How to Exhibit Deceptively: Aesthetics of Globalization within Pre-Hispanic Art Displays

by Ms. Micaela Mikhy Neveu

HeritageForAll Heritage Intern (Call 2018) from Paris, France

Fig. 1. ©Pavillon des Sessions, Louvre Museum, Paris, France.

Toward a Subversive Action within Museology

The exhibition today is understood as a very powerful act of communication, a system of multiform languages, built from series of interpretations, from the development of its conception to its reception by the public, even beyond the walls of the museums themselves. To apprehend the works of art or archeological objects showcased in a museum, that are exposed in a particular manner, the viewer must learn to analyze the entire composition of the display: the architecture of the museum itself, the museography and/or scenography, sets and lights, materials, colors, and all practices and techniques used by the museum for communication purposes.

Theatrical resources are now part of the vocabulary of the art of the exhibition developed alongside with the postmodern museum and the cultural democratization initiated in France under the minister of culture André Malraux followed by what Jacques Hainard called “the museology of the rupture ” in the 1980s, a subversive act against classical museography, and what he described himself as a “museological identity crusade”. The museological action of which we are speaking here, and its material applications through the scenography or displays, constitute major stakes for museums, in that they are strong places for demonstration of power, whether it is a museum of fine arts, anthropology, archeology or a museum of society, in favor of a dominant global museography adopted worldwide in museums and its networks. Especially, the theory of museology and its practice, the “museography/scenography” used for extra-European art employed in museum exhibitions constitute a powerful vector of cultural models imposing a fragmented or even distorted representation of cultural diversities under the pretext that the mediation must be easily understood by a general public.

For Jacques Hainard, “each exhibition is an adventurous journey from which we do not come back unscathed”, the museum entity referring to itself as “a flattering image of itself transforming a passive object, torn from its context of origin, as a witness of history”. So, is exhibiting distorting? The forms of the exhibition show specific peculiarities, some of which we will approach here. The exhibition of the arts of pre-Hispanic America is confronted with a systematic practice of de-contextualization, which is going hand in hand with a “modernist fashion scenography” which is a counter-project, undoubtedly an adversary of identity and traditions of cultural diversities.

Activating the Display

Important times for the scenography of exhibitions corresponds to the rise of department stores and Universal Exhibitions in Europe during the second half of the 19th century, at a time when commercial structures were interested in scenography, both for the display of objects and also for the relationship it sets up with the clientele.

Fig. 2. Facade of a Peruvian temple, “Inca style”, scenography from the Universal Exhibition of 1878, Paris. ©2001-2018

The evolution of the exhibition scenography, between the end of the 19th century and the 1920s went through a stripping of spaces echoing the renewal of the museography of major museums. In the years 1920-1930, the discipline is paralleled by the theatrical experimentation of the European avant-gardes, in particular by the Russian artist El Lissitzky and the innovative “PROUN Spaces” for whom the experience of the visit should include the spectator as part of the exhibition, so that the visitor would receive the influence from the objects on a subconscious level.

The mutations that have contributed to the evolution of museum scenography are the products of multiple influences, both political and economic, social and cultural, but also of the interactions between the different disciplines, in particular the ones between museology, the arts of shows and theater. Today, the advent of new technologies combined with the age of the Internet and social networks, as well as the development of new types of media, is constantly influencing museums and their museological methods to attract people and to adjust to public demand. The museological strategy whose scenography forms the practical application is revealed as a key element for the museums’ renewal.

The scenography builds a fictional space in the heart of the museum, developed from a narrative, a synopsis that modifies the visit; from passive, as it had been in the past, the visit becomes active since it starts with the movements of the viewer through the narrative within the display. Inspired by dramaturgy, the storyline is often divided into three large sections, three major themes that is, each with its own sub-themes, including an introduction, a development and an end, the conclusion. The rooms of the exhibition are now designed as sets with specific furniture according to the relevant subject, such as chairs with different colors, architectural structures, textures and lighting effects, dramatization of lights and sounds. All this aiming to create splinters via narrative sequences, rhythms and different tempos specific to the exhibition, chronologies and comparative and interpretative phases, allowing the visitor to make the connections between the different objects without even noticing doing it. The role of the visitor has definitely changed through these narrative structures and systems because they are functioning like a program centered on her/him. The content is set up in steps that the public is taking themselves, activating the display as they go along, with each new room conveying the next scene of the story directly into the spectators’ unsuspecting subconscious mind.

