The Advent of the ‘Post-Museum’ and Interdisciplinary Museum Studies

Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, 2000. Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, Routledge.

Recent scholarship in museum studies has addressed the pitfalls of the modern museum and numerous scholars have proposed methods to reinvent the museum. This scholarship has primarily emerged from the fields of museum studies, history, anthropology, and art history. In Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture (2000), Eilean Hooper-Greenhill contributes to this conversation by applying research from across disciplines, including media studies, educational theory, and indigenous histories, to highlight the cultural politics inherent in European museum displays. Hooper-Greenhill applies this multi-disciplinary approach to specific objects and collections first to argue that objects on display are made meaningful according to the historically- and culturally-informed interpretive frameworks into which they are placed and the perspectives from which they are seen, and second to argue that a new museum concept – the “post-museum” – is emerging and will re-shape the characteristics of the museum.

The wide range of Hooper-Greenhill’s research is reflected in the structure of this monograph and its chapters. Hooper-Greenhill begins by problematizing “culture,” with the intent to expand the concept of “visual culture” to accommodate museum displays.[1] Next, the author highlights the close relationship between the modern museum, cartography, and power relations. Museums which emerged during the nineteenth century, especially those devoted to natural history and anthropology, often built their collections on materials brought from conquered territories. This appears to have been common among nineteenth-century museums across the West, in both Western Europe and the United States, and has been discussed by a number of scholars of history and museum studies. Hooper-Greenhill builds on this concept by emphasizing a function that maps and museum collections shared: both enabled the imaging and imagining of power structures made material.[2] The materiality of the map and the object, the author contends, enabled abstract ideas to be sustained and to position peoples, nations, and territories into hierarchies of center and periphery. This understanding of power relations will inform Hooper-Greenhill’s approach to her research on museum collections.

From this point forward, Hooper-Greenhill focuses on specific collections and objects to explore how objects are interpreted and made meaningful within the modern museum. In the second chapter, the author closely evaluates the first ten years of collecting at the National Portrait Gallery in London to illustrate how objects can be used in a purposeful way to build a visual narrative about British national identity and history.[3] Next, Hooper-Greenhill directs our attention to a Maori meeting-house, called Hinemihi, once in Aotearoa New Zealand and now in Clandon Park.[4] The author emphasizes that Hinemihi reveals that a range of interpretive frameworks can be applied to the same object to create entirely different meanings, and that these frameworks are informed by specific social and cultural processes. Following Hinemihi, the reader encounters a chapter that outlines the divergent paths of two collections of Maori artifacts: one created by a Maori woman named Makereti and another created by an Englishman named Merton Russell-Cotes.

In the fifth and sixth chapters, the author analyzes processes of visual interpretation and pedagogy that characterize encounters between subjects and objects.  In museums, Hooper-Greenhill states, these encounters are shaped by the ways in which objects are selected and displayed. The pedagogic approach in the modern museum, initiated in the nineteenth century and continuing through the twentieth century, treats the audience as a unified group. This approach, the author notes, has over the years become widely regarded as insufficient and irrelevant to broad social needs.

In her closing chapter, Hooper-Greenhill summarizes the above themes in relation to two museum models: the modernist museum and the post-museum. The author engages in a final case study of the Lakota Ghost Dance Shirt to examine the meanings imposed upon the shirt as a result of the interpretive framework into which it was placed and the perspectives from which it was seen. The shirt was formerly held by Glasgow Museums, was repatriated to members of the Lakota tribe in 1999, and now resides in the care of the South Dakota Historical Society.[5] Like Hinemihi, the Lakota Ghost Dance Shirt is surrounded by distinct layers of interpretive frameworks.

The author emphasizes that, for contemporary British museum-goers when the shirt was acquired in the late nineteenth century, the Lakota Ghost Dance Shirt operated as one of many symbols of the “Imaginary Indian,” reducing the complexity and diversity of North American indigenous cultures to a single image of the “mounted, war-bonneted Plains chieftain.”[6] Hooper-Greenhill then elaborates on the additional meanings circumscribed to the shirt, primarily those from within the Lakota tribal history. At the massacre at Wounded Knee, Hooper-Greenhill explains, men had been wearing Ghost Dance Shirts. These shirts were believed to be sacred and imbued with protective qualities. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the Ghost Dance religion emerged to offer hope to Lakota tribes on the verge of cultural breakdown due to loss of land and encroachment of the United States’ government.[7] Thus, the Ghost Dance Shirt had initially been a sign of hope and revival. When the shirt was removed from the body of a deceased Lakota man and eventually found its way to the Glasgow Museum, these meanings were made invisible by the frameworks into which it was placed.

Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture is a wide-ranging assemblage of research that bridges the gaps between many disciplines. Hooper-Greenhill provides a new lens through which museum studies scholars can view museum displays: through the lens of visual culture, which had been predominantly restricted to media and communication studies. What is particularly successful about Hooper-Greenhill’s approach to the modernist museum is her focus on the narratives surrounding particular objects and collections, and connecting these different collections to a broader issue in museum studies. In particular, the early collections of the National Portrait Gallery and the life-story of Makereti’s collection of Maori artifacts highlight how nineteenth-century notions of nation, gender, and race informed the interpretive frameworks surrounding these collections and continue to surround museum displays in more recent history.

Hooper-Greenhill ends this monograph with a turn towards what she refers to as the “post-museum”. The post-museum is a new museum model and, as the author describes, remains in an embryonic stage. The author characterizes the post-museum as a process or an experience, taking on different architectural forms, and centers on the spaces, concerns, and ambitions of communities. The post-museum will incorporate many voices and perspectives to produce dynamic events and exhibitions. These events may include workshops, performances, and dances, and will draw in writers, scientists, and artists. Hooper-Greenhill provides an interesting new direction for the museum in the twenty-first century, but unfortunately does not go further to investigate any museums that had already begun to transition into this model by the year 2000, the time of this publication.

The reader asks, what does the post-museum resemble in practice? It is possible that the post-museum will consist of virtual collections that do not require a physical building, such as the emerging Google Cultural Institute, the Disability History Museum, or the Museum with No Frontiers.[8] According to Hooper-Greenhill’s proposal, the post-museum must incorporate many voices and perspectives. It must do so through community outreach and collaborative research. At the Anacostia Museum in 1969, John Kinard curated an exhibition titled The Rat: Man’s Invited Affliction, as a result of concerns shared by African Americans in the Anacostia community.[9] Rowena Stewart, who has at different points in her career directed the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society and the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia, and her associates have developed a five-step approach for collecting African American documents and artifacts.[10] This approach requires establishing close relationships with communities that have close knowledge with these materials, and fostering a strong community-museum trust.

The ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ – Belongings exhibit at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver offers what appears to be the most promising possibility for Hooper-Greenhill’s notion of the post-museum. This interactive exhibit was produced as a result of collaboration between the Museum, the Musqueam Indian Band, and Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT).[11] ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ – Belongings makes use of a tabletop display onto which visitors can place replicas of Musqueam archaeological artifacts and trigger information displays, videos, and audio narratives. The audio, photography, and video materials are informed by knowledge of members of the Musqueam Indian Band, an institution dedicated to preserving the living Musqueam culture and community. Using Musqueam artifacts and histories, the SIAT team created an interactive display on a Microsoft Surface. The ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ – Belongings exhibit is part of a much larger exhibition produced through this collaboration, with the overall goal to help visitors learn about historical and contemporary Musqueam culture and community. What is most significant about this exhibit is the incorporation of local, indigenous voices to provide an interpretive framework for Musqueam artifacts that takes into account Musqueam history and what meanings those objects have carried for those members of the Musqueam community – in addition to the meanings that these objects carry for those in the larger Vancouver community.

Works Cited

Disability History Museum, 2014. Accessed 8 February 2015.

Google Cultural Institute, Google, 2015. Accessed 8 February 2015.

Gaither, Edmund Barry, “‘Hey! That’s Mine’: Thoughts on Pluralism and American Museums (1992),” in Reinventing the Museum, ed. Gail Anderson, Alta Mira Press: Lanham and New York, 2004.

Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture. Routledge: London and New York, 2000.

Luckow, Diane. “Museum of anthropology exhibit features SFU SIAT team’s design and technology,” SFU News, Simon Fraser University: 21 January 2015. Accessed 8 February 2015

Museum with No Frontiers, 2015. Accessed 8 February 2015.

[1] Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and Interpretation of Visual Culture, 2000. p. 14

[2] Hooper-Greenhill, 2000. p. 18

[3] Hooper-Greenhill, 2000. p. 48

[4] Hooper-Greenhill, 2000. p. 73

[5] Hooper-Greenhill, 2000. p. 161

[6] Hooper-Greenhill, 2000. p. 156

[7] Hooper-Greenhill, 2000. p. 155

[8] Google Cultural Institute, Google: 2015; Disability History Museum, 2014; Museum with No Frontiers, 2015.

[9] Edmund Barry Gaither, “‘Hey! That’s Mine’: Thoughts on Pluralism and American Museums (1992),” in Reinventing the Museum, ed. Gail Anderson, Alta Mira Press: Lanham and New York, 2004. p. 114

[10] Gaither, “Hey! That’s Mine,” 2004. p. 114

[11] Diane Luckow, “Museum of anthropology exhibit features SFU SIAT team’s design and technology,” SFU News, Simon Fraser University: 21 January 2015.

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