different museum types to accommodate specific kinds of collections such as those of art, science, and history. The eclectic collection of the Wunderkammer, which derived meaning through intuited phenomenological value, gave way to a system of classification based on logical empirical observation. [19] The shifting focus from the visual to the rational in the subject-specific museum was epitomized by the 1873 declaration of Smithsonian director George Brown Goode: "An efficient educational museum may be described as a collection of instructive labels. Each illustrated by a well-selected specimen" (1901:72, 73).

Rather than relying solely on a viewer's aesthetic impression of an object, museum professionals began to interpret cultural significance for visitors by structuring art and artifacts around easily identifiable chronologies, geographies, formal themes, and narratives. [20] The increasing importance of the museum's interpretive mission (and educational aim) was facilitated initially through object labels that established a context; followed by the introduction of docents in 1907 by Benjamin Ives Gilman, secretary of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; then by interactive installations, such as those of architect and scenographer Frederick Kiesler from the 1920s through the 1940s at MoMA (see Staniszewski 1998); and ultimately with the adoption of multimedia tools like interactive kiosks and video.

Cultural historian Spencer Crew and Smithsonian director James Sims characterize museum objects as "dumb": only through selection, display, and interpretation are objects stabilized and their meanings fixed to adhere to the museum environment (Crew and Simms 1991). The inevitable alteration of the object through display highlights the power of the museum to inscribe meaning. Performance studies scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett asserts that in the museum, objects are not found, they are made (1998:3).

The key difference between legislating and interpreting modes is that in the first, the objects speak for themselves (their authority lay in the belief that they are able to do so), whereas in the second, a prosthetic is required - a label, theme, or narrative facilitates meaning. In the museum, interpretation follows the object - the institution's educational and civic aims are carried out by arousing curiosity, by entertaining, and by promoting learning through its collected art and artifacts. As a result, the importance of how these collections are represented increases. Specifically, through display curators manage object meaning (its content, and its historical and cultural significance) and visitors' experiences. The increasing refinement of exhibition display in the museum reflects the influence of culture at large. In 1965, Metropolitan Museum curator Albert Gardner wrote, "[the museum] is a modern hybrid, bred with the mingled characteristics of the cathedral, the royal palace, the theatre, the school, the library, and according to some critics, the department store" (1965:21). The resultant "museum effect" - where the museum produces cultural knowledge by organizing how materials are viewed - makes the museum's authority visible, and highlights the importance of the curatorial role of interpretation (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1991). As the contemporary museum has sought to appeal to its experience-oriented audience, the centrality of curatorial intervention has increased, and the processes of display used to convey information are often privileged over the particularity of objects. This strategy of stage-setting is expressed quite literally in the physical installation of artworks - even the ordinarily purist MoMA employed extra-ordinary display techniques in the Jackson Pollock 1998/89 exhibition. Nestled among the 17 galleries of paintings and sculptural work, MoMA created a life-size reproduction of Pollock's East Hampton studio in diorama fashion. The reproduction of the "theatre" of Pollock's action painting re-doubled its effect when positioned adjacent to "Summertime" - arguably Pollock's most well-known painting because it was the opening spread of the 1949 LIFE magazine feature. However, with predictable MoMA asceticism, the messiness of Pollock"s style was restricted to the moments captured in the selection of Hans Namuth's photographs that punctuated the walls of the life-sized studio recreation. Scrubbed free of the paint spills and splotched surfaces in the actual studio, the sterilized diorama at MoMA was reinterpreted and re-inscribed as a different kind of sacred space, one which conformed to the ordered voice of its curatorial intermediaries.

Like the Pollock installation, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, spatializes its narrative to express the emotional gravity of the Holocaust. The history of the event is written on an architectural script. The controlled path - colloquially known as the "funnel" - through the exhibits from the fourth floor to the first enables visitors to follow a well-defined chronology with a known conclusion, reaching the metaphorical common ground (see United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 2003). The exhibits utilize staging techniques to dramatize the events of the Holocaust. By conjoining the scholarship associated with curatorial analyses and the surface dressing that is normally the domain of interior design, the exhibition interprets history and engages visitors through narrative sequence, harmonizing authentic historic artifacts with facsimiles that are guaranteed to elicit a reaction. One particular exhibit of a mound of camp prisoners' discarded shoes not only provides an awesome visual reference of the otherwise incomprehensible number of victims, but its musty smell of decay hangs in the room as an extrasensory reminder of this recent history. The visual and olfactory stimuli overwhelm the visitor, creating a heady awareness of the magnitude of the Holocaust horror.