Fake Displays vs Contextuality

The semantics, the speech-acts, the marketing of images, are all elements that unveil the exhibitions’ real intentions. From the poster to the tour, the scenography always communicates a cultural and/or political purpose, a demonstration of power. The collection spreads prestigious cultural models to the public; cultural models whose museological tendencies are equivalent everywhere in the world and it is valid for every culture, at any moment in time, and in the same way for every civilization.

Fig. 3. Ancient Egyptian art, 2016, ©Brooklyn Museum
Fig. 4. Ancient pre-Hispanic art, ©Cleveland museum

For example, it is not uncommon to find a pre-Hispanic mummy close to an Egyptian one, from different periods no less, showcased in a dark and mysterious display, because the determinant factor in this particular type of museology is the general theme rather than the value of the culture itself – like its own value and what it signifies in its own context and history. Today that is fashionable within museology concerning extra-European art, like a trend following the tendency to globalize cultural diversities in exhibitions through “neutral” scenographies, “white cube” fashion styles, that ends up robbing them of their true worth, rather than explaining what they really are, which leads to fake or misleading narratives that serves the multiple agendas: global art market, cultural, economic and political purposes or even “Soft-Power techniques” to influence public opinion. This newly created and erroneous narrative is adopted as factual truth by the institution itself. A truth that holds no legitimacy other than what the museums fabricate with another “untold” purpose which is keeping the extra-European cultures colonized within the museums through these staged and crooked displays.

Fig. 5. These sacred objects are being profanely reduced to a display not unlike the one of souvenirs in a shopping window. Peru before Incas, 2017-2018, ©Quai Branly J. C. Museum, Paris, France.

The current debate raises the question of taking action against the colonization of the museums in order to restore a liberated image of extra-European cultures inspired by a new museology based only on the true context and a museography that would use the display to reconstruct the origins (Quatremère de Quincy, 1796).

There are many scenic aesthetics for each of the different types of exhibitions and museums but the principle remains the same: to produce an emotion inside the visitors’ mind, to provide an aesthetic pleasure, an experience of the exhibition rather than an unengaged visit. Studies in communication have shown the very prominent role of emotions in the process of learning and memorizing information. Also, to move is to engage the visitor, to involve him/her in the experience of the exhibition. Museum marketing develops strategies through regular renewal of exhibitions playing with “the surprise effect” to maintain the interest of the visitor through interactivity and the playful aspect of the scenography. Whether of the “grandiose” or “abstract”, “modernist” or “clinical gallery” type, the scenography is a symbolic narrative that doubles the official purpose of the exhibition.

The scenography diffuses a symbolic ensemble as much as the object showcased. For Peter Brook, even an empty space and the movement of an individual is already a theatrical act, because there is an action effect that produces something, a multi-sensory influence on the viewer. For Mircea Eliade, la hiérophanie, (“the irruption of the sacred in the profane world”), is constitutive of the spirit of ancient cultures that produced those objects that are today exhibited in our museums without their primordial reality. They have lost all their true purpose and meaning because the museums that welcomed them erased their original contexts and identity. The pre-Hispanic exhibitions have nothing to do with contextuality or history anymore but with performance and performativity. A new type of scenography that includes theatricality (Evreinov, 1930) would be better adapted to express the ancient arts of America with all their potential in terms of sacred and of divinity.

For Jacques Hainard, elevating an ethnographic object as a masterpiece is tantamount to affirming the imperialism of the western gaze, relieved of its original functions, be they ritual, religious, social or symbolic, the object is reduced to its aesthetic dimension in an abstract setting created from “norms and taste of our culture”, at the will of the museums hierarchy.

