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|
|African Exhibit at American Museum of Natural History|
|T-Rex at American Museum of Natural History|
|Colonnade at the garden of the Cloister museum. Every column has pieces that original and those that are fake.|
|Tombs at Cloisters Museum|
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
2005 The Archaeology of Time. London: Routledge.
1992 The Anthropology of Time: Cultural Constructions of Temporal Maps and Images. Oxford:
2012 The Dark Abyss of Time.
1986 The Railway Journey: The Industrialization and Perception of Time and Space. Berkley: The
University of California Press.
2012 The Archaeological Imagination. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.