The word museum comes originally from the Greek word, Muse, referring to the nine goddesses responsible for inspiring learning and the arts. Originally then, museum refers to a building connected with the Muses or the products of their inspiration. Since that time however, museum has come to mean research insitution (like that founded by Ptolemy at Alexandria), university building, and in modern usage, "a building or institution in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are preserved and exhibited," (OED) this most recent definition having given the museum its significance as interesting topic in terms of the study of media.
Compounding the terms here, museums in our current culture serve as repositories for gathered objects in various spheres of interest that are sometimes used for research, but more frequently as displays which can be consumed by the general public. The format for these displays is highly specific, consisting of “selected imagery, rhetoric and ideology [which] may be joined emotionally and cognitively.” (Kaplan 38)
Making use of long and short term exhibitions the museum establishes "...the relations among museum objects, and making them more readable with museoographical aids and appliances. So the message is formulated through the conscious creative creative intention of the exhibition author." (Maroevic 31) The exhibition author interprets various signifiers, in what is potentially an honest way, but what are more commonly ways in which exhibitions become “political arenas in which the power of dominant groups is asserted…” (Kaplan 55)
The theme of power in relation to museums has been a highly prevalent one throughout their history. They are, in both their most abstract and most concrete sense, structures of power. And this power has been exerted in varying ways over the course of museum history. In their original modern configuration museums were collections of objects taken as “the booty of conquest,” (Kaplan 41) or other situations in which more dominant nations had exerted their power over ones with less power. From there museums became a location in which the wealthy could exert their power over the less fortunate by restricting their admittance, but most importantly they have exhibited power over the collective frame of mind because, “within given historical and cultural contexts, exhibitions are kind of public, secular rituals in the Durkheimian sense of social representation of collective ‘self’.” (Kaplan 37)
As museums have become more self-conscious in recent years however, they have attempted to use this immense power in order to serve the public. Kylie Message argues in her book “New Museums and the Making of Culture” that, "Rather than privileging traditional idea of museological practice, the new museum aspires to a museumlike exhibitionary complex. This new museum-as-cultural center acts self-consciously as a political agent and plays an advocacy in the reconstruction of cultural identity and the promotion of crosscultural dialogue," (Message 199)
Notions of power have also been extremely relevant to the ongoing debate concerning museum architecture. In classical manifestations museums have been modeled on aesthetically on palaces, in many instances drawing on the Crystal Palace from the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. While there are obvious implications in terms of the state’s power over the public for this aesthetic choice, the greater significance is that the Crystal Palace has been accused of utilizing “exhibitionary forms which, in simultaneously ordering objects for public inspection and ordering the public that inspected,” were similar in structure to Bentham’s Panopticon, and made use of Foucault’s theories of Panopticism. Evidenced by Douglas Crimp’s suggestion that outside of the widely acknowledged panoptic institutions, there “is another such institution of confinement ripe for analysis in Foucault’s terms – the museum – and another discipline – art history,” (Bennett 59,61) the classical museum has been accused of incarcerating not only art objects, but also religious objects and, symbolically, colonial societies, while simultaneously and hegemonically establishing the control of the state over the viewer.
In more recent criticism, the museum has also come under fire for its use of temporality in structuring displays. In “Prisoners of Museum” Guy Lafranchi, of the Research Institute for Experimental Architecture, accuses modern museums of a “static and linear quality” in their concept of time, saying, “time is strung out like beads of a rosary. And yet all these epochs and galleries were in fact steeped in each other…” (Lafranchi 12) He calls for greater complexity and decentralization of the museum structure, so as to create a place of exchange rather than instruction, saying, “the structure has to change from a simple structure of fact to something more complex.” (Lafranchi 64)
The high level of importance placed on the mode of art exhibition can be linked not only to the unconscious power the museum maintains over its visitors, but also the source of its power – the so-called aura of its collection. Museums have made extensive use of Walter Benjamin’s observation that, “With the emancipation of specific artistic practices from the service of ritual, the opportunities for exhibiting their products increase.” (Benjamin 106) These increased opportunities for exhibition have thus allowed museums to take advantage of the still-current “desire of present day masses to ‘get closer’ to things” (Benjamin 105) and capitalize on the “aura” of huge numbers of original works. It is these original works from which museums actually draw their power, as they can take advantage of their ability to control where and when the work is used.
This aspect of control vis-à-vis the aura has, of course, also become a topic of debate. In the last half-century museums have found themselves increasingly having to compete for their share of the market, and have thus, in some cases, been in the habit of deaccessioning (i.e. selling off) their collections. In an argument concerned heavily with the importance of this aura, Rosalind Krauss actually bemoans the increasingly limited power of the museums over the work of art, and accuses Minimalism of causing this, saying, “we watch the activity of markets restructuring the aesthetic original, either to change it to an ‘asset,’…or to normalize the once-radical practice of challenging the very idea of the original through a recourse to the technology of mass production.” (Krauss 6) In her accusation she sites the Minimalist practice of using industrial technologies to create works of art as her rationale.
In the same vein of thought, Krauss also takes note of the Minimalist obsession with “intensity” and it’s implications for the structuring of museums: “…that the encyclopedic nature of the museum was ‘over’. What museums must do now…was to select a very few artists from the vast array of modernist aesthetic production and to collect and show these few in depth…” While she does not necessarily agree with this observation, she connects it to a larger, more significant trend to speak, “not of the museum, but of the ‘museum industry,’ describing it as ‘overcapitalized,’ in need of ‘mergers and acquisitions’ and of asset management.” (Krauss 7, 15) In some ways this resounds with Lafranchi’s arguments, but more than anything it highlights the general concern with museum power and structure in modern society.
Though nearly all of the relevant thought on museums has been focused on art museums, it is also important that the significance of other types of museums not be overlooked. In general, museums, “process the way people think about what they see and the meanings they attach to it.” (Kaplan 37) This ability to control is true of all modern museums, whether they be concerned with history, science, or art.