Museum as a Site of Negotiation. Mediating High and Low Culture

The Curatorial Landscape in the Face of Challenges

Essay, 2013
31 Pages, Grade: Distinction





Section 1 Critique on Singular-Voiced High Culture:Museums as Shrines

Section 2 When Museums Met Mass Culture
2.1 Threat and Temptation of Mass Culture: Mass Critics’ Views
2.2 Design as Merely Reproductions? Or a Transformative Force?
2.3 What are museums for? A Turning Point : Revolutionizing Curating Modes

Section 3 Case Studies
3.1 High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture(MOMA, 1990-91) Curating Mode : A Symbiosis of High and Low
3.2 The People’s Show(Walsall Museum and Art Gallery, 1990)Curating Mode : Collections by the People. Democratization from Below
3.3 Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990(V&A, 2011)Curating Mode : A Revisit of Mediation. Now All Becomes history


Appendix - Image Sources

Bibliography ( word count : 4,994 )


Between high and low culture, there was once a deep and wide gulf. The clear division was never a natural phenomenon, but rather a result of a cultural act. Throughout the history, the conflict in-between had taken a long way to resolve and the whole subject matter had caused marathon debates among modern cultural critics. Matthew Arnold cited his sharpened view in Culture and Anarchy, in which he defined high culture as ‘the best that has been said and thought in the world’1, while low culture had its primal connotation as inferior as ‘bread and circuses’2 back in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, as critic Dominic Strinati asserted. Although afterwards, low culture seemed to earn a much more joyful name as mass culture, its meaning was still pointing to ‘inferior kinds of works’3, as R. Williams evaluated. It was not until the post-war period, mass culture grew its power to become a threat to high culture.

Ever since then, the relationship between high and low culture did not stay the same. The structural change inherent in the society was actually a backdrop setting to forge a radical change in museum culture. Museums, as institutions once with absolute powers in its operation, had been forced to face a worldwide revolution. There were much more mixed emotions towards mass culture - questioning, inquiries, struggles, seduction and temptation at the same time - which constituted a push-and-pull situation. As independent scholar and curator Kevin Moore evaluated the situation in his essay ‘ Museums in an Age of Paradox ’:[In] a postmodern world, where the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture has been challenged, museums, [...] stand revealed as artificial constructions, their fundamental purpose attacked, producing [...] a ‘crisis of representation’.4

In the face of this crisis, how would museums respond to high and low culture? What were museums for? Was it a time for museums to reconsider their role and democratize themselves? What kind of resistance and temptation had museums encountered? To what extent would curators act as pioneers to eliminate the gap in-between taste diversity in art and design? And most importantly, how did all these issues result in a radical revolution in curating practices, leaving a lasting effect on new curatorial models? These questions are worthwhile to take a look into.

Discussion Methodology

This essay aims to examine how museums responded to high and low culture, and unveil the ways curators liberated themselves from a singular-voiced museum practice, which resulted in revolutions of curatorial models that incorporated multiple voices. The discussion will be carried out in three sections. In Section 1, the essay will be an overall critique on the museum culture representing the singular voiced of high culture. In Section 2, it will access to mass critics’s views to reveal the cultural realm outside museums’ walls during the time. By acknowledging design as a revolutionary force that changed the society irreversibly, the essay goes on to reexamine the purpose of a museum in the face of challenges. In Section 3, the essay brings in three case studies into discussion. The cases will act as evidences of museums’ refreshed curatorial models during the time when curators dealt with high and low culture. Cases include: High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture (1990-91, MOMA), The People ’ s Show (1990, Walsall Museum and Art Gallery) and Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 (2011, V&A). Altogether they represent a spectrum of mediating approaches. Finally, the essay will conclude that - instead of seeing mass culture as a threat to museums, it would be more optimistic to see it as a positive catalyst to democratize museum culture, which led to a golden time to give birth to new curatorial models. As a result, museums changed ever since.


Section 1 - Critique on Singular-Voiced High Culture : Museums as Shrines

In order to better understand how museums responded to the struggle between high and low culture, first of all, it is important to refer the history of what museums had used to be - a singular-voiced museum culture - which was a situation that they rebelled against later on.

