Tag Archives: Warner

Making Museums Public vs. Making Museum Publics

In talking about public humanities, our first question is always how do we make humanities public? And the question, as identified in these readings, is always a structural one. Especially in the Bandelli and Williams article, the shifts occurring in the museological sphere emphasize changing the hierarchical structures and levels of authority in museum staffing. The article identifies giving a public a voice within the decision-making process, while still upholding reliability and trustworthiness – as key to making museums democratic spaces.

Hein’s identification of the museum as an artifact, “a product of collective human design,” uses language of private, non-private, public to negotiate similar structural issues to viewing art. In discussing critical public art, Hein starts to address the idea of how engagement in the artistic discourse as a form of self-discovery strengthens contemporary memorial art. While Hein’s focus is also more structural than I care for, the mediation of an everyday perception of the world seems to me the most important aspect of our work as public humans.

My central question: Are we talking about making museums public, or is this a discussion about making museum publics? Are we still focused on getting “the public” in the door, or getting them to come back? Thinking of Warner’s idea that anyone coming in contact with “the discourse” and chooses to engage becomes a part of a public, I think only Hein’s approach starts to deconstruct this notion. (Even then, I’m not sure it’s going far enough.) We can make these structural changes in which “the public” is incorporated into the engagement structures of the museum, but in what ways can we use other disciplines to improve upon the discourse we’re presenting? This is where Bandelli’s point re: valuing different knowledge formations (cognitive, experiential, and social) comes into play. Similarly, this is what Canclini starts to address in Chapter 4 around the opposition of sacred/profaned past. In what ways can we shape the existing publics of a museum to look beyond these ideas of conservation, preservation, or temporal culture? Is that even really what’s at stake? How do we center the negotiation of making culture as the role of museums in a different way? Are the structural issues really the ones that need work – how does content factor into all of this?

Stranger/Public: Like a Light Switch?

“Public speech can have great urgency and intimate import. Yet we know that it was addressed not exactly to us, but to the stranger we were until the moment we happened to be addressed by it…To inhabit public discourse is to perform this transition continually, and to some extent it remains present to consciousness.” (Warner: 57-58)

In Warner’s conception, there seems to be an almost instantaneous switch from stranger to public; when we are addressed by speech and we are at least somewhat attentive to it, we are no longer a stranger. I wonder how this might function for “public” programs—do we just need to imagine ourselves as an attendee of an event to be part of its public, do we need to attend, do we need to attentively engage in its proceedings?

Warner is focused on text and literary studies, so thinking about events where direct contact is important to hailing the public might be out of his purview, but he did allow me to think of organizers of events as “authors” and what this implies about institutions’ relationship with their “readers.”

Barrett pushes us to think about space and visuality, building on Habermas’s notion of the literary public sphere: “Public space is both abstract and material, conceptual and concrete” (148). But I was curious what Barrett would say about when or if we transition from strangers to public and at what point deeper relationships are formed in public spaces. Is it the sort of instantaneous switch that Warner imagines or a deeper, more sustained engagement?