On the “aura” of the old museums and the “experience” of new ones | ANSELM JAPPE


In 2002, the art historian and theorist Hal Foster observed in his book Design and Crime, that the main purpose of the museum in the postmodern age is no longer the contemplation of the exhibits[1]. The exhibits exist also in the form of electronic archives and can be consulted anywhere, normally without even paying. Anyone interested in a close examination of the Mona Lisa, can do it much more easily in the age of digital reproduction, staying at home in front of the computer, than among hundreds of visitors who jostle and take photographs. Today’s museums, says Foster, are mainly destined to provide a spectacular aesthetic experience, especially thanks to their architecture, of which the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao is considered paradigmatic.

The Guggenheim museum is sometimes blamed for “distracting” from the works it shows. Nothing like this has ever been said of a traditional museum. I do not wish to dwell here on the Acropolis museum and its history. But I find it noteworthy that the old Acropolis museum hid itself humbly in a dip in the ground – a conception unimaginable today, when, on the contrary, what matters is to obtain as much “visibility” as possible and when the container seems to be more important than the content, and often the name of the architect who “signs” the building is more important than the building itself, as with any Vuitton handbag.

The new Acropolis museum has stirred up polemical debate – like nearly every other contemporary museum construction or “cultural” building. The battle lines are more or less always the same. The critics speak of ultra-modern architecture out of keeping with the surroundings, pure design, supermarket aesthetics, spectacularization, destruction of older structures. To me, this criticism seems often quite justified; but I also find it inconsistent. It is right to lament the integration of culture in the commodity society, where everything gains its right to exist only by its aptitude to sell and to attract consumers. But only very rarely is this criticism expressed from the point of view of a rigorous analysis of capitalism. Normally, what is invoked is just a “cultural exception”: shoes and cars, apartments and a regular labor force can be commodities – but at the sight of archeological specimens or works of art, commodity logic is immediately revoked, although it is in its nature – a nature hardly ever discussed – to devour everything. And the “cultural exception” so frequently evoked does not seem to be incompatible with extreme forms of commodification, as the “brand equity” of the Louvre, which sold its name to Abu Dhabi’s oil sheiks, just like a Gaultier perfume.

Commodity logic means total interchangeability, the reduction of every item to a mere amount of money and indifference towards every content. In commodity society, it is indeed quite difficult to demonstrate that a painting by Titian or a Parthenon Marble should have a nature essentially different from a Coca-cola bottle or an Armani jacket. To do so, it would be necessary to challenge the whole logic of commodity society. Since this would take us far beyond the scope of my present remarks, I shall restrict myself here to some more specific considerations.

The total interchangeability of commodities leads to the loss of the aura (and not only the aura of the works of art), of authenticity and uniqueness, as we know since Walter Benjamin. But the need for the aura is apparently very deeply rooted and returns constantly, to seek eventual satisfaction in commodities which promise authenticity. Today, aura, authenticity and uniqueness are among the most desired trademarks, on all levels. This explains why, in spite of the electronic archives always at hand, museums are today more crowded than ever, with everybody wanting to behold the “real” Mona Lisa. This is quite a paradox: the most extreme commercialization of culture thrives on re-sacralization and the re-conferring of aura.

What does a modern-day visit to a museum consist of? Typically, it takes place on a journey, for example on the occasion of a weekend trip made possible by Ryanair. After shopping in the morning and before the discotheque in the evening, a visit to the city’s most famous museum is scheduled, booked on Internet. The final result of the visit, extensively documented by photos, is to boast about it on Instagram or Facebook.

All this is generally considered as a triumph of democracy, an overcoming of elitism and a contribution to a globalized world where culture is at everybody’s disposal. Whether this enormous increase of museum visitors is accompanied by a real broadening of cultural interests and knowledge might however be open to doubt. Statistics tell us that the number of book readers is in decline, and every university or art school teacher can confirm that students only have a patchy knowledge of the history of art, literature and culture, and the cult of “new” media is often accompanied by an aggressive depreciation of classical culture, beginning with print books. It may be guessed that a large proportion of the masses visiting museums are refreshing their Instagram or Facebook page about the visit... And in a way, they are justified: these museums serve as an amusement, and therefore they compete not only with other museums, but also with other “leisure offers”, and they are consumed in this framework.

I suppose that by now, at this late juncture, you will take me for an antidemocratic reactionary and a nostalgic defender of an elitist culture completely out of date, even if this is quite strange for somebody like me who is known as a radical critic of capitalism. But I am not the only one to be in this apparently paradoxical situation and who takes the alleged democratization of culture as a pretext for its mere incorporation into the “cultural industry as mass deception”, as the German philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer put it in 1944: a kind of strategy in order to divest culture of all potentially subversive effect.

