Thursday, April 25, 2013

Museums in NYC: The Conflation of Time and Space

New York City is full of museums of every type. From the Guggenheim to Madame Tussaud's Museum of Wax a tourist or resident New York can see almost any subject on display from any time period. This is the uniqueness of museums in that they transport objects and exhibits from a infinite number of spaces and times to one location in the present. As archaeologists we study whats left of the past in the present and how those traces are defined in our own cultural context. Perhaps their is no better place for this endeavor then a museum. In a single exhibit, thousands of  objects from different cultural backgrounds, places in time and societal backgrounds are placed next to each other based on arbitrary decisions such as geographic area and place in a Western linear timescale. A person need no longer travel to Egypt with its searing hot deserts or to the fog shrouded mountains of Peru. They can simply hop on the A train or drive to Brooklyn and see objects that seem to transport them in a mimetic way. This act itself changes the definition of the object into a different subject. We no longer see these artifacts as they were seen in their creation, and if Gell is right we can't and the power of objects is not really real. However, museums attempt to transcend this claim through the display of diverse objects, and though we are separated by glass, or the guards who yell "don't touch!". The quiet and awe with which we view and reach these artifacts gives them an all new kind of power.

Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Perhaps the best example of a museum condensing time and space is the Egyptian exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, especially the incredible Temple of Dendur. Which was transported brick by brick to the United States as a gift from the government of Egypt in recognition of American assistance in saving sites from inundation after the construction of the Aswan Dam. For New Yorkers and Americans the chance was suddenly their to see an Egyptian temples, thousands of years old, in New York. A trip to Egypt itself was no longer required. However, this simply act drastically changed the perception of the temples time. The surrounding exhibit houses thousands of objects from different historical periods of ancient Egypt and the result is sense of time is lost. One stone axe is from the pre-dynastic period and sits next to a stelae of hieroglyphics from the third dynasty. Almost a thousands years separates the two objects. However, to the casual  observer they are both simply ancient, from a culture that disappeared long ago. No thought is given to the cultural and societal differences that may have changed over that thousand years. The Temple itself is good example. Most visitors assume that it is a Pharaonic temple, when in fact it was built by the Roman Emperor Augustus, three and a half centuries since a native king ruled Egypt. But unless ones does the research, the temple remains part of the modern perception of Ancient Egypt, not of its role in the Roman Empire, two contexts seen as separated.

African Exhibit at American Museum of Natural History
T-Rex at American Museum of Natural History

Museums also attempt to conflate space. Exhibits are designed to give the viewer a sense of what it must have been like in the environment that the mural is supposed to belong too. At the American Museum of Natural History the exhibits of animals of Africa are given poises in panoramas of tall grass and lush oases in the harsh Serengeti. Like Trains and railways in Schivelbuschs book, space is instantaneously trasported to the viewer without a sense of actually traveling their. In addition that space is constructed, to appear to what a New Yorker or American would think the African savanna would look like. In the case of the dinosaur exhibit, pictures of a lush landscape are replaced by stark white walls and modern styles of internal architecture. This is because we cannot fathom what the environment of the dinosaurs must have been like so many millions of years ago. Instead the fossils of these long dead behemoths take on a timeless, mythical quality. The architecture and cultural understanding of dinosaurs reinforces the notion that these animals were from a place that time forgot, outside our own conception of the past.

Colonnade at the garden of the Cloister museum. Every column has pieces that original and those that are fake.
Tombs at Cloisters Museum
If a person wants to visit Medieval Europe, one needs simply get on the A train and take it all the way to Washington heights on Manhattan island. emerging from the subway, the traveler is greeted with the sight of a Medieval monastery on a high hill overlooking a steadily flowing river. However, unlike the temple of Dendur, this monastery was not transported from Europe but rather built by American architects in the twentieth century, along the lines of what they believed a medieval monastery would look like. The museum is filled with objects d'art from medieval France, Germany and England. For an archaeologist this presents the perfect opportunity to examine the past in the present. No artifact has been untouched. Many bear the unmistakable signs of wear and tears from centuries of study, veneration and simple movement. They are grouped according to style, common subject, and century. However, many come from vastly different contexts and were shaped by events that were separated by many years. Many, such as the columns that enclose a medieval courtyard, complete with plants of the middle ages, are joined with pieces from the present day. The famous tombs of several different knights, ladies and nobles bear the marks of being constantly touched and moved. To the viewer this is like a thousand different time periods and peoples coming together, preserved in the marks. The tombs themselves are of people who never met in life and yet now share a relationship in our contemporary mind as people who lived in the Middle Ages, the proverbial "back then."

All of this presents a fascinating picture to the viewer. Different artistic styles, from different times come together in one conglomeration that seems smooth in its presentation. If anything it invites closer participation. For a viewer to see the differences between each object, they must not simply evaluate each object side by side, but rather the captions beside them. To read the dates given and the little blurbs about the historical and contextual background. However, this adds to the complexity of the museum. Each object has caption and one must rad thousands of words along with viewing the thousand of objects. The result is that most people gloss over and retain the definition of the distance between the viewer and the object. The museum then produces a conglomeration of multiple time scales and physical spaces and condenses them into one viable, summary that itself is defined by the museum and those who curate it. It is another process by which the past is produced through material remains in the present.

Museums are fascinating places and the people who curate them work hard at using artifacts and exhibits to educate the populace about history and art. For the archaeologist they provide a wealth of other other experiences. We can see many traces of several different pasts, several different ways of keeping time joined side by side in a visual context. We can see how artifacts are redefined by us in ways the original uses, or users, never would have imagined. For instance in the Metropolitan Museum of art, their is the main Egyptian exhibit, but in a unrelated exhibit their is collection of Byzantine Egyptian art. What is the difference between the two? Who decides where antiquity ended and the Byzantine period began? Museums provide a excellent place for archaeologists to ask and work towards answering these questions about the human perception of time and place, especially when they are all brought together in one room. As well as the inherent problems they present.

By Matthew Previto

Suggested Reading
Gavin, Lucas
   2005  The Archaeology of Time. London: Routledge.
Gell, Alfred
   1992 The Anthropology of Time: Cultural Constructions of Temporal Maps and Images. Oxford:

Olivier, Laurent
    2012  The Dark Abyss of Time. 

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang
    1986 The Railway Journey: The Industrialization and Perception of Time and Space. Berkley: The                  
             University of California Press.
Shanks, Michael.
    2012  The Archaeological Imagination. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.

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