Carr, D. (2001) 'A Museum is an Open Work', in International Journal of Heritage Studies, Vol. 7, 2: 173 - 83.
Museums can be seen as 'an embodiment of intentional connections, cultural possibilities' (173). They display objects and texts but there are also 'private, whispered, even unspoken, and perhaps unspeakable, meanings or feelings' (173). It is possible therefore to use a museum to explore one's personal knowledge [in what looks very much like a process of hermeneutic circling between personal knowledge and the knowledge on offer in the museum]. Museums are more effective than schools because we visit them voluntarily [Carr thinks there is some deeper need for completeness and knowledge which drives us to attend].
A [highly-skilled and culturally rich] visitor can pursue routes which range 'from recognition to puzzlement to diving deep' (174). There is an interaction between experience, thought, reflections and plans, between private memories and 'a self designed desire to become different' (174). The museum offers a relative safe environment to pursue intellectual risks, and 'cognitive play and adaptation' (175). A visitor can select from what is on offer to engage in a process of self transformation, and reconstruction of the cultural context of both self and museum objects. 'With luck, I am surprised. With great luck, I am astonished' (175). It is necessary, however, to take an active interpretative stance towards the museum, its context and 'the language the museum has withheld' (175).
This is the point of all cultural institutions. Active interpretation of this kind can be challenging, sometimes even painful, but museums deliver '"emancipatory" experiences' (176). This is also the point of education -- 'to cause some kind of troubling incompleteness for the user, and so to inspire human change' (176).
[At this point, some important reservations are entered. For example, this is the point of education only for 'a great educator'. We have already seen that a highly skilled visitor, eager for cultural adventure and secure in the face of intellectual risk is implied -- no doubt this describes Carr himself. Only the 'great museum' offers the kind of openness that is desired (182). Other sentences later on also imply that what is being described here is a pretty elitist activity. In classic 'progressive' terms, Carr assumes that these possibilities are genuinely universal 'a universal need' (181), and refers rather generally to 'the user' of a museum engaged in the search for meaning (179). The whole treatise is, however, a marvellous argument for a form of knowledge that extends way beyond the patronising, plonking and vocational stuff that we are familiar with in modern universities, and which is on offer in many British museums].
Private and personal experience provides the first form of contact with the museum 'because every object (whatever history surrounds it) exists first for us in the present' (176). The conventional language used to describe museum objects can limit our explorations, and we should instead increase the mystery and the unknown aspects of museum objects. The problems of displaying objects does mean that, unfortunately, we must be kept at a distance from them.
Our knowledge resembles woven fabric, 'patterns and loose ends... Threads interlace, but there are fuzzy bits... outworn or thin patches' (178). This is especially so given the new information technology which prevents easy control of information from the outside. [There is also a hint that the old ways of imposing order on knowledge have disappeared -- Carr speaks as a librarian here]. It is necessary to reflect [with a reference to Schön], contemplate, and periodically withdraw. It is possible to proceed with a set 'of ethnographic questions, starting with "What is going on here? What information is present here? What is information here?"' (178). This helps us recognise that information is not neutral but 'carries an agenda; it has both didactic and aesthetic dimensions; it may be political' (178). [Carr seems to rely on no actual method to interrogate these dimensions -- learned reflection alone will not do it?]. The idea is to see museum visiting as problem-solving. There are some 'museum heuristics' which will help us uncover some contexts -- and Carr describes a display of objects in the Jewish Museum in Prague which intends to evoke memories and intensities, to permit people to hear the voices of long-dead Holocaust victims (179).
Museums can offer experiment or stimulate, offer information, fresh perspectives or alternative ways of thinking. The best ones 'offer a cognitive event of great complexity by presenting an exquisite, resonant question we can never fully answer' (180). Sometimes such stimulation needs to be supported by 'the simplest devices -- bibliographies, pamphlets, quotations, critical controversies, news items, the unanswered questions of the day' (180) [so the reflective individual is not enough?].
An analogy is found with Eco's accounts of modern musical compositions which enables performers to decide 'how long to hold a note, its tonality, the form of the whole piece' (180) [hence the reference to Eco on the open work in the title]. A good museum offers the same possibilities to visitors. Museums offer an almost infinite number of possible visitor 'performances of meaning' (180), although a good one should also 'assist the user to frame a horizon or an array of the possibilities it holds' (181). '[W]e may assume that users will seek more information... [and] will arrive over time at their own sustained crafted truths' (181). [This is the key assumption referred to earlier, where the author's own projects, skills and cultural capital are assumed to be universal]. Sometimes, users might need some help by being able to consult more experienced others, or to be given reading or a list of contacts. This should also be a part of the work of the museum, 'to provide other services for the exploration and use of uncertainties expressed directly in the users' own questions' (181). [Not a bad role for the ideal pedagogue as well].
In particular, youth should be invited to participate in the design and installation of museum exhibitions [based on another common assumption that 'youth' are somehow naturally inquisitive, sceptical, and capable of analysing power structures through experience alone?]. Individuals need to be valued and given the opportunity 'to construct knowledge and possibility for oneself' (181). Museums should deliberately stand as open works assisting in self discovery and transformation. Museums are [should be?] involved in the demonstration of how worlds are constructed, and users should be permitted to link this with their own personal narratives.
As a final example, an installation at the Brooklyn Museum seems to have used works and texts to discuss eroticism and censorship. Carr found it very challenging, and in his review (for Museum News) suggested that the exhibition had provoked new attempts at self understanding . The size of the audience ('many thousands') justifies his belief that there is an 'awakened appetite for complexity, engagement, and mindful questioning' (182). The best museums offer high levels of challenge, and stimulate 'the beginnings of a new conversation about how one life might move forward... we are assisted to find powers of thought and speech... that we may have previously concealed, even from ourselves' (183).
back to key concepts