Before the dawn of mass culture debates, museums were considered to be shrines. They were sacred places for people to seek ultimate knowledge, and to worship the masterpieces and collections created by geniuses. As art historian Janet Marstine reassured this view:

The paradigm of museum as shrine depends on the institutions’s declaration of authority. [...] The expertise of the ‘museum man’ [...] gives an assurance that museum objects are ‘authentic’ masterpieces that express universal truths in an established canon or standard of excellence.5

In the heart of Marstine’s critique was the notion of a ‘museum man’6, who was the key person spinning off the conventional museum practices. The judgement of this museum-man was actually a powerful singular voice that decided what was high art and what was not. As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu interpreted in his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, such phenomenon was a manifestation of ‘the authorized speech of status-generated competence’7. Modern mass critic John Storey also further advocated Bourdieu’s view that ‘[t]aste is a deeply ideological category: it functions as a marker of “class”.’8

In other words, a museum-man became an arbitrator of taste, shaping the high culture in a suppressive way. The museums had disregarded low culture for centuries, without being questioned or judged by the public.

Significantly here, museums’ taste had accelerated to be a matter of power, which had created unresolved tension between high and low culture. Cultural critic Tony Bennett strongly commented this situation in his critical essay The Exhibitionary Complex 9, and he adopted Michel Foucault’s idea of power/knowledge to inform the power politics inherent in the execution of museums throughout the history. To Bennett, displaying high art collections in museums were actually an act of displaying power. That is to say, he even saw museums’ perfect classification tradition as a vehicle of social conspiracies:10

The rhetoric of power embodied in the exhibitionary complex - a power made manifest [...] by its ability to organize and co-ordinate an order of things and to produce a place for the people in relation to that order.11

The singular-voiced museums in the old days immensely desired a perfect order, because the order could facilitate controlled visions and knowledge, which only allowed restricted access to preferred audience at the very pinnacle of the hierarchy. While museums were imposing high culture from above, the people’s ‘view of power was always “from below” ’12. The museums made all endeavors to exercise a sense of control, and when they strictly limited visitors’ admission in groups of fifteen, it simply exposed their vulnerability - their ultimate fear of the crowd.13

On the surface, everything in museums was once so well-disciplined, as if they never expected any ideological wars to happen in such shrines. As Bennett commented ironically:

If museums gave this space solidity and permanence, this was achieved at the price of a lack ideological flexibility.14 Bennett was right because the ideological threats and temptations were actually just outside the museums’ walls that were hardly ignorable. Although traditional museums tried so hard to sustain its one-man power to speak the only truth of high art and prevent low culture to step into its sacred terrain, they still could not help but to witness the growing power of mass culture in the society.

Swection 2 - When Museums Met Mass Culture

2.1 Threat and Temptation of Mass Culture: Mass Critics’ Views

As discussed in a symposium entitled High and low culture: Separated at birth? - since the end of World War II, ‘the decline in the authority of traditional forms of culture has become more and more evident’15. In 1968, philosopher and critic Roland Barthes announced The Death of the Author, and he fiercely opposed to a single author to control all meanings, and suggested the author should be removed. This controversial idea had shaken the world far beyond literature, Equivalently, it severely questioned the belief of a museum-man as the author in museums’ context. As critic Graham Allen advocated Bathes’ view:

Western society’s attempt [was] to present itself in possession of a singular, unified and indisputable meaning or Truth. The radical celebration of plurality [...] had become associated with a number of key terms in [...] general.16

The key idea here was to embrace the plurality. And to make it clear, plurality referred the soul of the people, of the mass. The cultural landscape was in a stage of transforming from a singular-voice-power to multiple-voice-forces. The question remained: why did that matter?

When critical theorists group The Frankfurt School published Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, they introduced the idea of ‘The Cultural Industry’17 - to define mass culture as the standardization of production that widely embodied in daily commodities. Originally, it could be no problem to see it as a way of life. However, social critic Dwight MacDonald seriously saw mass culture as a tremendous threat that ‘[it] is a dynamic, revolutionary force, breaking down the old barriers of class, tradition, taste, and dissolving all cultural distinctions. [...] [It] is very, very democratic.’18 MacDonald really worried about the democratic power of mass culture to level down all culture. Coincidently, noble critic Q.D. Leavis also resonated to the same threat. As she asserted, ‘The revolution against taste, once begun, will land us in irreparable chaos.’19 Leavis showed a lot of resistance to mass culture as if it would one day take over high culture. Yet, on the other hand, she also saw through that it was an unprecedented tempting situation:

The temptation to accept the cheap and easy pleasures offered by the cinema, the circulating library, the magazine, the newspaper, the dance-hall [...] even the strongest-minded are likely to practise.20

Complex emotions was penetrating across the debates. Was mass culture a potential democratic force? A threat? Or an irresistible temptation? Probably it was a bit of all. Ultimately, a museum-man was just a human full of desires. Could a museum-man really immune to the temptation? Or, would the temptation finally win over his intellectual mind, as if the mass culture was hypnotizing the museum-man’s decisions? It really depended on how much the temptation made sense to a well-educated man.

