If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

How museums shape meaning

Culture can be defined as those social practices [or discourses] whose prime aim is signification, i.e. the production of sense or making orders of "sense" for the world we live in. Culture is the social level in which are produced those images of the world and definitions of reality which can be ideologically mobilized to legitimize the existing order of relations of domination and subordination between classes, races, and sexes.—Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Feminism, Femininity and Histories of Art, New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc., 1988, p. 20
James Tissot, London Visitors, 1874, oil on canvas, 160 x 114 cm (Toledo Art Museum)
A central premise of Postmodern criticism is that we are constructed in the codes, discourses, and languages of our cultural contexts. These codes do not seem to be artificial to us—instead, they seem natural. But this is an effect of the power of culture in defining us and the way we look at the world. Culture "naturalizes" codes of identity, and we forget that how we define ourselves—and others—depends on choices we make. We imagine instead that things "have always been this way." Postmodern art criticism offers a way to challenge that idea, by showing how visual (i.e., cultural) representations of race, class, gender, and sex are created, how they change, and how they shape identity.

The Rise of the Museum

Cultural institutions are integral to the creation of identity. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw the rise of an important new institution in European culture: the public art museum. Museums in England (The British Museum and National Gallery of Art), France (The Louvre), Germany, Italy, and ultimately the United States played important roles in defining national identity. Carol Duncan in the following quotation from her book Civilizing Rituals strongly argues for the critical role these museums played:
To control a museum means precisely to control the representation of a community and its highest values and truths. It is also the power to define the relative standing of individuals within that community. Those who are best prepared to perform its ritual—those who are most able to respond to its various cues—are also those whose identities (social, sexual, racial, etc.) the museum ritual most fully confirms. It is precisely for this reason that museums and museum practices can become objects of fierce struggle and impassioned debate. What we see and do not see in art museums—and on what terms and by whose authority we do or do not see it—is closely linked to larger questions about who constitutes the community and who defines its identity [pp. 8-9].
William Wilkins, The National Gallery, 1832-38, Trafalgar Square in London (photo: Wayland Smith CC BY-SA 2.0)
James Tissot, detail London Visitors, 1874, oil on canvas, 160 x 114 cm (Toledo Art Museum)
As a way of gaining an understanding the role the art museum plays in the forming of ideology, consider a painting by James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot of 1874, entitled London Visitors. Implicit in this image are the social and cultural functions of the art museum in late nineteenth century England. The nineteenth century British critic William Hazlitt articulates the primary objective of the National Gallery of Art in terms that strikingly resonate with Tissot's painting:
It is a cure (for the time at least) for low-thoughted cares and uneasy passions. We are abstracted to another sphere: we breathe empyrean air; we enter into the minds of Raphael, of Titian, of Poussin, of the Caracci, and look at nature with their eyes; we live in time past, and seem identified with the permanent forms of things. The business of the world at large, and even its pleasures, appear like a vanity and an impertinence. What signify the hubbub, the shifting scenery, the fantoccini figures, the folly, the idle fashions without, when compared with the solitude, the silence, the speaking looks, the unfading forms within? Here is the mind's true home. The contemplation of truth and beauty is the proper object for which we were created, which calls forth the most intense desires of the soul, and of which it never tires [as quoted in Carol Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums, London, 1995, p. 15].
James Gibbs, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, 1722-24, London, photo: ChrisO CC BY-SA 3.0
Tissot's painting has the semblance of a random and neutral glimpse of the world. The authenticity of this vision is emphasized by the fact that we can identify the actual spot depicted in the painting.
The people are standing in the Greek Revival portico of the National Gallery of Art in London. Through the columns we can see the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields designed by James Gibbs in the early eighteenth century and inspired by Christopher Wren.

The museum and its architecture

Both the facades of the church and the National Gallery are directly tied to the tradition of classical architecture inherited from Greek and Roman art. The facade of the Pantheon constructed by the Emperor Hadrian at the beginning of the 2nd century C.E. exemplifies this traditional temple facade.
Pantheon, 126 C.E., Rome (photo: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT CC BY 3.0)
Think of your own experience of facades like this. Where do you find them? How do they make you feel? What are their purposes?
William Railton, E. H. Baily, and Sir Edwin Landseer, Nelson's Column, 1840-43, Trafalgar Square, London (photo: Eluveitie CC BY-SA 3.0)
To the right of the painting would be Trafalgar Square, in the center of which is a monument dedicated to Lord Nelson, an Admiral in the British navy who was killed during his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. The Nelson Monument is formed by a statue of Lord Nelson atop a Corinthian column derived from Greek and Roman architecture. The form of this monument is directly tied to a form of triumphal monument that can be traced back to Roman art best exemplified by the Column of Trajan constructed in the early 2nd century C.E. in Rome.
It is important to see a public space like Trafalgar Square within a tradition of comparable spaces in city planning. For example, the Column of Trajan in Rome was a part of a larger complex, the Forum of Trajan. It was traditional in Roman city planning to have at the center a large public space within which major formal public buildings would be placed. These fora in the Roman city served to give visual form to the dominant Roman values and the authority of the state.
It is worthwhile to identify the different monuments included in the Forum of Trajan. To enter the forum one would go through a triumphal arch dedicated to Trajan. You would then be in the large forecourt with an equestrian statue of Trajan in the center. This forecourt is terminated by a large building called the Basilica Ulpia. One of its primary functions would be as a law court. Beyond the basilica, there were two libraries—one Greek and the other Latin. These libraries flank the Column of Trajan. The complex was terminated by the Temple of the Divine Trajan, dedicated by his successor.
Note the different institutions included in the Forum, and consider their symbolic relationship to authority of the Emperor Trajan and the Roman Empire. Compare this to Trafalgar Square. Also consider other major public spaces in our cities. Consider the parallels to the Mall in Washington, D.C. Remember that the National Gallery of Art is a part of the Mall. Consider the implications of this type of planning in Western architecture. As a tangent here, consider the implications of the idea of "Empire." Remember: central to the Roman concept of power is their notion of empire. Also remember that Tissot painted his painting at the height of the British Empire.
Aerial view of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. showing the Lincoln Memorial at the bottom, the Washington Monument in the center, and the U.S. Capitol at the top
Obviously one of the institutions present in the painting is the art museum and the role art plays in the social, cultural, and political life in the West. Relate your experience of seeing this painting to your own experience of going to an art museum. What generalizations can you make about the locations of art museums? What relationships do you understand to be between the art museum and the surrounding buildings and/or spaces? What purposes does a formal entrance like the one shown in the painting play? What do or don't you expect to see in art museum?
Essay by Dr. Allen Farber