What is the function of the museum in the bourgeois society? From the founding of public collections at the end of the 18th century until approximately the seventies of the 20th century, its function remained essentially the same: to exhibit the extra-ordinary which comes from the past or from far away. This museum was linked to an “elitist” conception: on the one hand, it selected the excellent (or so it claimed). On the other hand, its typical public was a cultural elite, who were already somehow cultivated, since these museums could hardly boast of their didactic approach. There was also another public, a highly motivated one. For example, the Romanian francophone writer Panait Istrati, later a friend of Nikos Kazantzakis, tells that when he came to Paris for the first time in 1913, as a kind of drifter without any education other than primary school level, his friend, a Romanian cobbler with whom he was staying, immediately took him to the Louvre, where he became “infected” with a life-long cult of “beauty”. At that time, entrance to museums was often free, so that nobody was excluded for economic reasons. Nevertheless, were they much less crowded than today, although they are now often quite expensive. This means that at that time only people with a real interest went to museums (just as even today a Schönberg or Xenakis concert, even if it is free, would not fill a football stadium). The non-didactical museum abandoned the visitor to her/himself, and this might have overwhelmed some of them. But it allowed others to feel with full intensity the shock that certain exhibits can impart. In the best case, that could go as far as Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, which ends with the phrase: “For there is no place on this stone, that does not see you. You must change your life.”

This classical museum was despised by the avant-gardes. The Italian futurists compared museums to cemeteries[2]. Guillaume Apollinaire wanted to set the Louvre on fire. Guy Debord’s young lettrists proposed to abolish museums and to distribute their masterpieces to the drinking dens where they hung out. To get into the museum as an exhibited artist (or to make it there too soon) was shameful in the eyes of dadaists and surrealists. The aversion was mutual: no work by Picasso, Kandinsky or other founders of modern art made it into a big French museum before the Second world war. Even if in the end almost nobody – except the Situationists – actually refused to enter the museum, modern art, together with the whole protest and critical culture around 1968, deeply distrusted, not only the museum, but cultural “heritage” and “canon” in their entirety: “ripe for the museum” in German means outlived, without inner vitality, good only for obligatory admiration. The museum as synonym for dusty, archaic, lifeless, boring, old, tiring, unsexy. That is to say: everything the capitalist consumer society does not want to be anymore.


Indeed, a profound social change had taken place. In its very nature, capitalism was from the outset a dynamic system, that constantly revolutionizes every aspect of society. For a very long time, however, this went along with a strong conservatism on the level of “superstructure”, including cultural values. While capitalism, on the level of production, was always blindly dashing forward, on the level of official values it seemed “conservative”, “reactionary”, “bound to the past”, “traditionalist”. In reality, these tendencies were vestiges of its feudal and religious past only slowly dwindling away. Most of the critics of capitalism mistook, here as elsewhere, the phenomenon for its essence, and so regarded capitalism as essentially “conservative”, which is not the case at all.

The classical museum indeed expressed the domination – characteristic of the conscience of the bourgeois society of that time – of the past over the present and the future, of the old over the new, of continuity over change, of the serious over the frivolous, of the effort in production over pleasure in consumption, of elitist culture over “mass culture”. Nearly all exhibits derived from white western males and expressed their world view. For a long time, capitalist society argued officially in the name of heritage, tradition and memory.

Today, this situation has been reversed, and capitalism’s credo is innovation. The artistic avant-gardes, and then, on a much broader basis, the worldwide spirit of 1968 in its mass media version took a malicious pleasure in obliterating these museums and the culture they expressed. Here, as in many other fields, protest culture has finally contributed to the modernization of capitalism and to delivering it from the vestiges of its compromises with bygone forms of society. So, even the museum has finally turned from a temple for the Happy Few into a valid part of our world, flesh from its flesh, somewhere between design, spectacle, sales figures, tourism industry and the “Guggenheim effect” for the economy of a whole city or region. And who will complain about it at a time where culture is everywhere threatened by budget cuts and it is considered a problem that a University, an opera house or a quality film can hardly ever finance themselves? Museums, at least, are potentially able to do so! And if today we have, instead of one percent of highly cultivated persons, most of people which have already entered a museum, anyone who raises objections is necessarily somebody who defends archaic privileges and snobbish prejudices as a cultural intermediary, like those who remain proponents of print books in the Google era… Life and art are finally united, as the founders of modern art always demanded – even if this is probably a somewhat different union to the one they had envisioned.

This comes along with the vast broadening of the concept of museum. Often it seems that to put everything into the museum is the flipside of the merciless fight against ancient forms of life not yet entirely dominated by the commodity: What is being eliminated by progress, returns in the form of eco-museums or museums of popular arts and traditions, where, for example, the life of our peasant grandparents, which we might still have been familiar with when we were children, is shown in a museum – maybe to reassure us that this kind of life is really dead and gone. The continuous appeal to “historical memory” serves only to cover the break, renewed every day, with the past.