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum exhibit

The immersive quality of the Holocaust Museum derives from its content and its display. Engaging the viewer through a dramaturgically structured sequence of short narratives as expressed in the active exhibits (walk-through train cars and prisoner barracks) and passive exhibits (photographic collages and films), the neutral reflection rooms between each main exhibition space, and the physical dimension of the identity card that each visitor receives upon entry to the museum, manifests the historical master narrative. This dynamic interaction creates the museum experience where personal imagining and social remembering take place simultaneously, and in a highly choreographed manner. [21] These staging techniques frame the museum object as illustrative, rather than individually significant, emphasizing the emotional rather than intellectual tenor of the place. Objects - authentic and reproductions - are mnemonics that trigger collective cultural memory. Bracketed by the aesthetic, intellectual, social, and physiological techniques of exhibition design, the interpreted museum object performs cultural ideology.

MoMA's Pollock installation and the Holocaust Museum's immersive narrative make evident an increasing commercial sophistication of interpretative techniques that appeal directly to media-literate audiences. As multisensory cues accumulate to express cultural narratives, they further distract attention from the object collections that formerly comprised the museum's core. Where the museum previously used interactive tools and multimedia technologies for interpretation, now storying and sequencing combine with entertaining re-enactments and recreations to orchestrate the museum's didactic mission in a highly refined theatrical manner. [22] As one of the most refined of these theatrical techniques, live performance provides a provocative form of communication that activates the museum space, viewer, and object in an entirely novel way. Costumed actors enliven interpretation through physical action, historically and geographically specific inflections, and contextual object-usage. This orchestrated performance of museum narrative is akin to performance art itself, where the viewer is confronted by the artwork, and meaning is derived through participation. As the traditional boundaries between these performers (the actors and the audience) are traversed, the process of meaning-making becomes the essential, central element of the interaction. This emphasis on the orchestrated narrative locates the mechanisms of museum practice as the focus of attention, and the interpretive performance becomes an analog of the art object. That is to say, live performance in the contemporary museum has not only dispensed of the primacy of the object, but it has become the object.

As museum practice has developed from legislating cultural value to interpreting it, not only has the role of the object evolved, but so too has the position of the museum visitor. Through the lens of performance, we can see that the current theatrical state of the orchestrated museum is just a highly refined development of what has always been present. Even the most esteemed cultural icon - the utterly dramatized Altes Museum - encouraged performance. Schinkel's sacred space ennobled the viewer and compelled him to enact the appropriate reverential behavior - although the aura of the Altes' objects was so overpowering that viewers were unaware of the influence of their surroundings. Through the collective behavior of its visitors, the early museum established an experiential rhetoric of national identity. From the altitude of high culture, viewers willingly subscribed to a larger notion - the transformative effect, the spiritual ascendancy - that was both socially appropriate and flattering to the self through identification with a group. However in the contemporary museum, there has been a shift in the degree of performance. The viewer's experience is no longer simply that of the art and artifact as in the early museum; in the contemporary museum, the visitor does not experience the object, but the performance of the object. The cult of the individual engendered by the 20th century consciousness of self has cultivated a new type of viewer who is accustomed to spectacle and its sometimes dissimulating effect. Whereas the modern viewer responded to Altes' defamiliarizing effect, the postmodern viewer celebrates the "aesthetic displacement" of the proscenium; he finds comfort in his "inner stage," where he is both the actor and director, spectator and participant (McLuhan 1951:97). [23]

In Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno's terms, there is no "reverential silence" in the orchestrated museum. The volume of activity, participation, and pastiche increases with each gesture, speech, and interaction. Adorno sets up a dialectic through which to analyze this performance - for Adorno, this "absence of respect" permits a parallel activity: by "inclin[ing] the intellect toward critical self-scrutiny" (1969:367). [24] This invitation to self-reflection helps locate the contemporary museum as a concentrated force of cultural power, whose very historic (cultural and architectural) roots are founded in the theatre and developed around the perpetuation of social myth. The usual critiques of the museum condemn its manipulation of the viewer through the alteration of object meaning and the adoption of commercial tactics. However, the value of the museum has not been mortgaged to low tourist culture as has been decried by detractors. I contend that the orchestrated museum brings the institution to a tipping point, where the cultural currency and authority of the museum are called into question. The confluence of two primary factors generates the substance of this shift: the emergence of performance in the museum as an autonomous and visible object that can be critically appraised, and the reclamation of the formerly determined subject (the museum visitor) through recuperative self-reflection. As the performative dimensions of the museum become more conspicuous, the experience is opened up, not decayed as contemporary critics might deem it. This new position of the viewer makes visible the real attractions in the museum: the over-ambitious dressing-up of place, the contrivance of the "back stage," and the conflation of production and consumption. Each of these qualities simply makes visible the elaborate staging that has always been present in the museum. This phenomenon is exemplified in the study of Colonial Williamsburg.

COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG'S ORCHESTRATED PAST Regularly vilified as a sanitized, contrived, and "entirely artificial re-creation of an imaginary past," Colonial Williamsburg is the preeminent and largest living history museum in the world (Whitehall 1966:43; see also, Handler and Gabler 1997; Lowenthal 1966; and Wallace 1986). This version of Williamsburg, the former capital of Virginia, comprises 173 acres, on which lie 88 restored buildings and dozens of reconstructed shops, taverns, and public buildings. The reconstruction of Williamsburg mirrors the precise urban design of the original settlement of the city in 1699. Every aspect of the capitol city was to serve as "a theatre of culture and politics," a symbol of order and propriety (Rainbolt 1974). Williamsburg contrasted with other 17th-century colonial towns in the rigor of its bylaws governing every physical aspect of the city, from the width of its roads to its architectural aesthetics. Additionally, the installation of the College of William and Mary in 1693 attempted to concretize Williamsburg's elite status, where settlers could "nourish the arts and skills that distinguished civil men from barbarians" (Morgan 1975:178). The political, economic, and social regulations that governed its inhabitants garrisoned Williamsburg from the realities of typical agrarian life in the colonies (see Reps 1965). Ironically, the so-called mythology offered by present-day Colonial Williamsburg (the focal point of most of its criticism) actually does reflect the original settlement. With its neo-classical architecture, broad middle boulevard, picturesque vistas, and open square in the center of the rectilinear urban plan, the idealized and disinfected Colonial Williamsburg continues the mythic state upon which it was conceived. [25]

Colonial Williamsburg enacts early America"s pre-revolution moments through a complex network of signs that draws on multiple modes of museum representation. [26] Each of its traditional museums - the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, and Bassett Hall - features its artifact collections prominently. Silver, paintings, furniture, weapons, and textiles are encased in traditional glass vitrines and are accompanied by descriptive explanatory labels that provide visual and textual cues of each object's importance and the overall value of the collection. Artifact arrangement and display authenticate Colonial Williamsburg's museology; the conservative display systems function to reify the museum's institutional status. While the objects act individually as aesthetic entities, they collectively function as indices of cultural authority. And just as the museum visitor reads and registers the codes of museum display, so too is the visitor read. Colonial Williamsburg depends upon this synthesis of signs by the visitor inside its traditional museums to offset the dramatic renderings in the outdoor museum that "lives" just outside its doors.

The more widely known live programming at Colonial Williamsburg is performed by its almost 600 costumed character-actors and third-person interpreters, who re-enact everyday tasks such as blacksmithing and churning butter, and dramatically portray George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry debating personal freedoms. While loosely scripted, the performance is immanent and unpredictable, complicating the conventional position of museum visitor. The live performance takes place in the exterior and interior spaces throughout the entire city of Colonial Williamsburg. This effect is facilitated by the open urban plan of Williamsburg, which contrasts with the directed and predetermined path of the Altes Museum. Williamsburg's nonlinearity and discontinuity of images and exchanges prompts the viewer to constantly change modes of focus. This ability of the postmodern viewer to move in and out of the active space, while all the time critiquing its constructed normativity, inaugurates the entity of the museum flaneur. [27] Not only does the canny viewer's fluency with mass-mediation decode the network of museum signs, but her ability to rove transforms the reception of events. [28]

