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The Museum Effect

Every museum has a distinct personality.

Take the Ulrich Museum of Art and the Wichita Art Museum. The Ulrich is a university museum that specializes in national and international contemporary art. The Wichita Art Museum is a city-owned museum with a focus on American art.

My intention is not to pigeonhole these institutions, but to broadly highlight how these museums position themselves within the vast variety of art museums out there. The way a museum defines itself is important because it effects how the museum presents art to the public.

Courtesy photo
Wichita Art Museum

Art historian Svetlana Alpers wrote a potent essay titled, “The Museum as a Way of Seeing.”

In it, she writes about “the museum effect.” It’s the transformation all objects – no matter what they are or where they’re from – into works of art. This happens because the object, like pre-Columbian pottery, is isolated from its original context, denied its original use, and displayed in a new context that privileges “attentive looking.”

Alpers argues that this is not necessarily bad thing, but it presents challenges. Most of all, Alpers’ essay shows us that museums are always constructing contexts. We should be aware how museums mediate our experience with art and artifacts.

Next time you are in a museum, take a step back to ask: why is this show being displayed here? What is being displayed together, and what stands at the opposite ends of the room? Where does the exhibition “begin” and where does it “end”? Most of all, is the museum making it easier or harder to see?