Left: image of the American Folk Art Museum
One of the topics of this week's seminar relates to the relationship between museums and culture. When one thinks of the objects exhibited in museums, one tends to think of things with exceedingly high and rarified cultural value: portraits by old masters, gold sarcophagi, Grecian marbles, etc. These objects, so central to the 19th century conception of the museum itself, were valued precisely because they bespoke of a "higher" cultural realm which would uplift the viewer from the mundane qualities of his or her surroundings. Responding to the shift in other social sciences away from an over-represenation of expressions of the unique and elite, many modern museums now highlight more quotidian subject matters, a focus which would have seemed impossible to the 19th century curator.
A perfect example to my mind is the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. The museum prides itself of its efforts to to "renintegrate the material with its role as a carrier of our cultural inheritance" (www.folkartmuseum.org/collection). Folk art, characterized by its production by common men and women outside the realm of fine arts, is a perfect example of what was previously deemed "low" art, unworthy of curation, in contrast to the "high art" displayed and preserved in museums. As the American Folk Art Museum is a relatively recent museum (it opened in 2001), one may see in it the reappraisal of the cultures which are preserved within these objects, those previously ignored by the artistic canon.
A similar circumstance may be seen in "commemorative" museums, such as those which specialize in the African American or Native American experience in the United States. In both cases, the museums highlight certain groups which were traditionally ignored by national museums (for instance, the treatment of "Bushmen" in the South African Museum). However, the American Folk Art Museum is, in a certain sense, unique from even these types of museums in that it seeks to integrate a class-based minority rather than a solely racial minority. This is witnessed by the fact that the museum exhibits artwork produced by minorities along side working-class whites. One may consider this museum an effort to breakdown a class barrier because much of the folk art is produced in a rural, domestic setting to which one cannot ascribe the typical bourgeois categories "high art."
It remains to be seen, however, if this museum should be thought of as an "ethnographic" museum, or an "art" museum, or if it is precisely these types of distinctions which are being erased in the process of creating an American folk art museum.
Right: Image from an upcoming exhibit at the Park Armory by the American Folk Art Museum entitled: Infinite Variety: Three centuries of Red and White Quilts