Rather than being passive receptacles of edutainment, the postmodern viewer demonstrates awareness of the choreography of museum performance, and participates in the spectacle by circulating its image. The mediated effect is re-projected through the visitor's capture of events with postcard precision. The jars and tools (and live "surgeon") of the apothecary's shop are pre-aestheticized to allow the place to be photographed perfectly, transcribing the event into a shared cultural sign. Even the militia band's daily march through the main street of Colonial Williamsburg is designed for easy consumption. The visitors read the social codes and signs so well that they know exactly how to select the (Kodak) moment that will be instantly recognizable to friends and family. [29] The object of the viewer's gaze is doubly mediated, and in this breaks apart the closed contemplative circuit that has been at the root of the museum's cultural authority. The particularity of the viewer's experience now becomes a general marker; the image-making renders the visitor the director of her personal stage-set as she re-appropriates and inverts the usual museum frame.

Colonial Williamsburg's marching militia and tourist photographer

Colonial Williamsburg plays with the variability of the spectator role with its theme-specific events, which address both the happenings of everyday colonial life and major historic issues like slavery. In this interactive programming, visitors are often conscripted to play a central role. In "Order in the Court," the daily reenactment of the courtroom narrative, a visitor acts out the role of a delinquent debtor or a non-church-going farmer; each character sketch is replete with contextual information, including names and histories. In these theatrical events, the visitor replaces the museum object. Visitors observe themselves, seeing themselves acquire an aura of cultural authority as the subject to whom the performance is being directed. This position legitimizes their status within and outside the narrative. All elements focus attention on the viewers, from their physical positioning in the dramatization, to their reading of a typed script, and even as they are subjected to jabs and comments from the Williamsburg players. This type of scene - the inverted spectacle - not only defamiliarizes the viewer-actor by dislodging the typical role of spectator, but also quite literally dramatizes the museum authority, which gives voice to visitors but dictates their words.

The viewer's shift from observer to observed was also registered during a significant milestone in Colonial Williamsburg's development. After much pressure from the scholarly community, professional societies, and the public, Colonial Williamsburg began interpreting slavery in the early colonies. [30] While African-American interpreters were permitted to join the Williamsburg cast in the 1970s (as slaves), the first themed programming began with a 45-minute slave auction in 1994, followed by the 1999 "Enslaving Virginia" series that included several slave mini-dramas: a slave owner speaking out, a slave with his pregnant wife contemplating running away, a brutal slave whipping (with 39 "strokes" recorded on audio-track), and a scene where visitors were part of an illegal slave gathering broken up by a patrolling musket-wielding militia. The narratives were considered so realistic that the Colonial Williamsburg staff was compelled to add "debriefing" sessions to enable visitors to calm down and discuss their feelings. Newspapers widely reported the phenomenon created by the program; "Williamsburg Tourists Try to Rescue 'Slaves'" (Brodie 1999) and "A Taste of Slavery Has Tourists Up in Arms" (Eggen 1999) were representative headlines. With the addition of "processing sessions," and with the wide coverage of the visitor response, the focus of the programming transferred from the drama of the slave narrative to the "real" drama of the tourist. In an ironic reversal, the visitor subsumed the very object he demanded - a situation which highlights the complex (and unstable) subject-object relationship in the contemporary museum.

Colonial Williamsburg Archeological Dig

The performance montage is rounded out with ongoing archeological research throughout the Colonial Williamsburg site. Random trenches are peopled with students and scholars equipped with small dusting brushes and plastic bags. Like the costumed interpreters who walk Duke of Gloucester Street and frequent Wetherburn's Tavern, these "archaeologists" engage with the visitors, the discussion peppered with both dense scientific terms and southern colloquialisms. One particular location lies just outside the Randolph House. On this site, measures are being taken to correct the misaligned smokehouse adjacent to the main house. The excavation, initially meant to yield buried earthenware and household ornaments, uncovered the original foundation of the smokehouse, which oriented the building to the north, not west, as it was rebuilt by the Williamsburg Foundation in the 1940s. The elaborate process of its correction underscores Colonial Williamsburg's performance of accuracy and truth. The visibility of the error and the commitment to rectify it is supposed to validate the authenticity of the other sites by providing a glimpse of the workings - the "back view" - of Colonial Williamsburg (MacCannell 1976:91-107). However, the flavor of the engagement of the archeologists with visitors and the inclusion of the archeological sites alongside other staged demonstrations undermine the site's ability to authenticate the other reconstructions. The postmodern viewer's culturally acquired skepticism, which is the source of her potential critical power, is kindled rather than extinguished by the cautious claims of the archeologists, who cleave more to their discipline's standards than the museum's need for validation. This backstage becomes yet another proscenium that the protean viewer decodes and moves past.