Fig. 6. “Indigenous Art of the Americas exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C”. circa 1940. ©

Pre-Hispanic Art is to complex and cannot be shown through a modern aesthetic or “white cube”-scenography because it is immensely sacred and connected to the world of the divine. It is the result of the transcription of symbolic elements, essentially derived from divinities and whose understanding, by the general public, can only be realized in the light of deciphering its codes. To the pre-Hispanic peoples all objects are divine in essence, “a manifestation of a balance between two realities”, “one tangible, the other intelligible”, says the professor and archaeologist Daniel Levine from the Sorbonne University. By dissecting the sets of objects, dissociating the collections while annihilating the networks of relations, or by trading the context with fictions through the prism of western references, this museological anatomism presents a deeply profaned and fragmented pre-Hispanic corporality to the public.

The initiation to pre-Hispanic art should be the subject of a museology reoriented towards the resources of theatricality, that is to say, towards the capacities of the context to restore the primitive realities in which the universe of the Gods and hierophanies are essential.

Fig.7. Theatricality recreates true contexts. Here “Tlalocan murals”, the original is located in Teotihuacan. ©National museum of Anthropology of Mexico.

According to Jean Davallon and Serge Chaumier, the structure of the exhibition follows three principles: narrative, visual and spatial, each of which corresponding to three major phases of the exhibition, its preparation, its production and the visit. Even the form of the exhibition conditions the subject because it is, in fact, a point of view. Its space and atmosphere influence the visitor as well. By studying audiences, it is thus possible to model tours and thus predict behaviors. The designer of the exhibition maps out the route in order to bring the visitor to understand its purpose.

The exhibition cannot exist without sorting concepts, ideas and objects. In reality, the exhibition sets up an order by story, from titles, texts and cartels, signage to hanging, lights and sounds, and the choice of colors and shapes to the path itself. The introduction of mediating texts is a carefully planned act, in order to reach a specific public. Texts and sub-texts produce a set of internal relations within the exhibition itself, and external, between different exhibitions. In the 1930s, Herbert Bayer adapted his scenography to political action and propaganda, the exhibition being, for him, an ideal means of communication and a way to influence the visitor or even to transform her/him. These processes are defined under the terms “Traffic Control” or “Traffic Science”.

Global Impact on Cultural Diversities

The “institutional facts” were defined by John R. Searle in The construction of social reality as the product of social conventions; the existence of institutions depends on the human mind, it is established in opposition to nature. Institutional facts are characterized by collectively recognized constitutive rules that affect the behavior of individuals: “do not touch the objects in the museum”, for example. For Searle, reality depends on the observer; therefore, it is subjective and not objective.

The collective intention, with the cooperation of society, favors the establishment of institutional facts and contributes to the construction of reality. Thus, in the institution of the museum, works of art get an institutional status when they become part of a museum, they are “musealized”. This is their new identity, subjected to “museality”, a status on which the decision is made to transform the works of art into “heritage”. “Musealization” is “the operation tending to extract, physically and conceptually, an object from its natural, or cultural, milieu of origin and to give it a “museum status”, to transform it into “musealia” or “an object of museums “, officially making it part of the “museum field”.

The museum, through the exhibition, elevates objects into masterpieces through the institutional fact that museology participates in conditioning its reception by the public. The new status given to the work of art in the museum also contributes to increasing its value on the art market. The institutional fact, closely related to the fact of museality, is exported outside the museum to join the art market, its space of representation, the mall, its speculation and to everything else that binds it to the movements of the collections. For the exhibition of the Pinacothèque de Paris in 2011 titled “The gold of the Incas”, a sensational title, directed at the collective European imagination where gold has always had a market value, while in the pre-Hispanic world, it bears a sacred character that refers to the “flesh of the gods”. The poster proposes a dramatic tension by its marketing title which implies a “conqueror” and a “conquered”, thus a scenographic balance of power where the objects of art are semiotic trophies.