Additional resources

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    The article makes a great many mentions of the importance of Museums and public institutions, but what about the significance of art galleries and the private art sales trade with regard to their relevance to culture and community?
    (29 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user amateur
    Wasn't Trajan succeeded by Hadrian? If so, the following sentence should be corrected: "The complex was terminated by theTemple of the Divine Trajan, dedicated by his successor the EmperorTrajan."
    (13 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf yellow style avatar for user em
    Another important element of this discussion is the relationship between art and economic boundaries. While museums like the National Gallery are free to the public, other spaces in which we encounter art charge an admission fee, barring many from entry. Additionally, museums and other spaces like galleries require specific cultural knowledge and capital. We might take for granted the guards posted in every doorway and the hushed, reverent atmosphere without questioning the narrative that informs these practices and defines what constitutes art, how to view art, and precisely who is permitted to do so.
    (14 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Mackenzie K. Brown
    how do museums get really expensive art
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Faranae Sand
      Museums receive donations of both money and artwork, which may come from wealthy patrons, or from ordinary citizens tied to the artwork, or from the artist themselves. They can use the money in museum upkeep and programs, as well as in purchasing art. Some museums also engage in art exchanges, so that many museums can enjoy exhibiting particular pieces.
      (5 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Maria den Hartog
    "Relate your experience of seeing this painting to your own experience of going to an art museum. What generalizations can you make about the locations of art museums? What relationships do you understand to be between the art museum and the surrounding buildings and/or spaces? What purposes does a formal entrance like the one shown in the painting play? What do or don't you expect to see in art museum?"

    Even though I am not from the UK, the most typical example of a museum for me is the British Museum. The British Museum is not only an art museum, bot it has lots of art in it. It is located in the middle of a busy city, with lots of other big, marble buildings surrounding it. It has the Roman-looking façade, like the Pantheon and the National Gallery. It is huge, it has busy rooms and a lot of very quiet rooms. That is exactly what I expect in a museum. When I go to a museum I might be looking in a little booklet like the people in Tissot's painting are doing, but (usually) I will be wearing slightly different clothing!

    I suppose that if a museum were the opposite of the British Museum, small and dark, with low ceilings, that would make for a very different experience of the art in that museum. (Although it might be fun to visit such a museum some time - I am sure they exist!)
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • purple pi pink style avatar for user Marietjie Louw
    This article reinds me of the artist who sneered at a position of power and said that he'd rather compose the songs for a nation... Indicating just how powerful the arts can be...
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Edge (aka Dr. Rennie of Vulf) Bourret
    When did London appear and where are the supposed locations of the Roman temples in modern-day London?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Darkia Urahara
    was that parthenon fake? if mot why is it in the middle of a city ?
    (0 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • male robot donald style avatar for user Stephen Baird
      Because the city grew around it with the idea of keeping the Parthenon as a permanent part of the cityscape. Rome is quite chaotic, with a patchwork of different eras of architecture butting up against each other, this is quite common for European cities though some that were heavily damaged during WWII have lost a lot of their earlier architecture.
      (7 votes)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user sambusta95
    Very intriguing essay. I love how Dr. Allen describes the origin and purpose of museums. However, I'm left wondering... do museums depict whats happening in our culture or shape it?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • mr pants teal style avatar for user artysunstrike
      Hello sambusta95,
      About your question.. well, museums themselves don't do anything, but it's the art or exhibits shown there that can either be very intriguing to one person, or the sense that you've somewhat interpreted this before. In all, the exhibits mostly depict events that have already happened, or how the artist themselves have depicted it
      (2 votes)
  • starky sapling style avatar for user Carly Erickson
    Great Read! It makes me want to go to more museums. Speaking of which, I am going to Portland, Oregon in a few months. Any recommendations on some art or history museums?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user