The postmodern viewer derives power through her comfort with dislocation. In contrast with the modern viewer who reflexively sought to maintain an imagined stable position (as part of the collective whole), the contemporary subject becomes critically self-aware through her displacement. This defamiliarizing effect is especially visible in the timing of the performance in the living museum. While theatrical enactment follows a linear organization, it is asynchronous with the temporal cadence of the traditional museum installation. Visitors time-travel to an immersive environment - at Colonial Williamsburg it's always the year 1774. The simultaneous production and consumption that occurs through the play and participation of the performance continuously recalibrates the indices of representation. The performance makes use of the object, but is also an object in itself. The pliancy of the system of representation creates a new notion of time in the museum that problematizes the mythic narrative - and directly challenges the notion of the purity of the aesthetic experience. This is exemplified at Colonial Williamsburg by the colonist bricklayers who break from their demonstration to invite onlookers to remove their shoes, and enter a large muddy pit, to blend the sand and water mixture, that provides the ingredients for the bricks. The event dramatizes the process of production of the bricks and the production of knowledge in the creation of the physical environment. The temporal dimension of the performance is further complicated when the visitor is invited to purchase one of the handmade bricks at the gift shop.

Colonial Williamsburg brick souvenirs for sale

CONCLUSION: INVITATION FOR SELF-REFLECTION Colonial Williamsburg not only dramatizes the past but the active production of the past, and with it provides the critical spectator with a rhetorical framework to decode the well-worn museum narrative and its authoritarian strategy. Performance in the living museum reveals the codes that provide the normalizing frame of the museum - the living assemblage constantly shifts the visitor's position within the processes of the production. This dissimulation fuses high and low cultural order - the historic epic (United States history) and the theatrical comedy-tragedy (impromptu conversations with role-playing, costumed actors). As the ultimate contemporary symbol of this museum theatre, Colonial Williamsburg simultaneously acts didactically and playfully, inserting instructive dialogue with the slapstick asides of its characters. When the actors break the illusion of the performance by addressing the audience, they confound the sacred space of the museum.

This performance does not invent the system in which it operates, but it appropriates it. By manifesting a hyperreal, dramatic interpretation (within the natural theatricality of the museum space), the performance creates the foil through which the traditional museum is located as authentic, or real. By rehearsing the interpreting conventions of museum practice, the performance is heightened to that of spectacle, where each event dynamically unfolds and amplifies its own method. The orchestrated museum makes explicit the implicit, making visible the mechanisms of mediation. The museum performance, now its own object entity, functions to "save the reality principle" (Baudrillard 1983). The performance conceals the fact that the museum proper is the unreal, the staged, while quietly exposing the reality that the museum"s sacred aesthetic mission is a social construction.

The dramatized museum, from the theatrical Altes to the idealized settlement of Williamsburg, provides the stage-set for the postmodern viewer. Of the Altes designer, architectural historian Kurt Forster writes, "Schinkel's strategy thus turned the stage into a place of poetic displacement: the rising curtain suddenly reveals a moment in the ceaseless process of cultural transformation, confronting the audience with an image of that very process" (1994:18). Schinkel's emphasis on the dramatic procession and its visibility (the proscenium stage effect) established the museum as a theatre in which cultural ideology would be staged. However, this theatre always requires a performance - when the museum visitor ceased to perform to the same degree due to changing museum practices, the artifice of museum practice became exposed. The contemporary museum's inclination to dramatize its ideologies through more visible modes of in-situ representation has enabled a clearer reading of the institutional processes of display at work, and has exposed the museum as a medium through which cultural knowledge is produced, where the museum itself is on display (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2002:59). [31]