2.2 Design as Merely Reproductions? Or a Transformative Force?

Something significantly important was influencing a museum-man’s decision: Just like two sides of a coin, mass culture has another name - popular culture. While the term mass culture was imposed from above, popular culture was a perspective from below.

Viewing culture in such different perspectives actually generated a lot of debates especially when it related to design art. Was design merely mass production? Or was design art an artistic alchemy system to transform vernacular values in everyday life? It is worthwhile to reconsider.

Theoretically speaking, according to visual culture theorist Malcolm Barnard, it was the notion of the reproducibility of image and text and the multiple production that defined design art - photography, newspapers, advertisements, comics, graffiti and the like - would automatically fell into this category. Thus, design art was considered to be just a part of mass culture.21 Plus, critically speaking, it is actually the ‘loss of aura’22 that truly distinguished popular culture and design art from high art - as Barnard went on to explain Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in 1936. However, would all these elitism judgements be valid eternally? Probably not. Art historian David Raizman had stood up to defend that ‘[m]ost criticism of popular culture was based upon the views of an educated and sophisticated elite seeking to universalize a set of criteria’23 only. As Raizman asserted, design art was often accused of promoting consumerism, and thus, it was devalued at all cost. Those elites just refused to admit design art’s richness and complexity.24 Therefore, it could be unfair to judge design to be a soulless art form, especially when design art was alchemized through Pop Art. Art critic Jessica Morgan strongly cited in Artforum:

Pop [...] was rarely just an affirmative aestheticization of commodity culture or consumer behavior but employed the language of marketing, the language of magical commercial environment [...], to turn established communication strategies into political opposition, satiric critique, subversive appropriation, and utopian explorations of collective and individual identity.25


1 John Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, 4th edition (Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 1997), p.14

2 Dorminic Strinati, An Introduction to theories of popular culture, (London: Routledge, 1995), p.1

3 ibid., p.2

4 Kevin Moore, Museum and Popular Culture, (London: Leicester University Press, 1997), p.1

5 Janet Marstine, New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), p.9

6 ibid., p.9

7 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), p.413

8 John Storey, An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, (Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 1997), p.8 6

9 Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson and Sandy Nairene (eds.), Thinking about Exhibitions, (Oxon: Routledge, 1996), p.81-112

10 ibid., p.81-112

11 ibid., p.89

12 ibid., p.88

13 ibid., p.81-112

14 ibid., p.102

15 Battle of Ideas, ‘High and low culture: separated at birth?’, Battle of Ideas, (2012),<> [assessed 10/03/13]

16 Graham Allen, Roland Barthes, (London: Routledge, 2003), p.74

17 Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, (CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), p.94

18 B.Rosenberg and D.M. White (eds.), Mass Culture:The Popular Arts in America, (Glencoe: The Free Press, 1957),p.62

19 Q.D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public, (London: Chatto and Windus, 1932), p.190

20 ibid., p.224-225

21 Malcolm Barnard, Graphic Design As Communication, (Oxen: Routledge, 2005), p.175

22 ibid., p.175

23 David Raizman, History of Modern Design: Graphics and Products Since the Industrial Revolution, (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2003), p.311

24 ibid., p.312

25 Jessica Morgan, ‘Intercontinental Drift: Global Pop’, Artforum, Vol.51, No.6, February, (2013), p.224

Excerpt out of 31 pages


Museum as a Site of Negotiation. Mediating High and Low Culture
The Curatorial Landscape in the Face of Challenges
Kingston University London  (Kingston University London, in Partnership with the Design Museum, London, U.K.)
MA Curating Contemporary Design
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"[T]his is a well research and well structured essay that demonstrates a sound knowledge of some of the key critical debates in both museum studies and cultural studies." ~ Maria Costantino
Curating, Museum, Exhibition, Contemporary Art, Musuem Culture, Culture, Contemporary Curating, Curator, Curatorial, Moma, V&A, Walsall Museum and Art Gallery, Postmodern, Artist-curator, Cross-disciplinary, Interdisciplinary, Museum Studies, Art, Criticism, Theory, Critical, Installation Art, Pop Culture
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Margaret Choi Kwan Lam (Author), 2013, Museum as a Site of Negotiation. Mediating High and Low Culture, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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