Fig.8. The Gold of the Incas, 2010-2011, ©Pinacothèque de Paris, France

The typography, the choice of images and the colors of the poster itself, all influence the perception of the public, pre-visit. The role of the museum must be questioned because it uses more advertising tactics than scientific communication. The new UNESCO “Recommendation” adopted in 2015 concerning the protection of museums and cultural diversities insists on the scientific, the research dimension and on the educational role of the institution.

National as well as intergovernmental institutions have a direct or indirect impact on museology and its methods inside museums, through laws, rules, recommendations or charters. In 2015, the Recommendation for the Protection and Promotion of Museums, their Collections, their Diversity and their Role in Society prompted museologists to work on the redefinition of the museum and therefore museological action.

In 2017, François Mairesse, president of ICOFOM, organized a symposium in Paris on the museums definition. The term “museum” is defined today as a “permanent, non-profit institution serving society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, preserves, studies, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purpose of education, study and enjoyment. As such, museums are institutions that strive to represent the natural and cultural diversity of humanity and play a vital role in the protection, preservation and transmission of heritage”.

Like the theme of “research”, the “globalization” aspect advocates the enhancement of cultural diversity without reducing the role of museums in the context of globalization: “Globalization has allowed greater mobility of collections, professionals, visitors and ideas, which has both positive and negative impacts on museums and translates into greater accessibility and homogeneity.

Member States should promote the preservation of the diversity and identity of museums and collections without reducing the role of museums in a globalized world.” We understand that the museum cannot guarantee at the same time, its position in the globalization, or the phenomenon of globalization of the cultures, while enhancing their diversity and their own representation. This would be contradictory affirming everything and its opposite at the same time. The choice of a museography evacuating contexts prevails over contextuality because it allows, in fact, to globalize different cultures by homogenizing them in clinical and neutral spaces, and their final goal is above all the valorization of the museum itself; that is to say, its political and museological action.

Through cultural actions, the French State shows how public action is an exemplary model of interventionism that meets the guidelines of Europe with which many projects are underway. In France, in 2001, 33 museums were under the direction of the museums of France, known as “National museums”, another 11 museums were under the direction of the Ministry of Culture and 1091 additional museums were being “classified” or “controlled” museums. Intergovernmental institutions such as UNESCO and ICOM play a key influencing role since its mission is global in scope, bringing together museums and professionals from 137 countries.

In 2015, the UN presented its 17 Universal Objectives for the 2030 Agenda focused on sustainable development in all sectors, signed by 193 states. The aim is to bring culture to the heart of development policies to help globalization processes of cultural diversity. Sustainable development, universality, human rights and building global citizenship are key ideas. Prerogatives of this UN discourse are applied in the media exhibition of the world.

The Case of the Exhibition “Peru before the Incas”, Quai Branly. J- Chirac Museum, Paris, France

Fig. 9. Peru Before the Incas, ©Quai Branly J. C. Museum, 2017-2018, Paris, France.

The exhibition Peru before the Incas, curated by Santiago Uceda Castillo, archaeologist and director of the Huacas del Valle Museum in Moche, University of Trujillo, is a good example of pre-Hispanic museological action in the globalizing context: you read a prestigious story, a title of sensation, a concept referring to power, gold, conquest and domination. Unfortunately, the title of this exhibition immediately announces an untrue “fact”, because Peru did not exist before the Incas.

The name of Peru was given to the Incas by the Spaniards and spread as truth from 1534, after the return of Hernando Pizarro to Seville in Spain. The name of Peru was unknown to the Incas, it was imposed by the Spaniards and rejected by the Indians of Peru who refused to use it. Marketing plays an important role in this kind of mediation; by choosing this title, for those who do not know, Peru now existed before the Spanish Empire. What is the meaning of this communication? The sensation, the return of a myth, the dream of Eldorado? The economic role of the museum is in the prerogative of the museum.