It is the very excessive refinement of the processes of display that enables the postmodern viewer to decode the mythology of the modern museum. From observation to encounter, the viewer revels in his multiple perspectives. The live interaction brings the viewer into the object position - the visitor is the object that is viewed, yet she can still imagine herself from the authorized distance indoctrinated through socialized ways of seeing. The multiplicity of her position lets the postmodern viewer see the real attractions - the guilty pleasures that result from descrambling the system of the museum's representation. From the pseudo-attraction of the archeological dig and the role-playing of the themed event, to the purchase of the anti-souvenir souvenir brick, each fracture in the system is acknowledged and releases the constructed subject, inviting self-refection. Like Schinkel's original conception of the design gestalt of the Altes, the orchestrated museum is a product of a performance gestalt - epitomized by Colonial Williamsburg and affectively assimilated by the Williamsburg visitor through the confluence of label texts that authorize enshrined museum objects, architectural conceits that bespeak colonial harmony, and the Greek chorus of third-person interpreters who narrativize the behavior of the character actors. The postmodern viewer, now unencumbered by the heroic attitude of the modern, is simultaneously the Beuysian dead hare and artist - the recipient of the explanation and its author.


[1] Beuys was an iconoclast, and while the museum may seem an unlikely and quotidian subject of his energies, he repeatedly used explicit symbols of museum display in his works. In the Beuys Block from 1970 at the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Beuys encased manufactured objects - those without necessarily sanctioned artistic merit - in vitrines to express the artificial relationship between art and society as manifested in the museum.

[2] For more on the history and theory of contemporary performance art see for example Goldberg (1998) and Sayre (1989).

[3] Daedalus' special issues on American museums explored different angles of this crisis (1999). The Daedalus issue and Steve Weil's Making Museums Matter (2002) mark a whole catalog of books exploring the question: "Do museums matter?".

[4] In the 1960s, well before Gilmore and Pine"s terms (1999) entered the market vernacular, cultural critic Guy Debord diagnosed the privileging of representation over direct experience in his landmark work, The Society of the Spectacle ([1967] 1994).

[5] There are clearly limits to this formulation of museum types - namely, these categories are not mutually exclusive. Indeed there are numerous examples of contemporary museums that fit the "legislative" model, as are there other types that remain a hybrid of each method depending upon exhibition subject matter. However, this model provides a functional conceptual framework outlining an overarching trend in museum practice.

[6] The potency of the early museum collections existed both in the unique attributes of its individual oddities and the total effect, where groupings of objects provided knowledge classes for scientific study, and the particularities of their display consecrated the object's importance. Historian Krzysztof Pomian writes that these collections "enjoyed a temporary spell in power, an interim rule between those of theology and science" (1990:64).

[7] A comprehensive history of the museum type is documented in Nikolaus Pevsner's A History of Building Types (1976:123-28).

[8] Schinkel drew on historical architectural antecedents - Jean Nicholas Louis Durand"s long vaulted galleries and open courtyards detailed in his seminal architecture treatise, Pr"cis des le"ons d"architecture (1802), and Sir John Soane's sequencing and display in the Dulwich Gallery - but combined them in a novel way that distinguished the dramatic landmark of the Altes.

[9] Schinkel spoke of each of his designs as an "aesthetically ordered whole," operating as a type of "design gestalt" (in Crimp 1993:282"318). Also, Forster writes: The unifying idea that links [Schinkel's] observations on acoustics and architecture, scenery and stage, is precisely the notion of poetic suffusion. Its achievement enables the spectator to internalize the heterogeneous impressions emanating from the stage, and to project them onto an image, which in turn, will "liberate the spirit for the pure contemplation of art." (1994:27)

[10] Separation of viewer from the object implied the object's spiritual and scholarly merit. The conditions of display that structured vision of the object in the cabinet of curiosities provided the archetype for object representation in the modern museum, where it was expanded in scale and affect. For more on the influence of visuality and the conditions of display in early collections see Stephen Bann (1995).

[11] Though central to the tradition of museums, staging becomes subject to criticism when it is emphasized too much for museum professionals. Of the many criticisms of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim, for example, is the complaint that the design makes other people's encounters with art more interesting than one's own (see Johnson 1961).

[12] Here Giedion noted Le Corbusier's Villa Savoire as the exemplar of his theory of space-time architecture. See Hill (1999) for further discussion of the merits and applicability of Giedion's theory of whole-part perception.

[13] For more on the application of the conceal/reveal method in urban spaces, see Sze Tsung Leong"s "Mobility" in the Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (2001).

[14] Of this relationship French architect and critic Paul Virilio writes, "The frame, the limit of visibility, is clearly what makes conscious objectification possible" (2000:38).

