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Accepted Paper:

Theorizing Museums without Materiality: An analysis of the Promise of Paradise Exhibition at the Freer |Sackler  
Saloni Shah (Maryland Institute College of Art)

Paper short abstract:

The contradicting responsibilities of a national museum in the West may only be alleviated by theorizing a museum without objects. This paper argues that liberating museums from their increasing technological fetishism of physicality allow them to ethically address both access and ownership.

Paper long abstract:

Since their establishment, national museums in the West have borne contradictory responsibilities. Of late, heavily framed by cultural-political agendas, these responsibilities have focused on the collection’s cultural heritage and on the visitor experience. In this paper, drawing on research on the Freer/Sackler Gallery’s (Washington, DC) recent renovation, I examine the Promise of Paradise Exhibition in the Chinese art section. This exhibition, showcasing Chinese Buddhist Sculptures from the 6th to 8th century, utilizes technological integration and interactive labeling. While designed to address one responsibility--enhancing and, ideally, democratizing the visitor experience--I argue that, the exhibition’s heightened focus on materiality, prevents engagement with a more pressing responsibility, an ethical concern for the problematic nature of the objects’ possession and provenance. These renovations create a new contact zone, increasing distance from what those objects meant, and continue to mean, within the culture to which they originally belonged. If the objects are removed, we can unite these contradicting responsibilities by liberating museums from an increasing technological fetishism of physicality, allowing them to use other ways to ethically address both access and ownership. This deliverance is critical all the more so as COVID-19 is compelling museums’ to break away from their reliance on a room of objects by forcing them to reimagine conventional methods of narration. Drawing together perspectives from anthropology, art history, and post-colonial studies, I ask how we might theorize a museum without objects.

Panel Speak09b
Sensible museums: responsibilities of knowledge creation and narrative construction in museums II
  Session 1 Tuesday 30 March, 2021, -