In April 2011 I visited a spinning mill in France, which ten years before some friends of mine had tried to restart with its highly sophisticated machinery from the beginning of the 20th century. The attempt finally failed, but the spinning mill was saved from demolition: however, today it is a museum. The wheels do not turn any more, but are just to be visited. Another contribution to the Disneyfication of the world.


With the demise of the old museums one of the experiences has been eradicated which were still able to put us in relation with something “different”, whose logic is not the same as the logic of the world which surrounds us and which suggests all the time to us that nothing exists outside of it and that it is the only world - and therefore also the best possible world. Happily, there are still some small museums in provincial towns devoted to less spectacular subjects, places that show us another kind of museum: There are few visitors, no intrusive didactic approach with video shows, earphones and a hundred other means to suggest to the visitor exactly what there is to admire and why. We are alone in front of the exhibits and we can try to enter into the “never ending dialogue” with their authors. These museums do not look like a mixture of a computer room and a subway station at rush hour, but they offer us a temporary relief from the turmoil which surrounds us everywhere and always. We have the sensation that the other visitors might have a special reason to be there, and perhaps therefore we feel a kind of closeness to them. Due to this atmosphere out-of-time and the living presence of a past or of something foreign, these museums sometimes really offer what the postmodern mega-museums only promise: a complete aesthetic experience, a living emotion which originates not only from the single exhibits but from the whole atmosphere. However, this atmosphere is not planned like the atmosphere in a “Nike store” where “shopping is an experience”, but we construct it ourselves, everybody for himself or herself. I do not know how much the visitors of the Musée d’histoire naturelle in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris learned about zoology before its modernization fifteen years ago. Yet, anyone who does not remember his visit to this huge and literally dusty cabinet of curiosities in terms of a great aesthetic experience, probably totally lacks any sensibility for any kind of experience. These old museums are to the new ones what the toys and the rigid dolls of our parents are to today’s hyperrealistic dolls and play-stations, those which, according to their promoters, contribute so much to the development of the children and the nurturing of abilities that will be useful in their future professional life, such as quick reactions or “multi-tasking”.

But the old games and toys, as the use of books instead of Netflix series or Twitter, foster an individual, unregulated and unfiltered imagination. Some of us still think that this is one of the best aspects of humankind. But what is the use of such an imagination, when Google pretends to think and imagine in our place? And what weight do nostalgic considerations such as these carry, vis-à-vis museums which have grabbed the historical opportunity to fully conform to their time and to seize their place between the rock concert and the shopping mall, instead of permanently confronting us, the visitors, with something which defies us and tries to lead us astray?






This is a revised version of a paper presented at the conference “The New Acropolis Museum: Ideology, Museology, Architecture”, organized by the Interuniversity Postgraduate Program in Museology and the School of Architecture of the Aristotle University, in Thessaloniki 13-14 May 2011 and in Athens 20-22 May 2011.

[1] «Design and display in the service of exhibition and exchange values are foregrounded as never before: today what the museum exhibits above all else is its own spectacle-value – that is the principal point of attraction and the chief object of reverence (see Chapter 3, «Master /Builder»). Among many other effects there is this one: If the old museum, as imagined from Baudelaire through Proust and beyond, was the site for the mnemonic reanimation of visual art, the new museum tends to split the mnemonic from the visual. More and more the mnemonic function of the museum is given over to the electronic archive, which might be accessed almost anywhere, while the visual experience is given over not only to the exhibition-form but to the museum-building as spectacle – that is, as an image to be circulated in the media in the service of brand equity and cultural capital. This image may be the primary form of public art today». (Hal Foster, Design & Crime (And Other Diatribes), Verso Books, London, 2002, pp. 81-82)

[2]  “Museums, cemeteries! Truly identical in their sinister juxtaposition of bodies that do not know each other. Public dormitories where you sleep side by side for ever with beings you hate or do not know. Reciprocal ferocity of the painters and sculptors who murder each other in the same museum with blows of line and color. To make a visit once a year, as one goes to see the graves of our dead once a year, that we could allow! We can even imagine placing flowers once a year at the feet of the Gioconda! But to take our sadness, our fragile courage and our anxiety to the museum every day, that we cannot admit! Do you want to poison yourselves? Do you want to rot? »  (F.T. Marinetti, "The Futurist Manifesto." First published in Le Figaro, 20 February 1909. This transl. by James Joll in Intellectuals in politics; three biographical essays. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1960, available online at cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/T4PM/futurist-manifesto.html).