[15] Forerunner to the modern museum, Wunderkammen were cabinets of curiosity, filled with manmade and natural artifacts and oddities, arranged expressly for visual scintillation and storytelling. For a fascinating and textured exploration of this phenomenon, see Olalquiaga (1998).

[16] Sociologists Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach suggest that museums use an architectural assemblage ("script") to construct a particular "iconographic program," one which neutralizes the diversity of the museum audience by authorizing collectively sanctioned behavior through the metaphorical labyrinth (1978:28-51).

[17] I use sociologist Zygmunt Bauman"s (1987) term "legislating" (and later "interpreting") to position the shift of museum practice from display that privileged visuality to education that advanced pedagogical objectives. In terms of the evolving role of the intellectual class from the modern to postmodern era, Bauman describes modern intellectuals as authorizing the best social order; now in the postmodern age, they facilitate communication and cooperative discussion.

[18] Museologist Duncan Cameron describes this change in the museum as a metaphorical shift from the authoritative "temple" to the contextualized "forum" that contains multiple voices and perspectives (1972:197"201).

[19] Michel Foucault (1970) called this "tabulation," where the visual was superceded by rational and scientific ordering.

[20] While there is a rough historical correlation in their development, these typologies of museum practice are general categories that have always coexisted and overlapped to varying degrees.

[21] Architect Ralph Appelbaum, who designed the permanent exhibition at the Holocaust Museum, writes: "Exhibits should be environments, not just furniture. Exhibits are marketplaces of ideas" (in Pearson 1994:28).

[22] The 1992 issuance of the American Association of Museum's (AAM) policy statement "Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums" marked a steep increase in performance in the museum. This document exhaustively outlined the importance of the museum-community integration, but particularly focused on the museum's social and cultural responsibilities to its local and global audiences. With the increasing numbers of American museums and the reduced availability of public funding, this doctrine read as the formal permission to incorporate tactics that directly appealed to consumer markets. "Excellence and Equity" stated that commitment to public service was the central core of the museum: "education - in the broadest sense of that word - [is] at the heart of their public service role". Museum stores and cafes were added for social and commercial appeal, and blockbuster exhibitions were featured. In addition, the public orientation of "Excellence and Equity" launched bolder movements toward dramatic representation that rivaled the visual appeal of other tourist attractions like the theme parks and shopping centers, and the complex stage-setting of Hollywood films (Hirzy 1992). Also see Weil's chronicle of the escalating rhetoric of the museum mission (1999).

[23] Media theorist Marshall McLuhan describes the "inner stage" of the individual as the target of both Hollywood and the advertising industry, which relentlessly markets lifestyle and self-improvement accoutrements that target the inner self. Museum technologies also address this increasing inward focus of viewers. The increasing popularity of mobile digital media players that guide the visitor to the collection highlights demonstrates this. Audio guides, utilized in hundreds of museums worldwide are equipped with mood-establishing music and celebrity voice-overs used to interpret objects in the museum collection. These compositions of 45 seconds (or less) expound on everything from the merits of ancient Japanese ceremonial armor to the affect of frame rate in video art. The audio guide provides the "soundtrack" for the personal museum film created by each ambulating viewer. Media critic Neal Gabler calls these "lifies""each individual"s own personal movie in which they play the starring role (1998).

[24] See Buck-Morss (1977) for further elaboration of Adorno's (wavering) hopes for social transformation. See Miller (2000) for more on Adorno's distain for American culture and its lack of "reverential silence."

[25] The urban history of the settlement of Williamsburg is documented in Fries (1977).

[26] Every detail of Colonial Williamsburg claims historic authenticity, and all evidence of modern conveniences are disguised to ensure immersion into another place and time. Even the water fountains are clad in handmade wooden barrels to conceal their modern workings.

[27] Architectural theorist Hal Foster (1983) describes the viewer who "entertains" the false normativity of the museum despite awareness of its production of ideology (see also Benjamin 1968).

[28] Social historian Maxine Feifer calls this person the "post-tourist" (1985).

[29] John Urry writes: "As everyone becomes a photographer so everyone also becomes an amateur semiotician" (1990:128).

[30] Despite its usual attention to historic detail, Colonial Williamsburg failed to accurately represent the African-American population in their programming until the early 1990s. In 1750, 40 percent of Williamburg's 230,000 residents were African-American (Greenspan 2002:3).

[31] Kirshenblatt-Gimblett describes this as "performing museology."


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