The Museum As a Way of Seeing
Presented at the conference Poetics and Politics of Representation, held at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., September 26-28, 1988 and sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution.
The museum effect - turning all objects into works of art - operates here, too. Though as an issue of national property some Greek statues may be returned to their place of origin, no one would deny - and I think no one has thought to protest - the museum effect, through which Greek sculpture has assumed such a lasting place in our visual culture. By contrast, in the exhibiting of the material culture of other peoples, in particular what used to be called primitive art, it is the museum effect - the tendency to isolate something from its world, to offer it up for attentive looking and thus transform it into art like our own - that has been the subject of heated debate.
The museum effect, I want to argue, is a way of seeing. And rather than trying to overcome it, one might as well try to work with it. It is very possible that it is only when, or insofar as, an object has been made with conscious attention to crafted visibility that museum exhibition is culturally informing; in short, when the cultural aspects of an object are amenable to what museums are best at encouraging. (p. 26-27)