The exhibition echoes the Inca and the Conquistador, organized a few years ago and asserts itself against the The Gold of the Incas which brought together objects from cultures before the Incan Empire but without mentioning it. Everything else was “abstracted” to put the collections under one banner: “Incas”. We are talking about a museological action whose foundations are built on the abstraction or the segregation of information and communication.

In the interview with the magazine Connaissance des Arts, Castillo said that “the archaeology of recent years has given pride to the local people, the Peruvians claim their spiritual heritage of their history. The people of the countryside identify with the characters portrayed on the ceramics; the inhabitants of Trujillo adopt the image of the god of the Mountain, those of Lambayeque, that of the lord of Sipan”… “For them, the objects found in the tombs of dignitaries are much more than works of art because they offer a vivid testimony of the grandeur of their past and their ancestors.” This type of communication, which contributes to the promotion of the pre-Hispanic exhibition of the Quai Branly J. Chirac museum, gives a false and distorted image of current Latin American cultures that are claiming, now more than ever, their autonomy and independence.

During the seminar entitled “Rewriting the Colonial Past: Contemporary Issues in Museum Collections”, Session 4 of February 12, 2018, entitled Museography of Globalization, addressed the theme of the presentation of cultures and its diversity in museums. Benoit de l’Estoile, research director within CNRS and professor at ENS in Paris, spoke of a type of museography that would dissimulate a hidden neocolonialism, practiced under the mask of cultural diversity and protection, to hide a real emancipated valorization of cultural diversities such as Pre-Hispanic Art.

Fig. 11. Entartete Kunste Nazi Exhibition catalogue,1937

The exponential vogue, it should be noted, is actually in the “standardizing mode”: all the arts of the world housed under the same sign, a modernist model. The “modernist standardizer” exposes objects in clinical spaces where the roots and genetics of works from extra-European cultures are systematically mutilated and sequestered in shop windows. Because, for the museum, it is a question of integrating or assimilating all these cultural diversities into a sort of neutral, “global” unity, without their contextual specificities, in a “museography of globalization”. The Pavillon des Sessions at the Louvre, Quai Branly J. Chirac’s antenna, inaugurated in 2000, designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, reflects this modernist style whose aesthetic contours are defined by the former collector who died many years ago, Jacques Kerchache, confirming an aesthetic used by museums worldwide for pre-Hispanic arts better adapted to the art market than to its traditional and spiritual origins.

Pre-Hispanic art poses a double constraint to the museum; religious or secular, sacred objects or everyday objects, it does not seek aesthetic effects or displays in the secular sense. To take a pre-Hispanic approach to contemporary museology would require the difficult exercise of restoring, as a sine qua non condition, the multiple artistic and cultural expressions in their original contexts against museum abstraction, foe of cultural diversities. The idea was initiated by Quatremère de Quincy in the 19th century opposing the French revolutionary museum against the fundamental freedom of peoples. Even if the problematics of contextualization are not new, it must not stop in interest of the new museological action as a process of liberation of dogmas and recitatives and standardizing hegemonic practices.

Fig. 12. Theatricality within museography sets the context, the ©Jade Museum, San José, Costa Rica.

Without this, the pre-Hispanic museology is an additional maneuver of cultural alienation, an imposture legitimized through the institution and institutional facts through the media exhibition and its displays. Theatricality, on the other hand, makes a new kind of “analogical genre” possible, like theecological units” by G. H Rivière.

Fig. 13. « Ecological Units » use theatricality to recreat the context. Le Goulien. Photo : 2005.82.112. Photo : Jézéquel, Hervé. ©MuCEM.
Fig. 14. The scenography contextualizes the objects exhibited in this period room from the 18th C. Panelling and furniture from the Grand Salon of the Château d’Adondant. ©Daniel Arnaudet, Louvre museum.

The revival of the period rooms is very popular in major museums displaying European art, like le Louvre; can we also hope that in a near future, this museography will be the leading line for the pre-Hispanic arts as well giving them their true meaning back.

Fig. 15. Temple of Kalasasaya in Tiahuanaco. ©elmundo.e


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