Book Review By Robert Sullivan
In reading Tony Bennett’s Pasts Beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism (2004), it is hard to believe that less than decade ago this profession was lamenting the “blanket of critical silence” and lack of “any rigorous form of critical analysis” for museums or museum history. Now we seem awash in it, as both academics and museum practitioners have rushed in to fill the intellectual void. Museums, especially natural history museums, are the last of the Victorian, modernist, institutions to be deconstructed by post-structuralist theory. Bennett in both his previous volume, The Birth of the Museum, and in this more recent book attempts to do just that, consorting with the usual post-modern theoretical suspects; Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour, and Pierre Bourdieu.
“…my interest in how these three national contexts (Britain, Australia and the United States) provide a set of contrapuntal perspectives on the relationships between post-Darwinian developments in the historical sciences, the functioning of evolutionary museums as a new kind of memory machine, the changing practices and priorities of liberal forms of government, and the quite different connections that were forged between between the historical sciences and practices of government in colonial relationships between occupying and indigenous populations” (pg.2).
Even for a determined reviewer, this is a daunting quote to discover on only the second page into this work. However, it does adumbrate both the breadth of Bennett’s ambition and the convoluted literary style he will use in pursuing his analytical ends.
The “pasts beyond memory” of the title are those deep-time, prehistoric geological, biological, and cultural pasts unearthed by the historical sciences throughout the 19th century and then represented to the public through the exhibits and programs of “evolutionary museums”. Indeed, the theoretical and methodological synthesis of archeology, paleontology, geology, and anthropology was the incubator for these evolutionary museums. The particular way these sciences read and represented the past through the close examination of the thing itself distinguished them from the prior readings of the past based on literary and oral traditions. For Bennett, this new tangible, concrete, temporal narrative for both cultural and natural development was simultaneously a scientific and social discourse. Scientifically, the naming, classifying, and ordering protocols of the historical sciences generated a progressive, accumulative, incrementally-developing past with no radical or revolutionary leaps. Using the core concepts of type and sequence, the deep past was represented in evolutionary museums as treeing upward from simple to complex; from the primitive to the civilized. In Bennett’s view, this evolutionary scientific discourse spawned the “archeological self”; a stratified self with lingering remnants of the wild and primitive other folded within the civilized self. It is here that the social discourse appropriates the concepts and practices of evolutionary science and its “memory-machine” museums linking these scientific concepts and practices to new social strategies for cultural governance both within the “changing practices and priorities of liberal forms of government” and within the “practices of government in colonial relationships between occupying and indigenous populations.”
The theoretical framework Bennett deploys to approach these questions of the changing role and power relationships between liberal and colonial governmental practices and citizens in the late 19th century is Michel Foucault’s concept of “governmentality”. With this concept in toe, Bennett analyses the ways in which “distinctive relations of power are constituted in an by the exercise of specific forms of knowledge and expertise, and on the ways in which these give rise to specific mechanisms, techniques, technologies for shaping thought, feelings, perceptions, and behavior.” (pg. 5) This looking at the details and particularities of specific disciplinary practices relocates power in the traditional analytical critique of museums. Most deconstructive analyses of museums looks behind museum policy and practice for the lurking power relationships to be unmasked as the hidden legitimators of existing power structures and social relationships. The “analytics of government” in Bennett’s framework looks at and within those mundane institutional practices for the overt forms of power embedded there. In other words, Bennett wishes to do for museums what Michel Foucault did for asylums and prisons. To do this, Bennett takes a close look at the links between the economic and social goals of new liberalism in both western and colonial contexts and the ideas and practices of evolutionary museums. A key concept for the new liberalism at the end of the 19th century (versus the laissez faire liberalism of the first half of the century) was the increased role and engagement of the government in shaping the social lives and aspirations of citizens. For Bennett, the evolutionary museum’s representation of the past as progressive and cumulative, along with the concepts of the mastery over nature, the repression of the primitive both within the civilized self and within the colonial other, and the legitimating and naturalizing of racial and cultural hierarchies directly served the political and economic goals of new liberalism. In addition, these representations in evolutionary museums were part of a matrix of public culture that served to justify and legitimate colonial policy and governmental practice. Other goals of the new liberalism that Bennett links to evolutionary museum practice included the empowering of the creative individual, the education of the working classes, the progressive self improvement of the individual at all class levels, and the disciplining and control of the body. Having established both the theoretical framework and the historical link between new liberalism and the concepts and practices of evolutionary museums, Bennett proceeds to historicize and localize this connection by looking at museum case studies from Britain, Australia, and the United States (with a brief foray into Germany for contrast).
This trip to the museum archive allows Bennett the theoretical opportunity to explore the role of willful individual agents in shaping and being shaped by the dominating ideas of the time. Whether Goode and Mason at the Smithsonian, Osburn and Boas at the American Museum of Natural History, or Krefft and McCoy in Australia, Bennett demonstrates that museum’s exist in a broad and unavoidably complex discursive environment. In this, he avoids the reductionist temptation of positing power relations and ideology to be unidirectional, hidden behind and unavoidably structuring both museum practices and practitioners.
The strength and weakness of this book are identical. The breadth, scope, and complexity of its intention allow it to generate innumerable connections and penetrations between the 19th century museum and its social-cultural context. Each page bristles with un-followed leads and relationships suggesting apt pathways for students of museum history and practice to follow. This is also the book’s frustration. The convoluted bricolage of theory and detailed archival anecdotes lack coherence and center. In a footnote early in the introduction, Bennett notes “the sheer futility of attempts to account for the relations between museums and their visitors which do not account of the way in which the subjectivities and capacities of those visitors are conceived and, in part, shaped by the broader discursive environment in which museums operate.” This is exactly what is wanting in this text. Bennett admits he takes the “programmers” point of view. It is the stated intentions of museologists or political reformers that are presented with no attempt to chart the actual impacts of those intentions on visitor-citizens. A more rigorous and less selective visit to the archive would have unearthed this missing half of the equation, especially the impacts and reactions of the colonized people to their representations in evolutionary museums.
Still, we must be careful what we wish for. Tony Bennett is that critical theorist we longed for a decade ago. He is on the theory-building side of the academy and museum studies. It may be up to practioners to plumb the archive and test those theories with particular data. In the end, this book does the service of moving museums from the intellectual margins and placing them more centrally in the discourse of the human sciences. Museums can now take their proud place with their institutional, genealogical kin; asylums, prisons, and churches. After 40 years in this profession, I am totally comfortable with these relatives.