Museum “Shrines” and Performative Rituals

"Nike of Samothrace" on the stairs of the Louvre Museum

The quarter is progressing along, and now I am covering a new book with my students: New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction. It’s been really fun to delve into some of the museum theory that I studied several years ago as a graduate student and graduate fellow at a small art museum.

The introduction of this text explores several of the metaphors that are commonly used to describe museums. One of the most interesting metaphors for me is the “museum as shrine.” Museums have a quasi-religious environment, and I like how Janet Marstine explains this idea:

“The museum as shrine is a ritual site influenced by church, palace, and ancient temple architecture. Processional pathways, which may include monumental staircases, dramatic lighting, picturesque views, and ornamental niches, create a performative experience. Art historian Carol Duncan explains, ‘I see the totality of the museum as a stage setting that prompts visitors to enact a performance of some kind, whether or not actual visitors would describe it as such.’ Preziosi adds, ‘all museums stage their collected and preserved relics . . . Museums . . . use theatrical effects to enhance belief in the historicity of the objects they collect.”1

This description immediately made me think of the architecture in several museums which encourage performative, theatrical, and even ritualistic actions from the visitor. The first space that came to mind was the Grand Staircase at the Louvre, above which the “Nike of Samothrace” presides (see photo above). Here are some other spaces which I considered:

Seattle Art Museum stairs

The Seattle Art Museum has a “processional way” staircase in the older part of their museum. Although these stairs are no longer used on a regular basis, there are escalators in the main museum area which carry the visitor to higher physical (and suggestively “spiritual”) levels. Even with an escalator (which doesn’t require much physical movement on part of the viewer), I think that this motion still contains an element of performance on the part of the viewer. Also, shrine-like picturesque views are found at the Seattle Art Museum Sculpture Garden; the structure of this building is created largely out of glass walls.

Centre Pompidou exterior with escalator "tubes"

The Centre Pompidou probably has the most famous set of museum escalators. The way that the “tubes” slowly climb with alternating sections of flat and angled lines remind me of the terraces of ziggurats from the ancient Near East.

Interior of the Guggenheim Museum, New York

The ramp in the interior of the Guggenheim is probably one of the best examples of ritualistic art, I think because the viewer is continually aware of his or her ascent in relation to the rest of the museum space. The winding ramp reminds me of spires for religious buildings, even contemporary structures like the Independence Temple for the Community of Christ in Missouri.

Schinkel, View of the staircase (and view overlooking the Pleasure Garden) in the Altes Museum, Berlin (19th century). Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Rotunda of the Altes Museum, Berlin

I think that the Rotunda of the Altes Museum evokes this shrine-like setting (and performative nature) not only by evoking classical imagery (this is a small version of the Pantheon), but also creating a stage-like setting for the sculptures, separating them either with niches or columns. The sculptures on the bottom level are also elevated onto stage-like plinths.

Last week, my students and I discussed whether today’s museums should try to bring more self-awareness to their designs and displays, in order to perhaps expose or at least recognize the “shrine-ness” of the institution. We wondered what visitors might think if a museum was blatantly decorated like a shrine (with candles around works of art, offerings scattered in front of displays, etc.). Would viewers feel uncomfortable if they knew they were taking part in a ritual at a museum? What do you think?

What are some of the other shrine-like aspects of museums? Can you think of any museums which encourage some type of “performative” or ritualistic-like activity on part of the viewer? In a general sense, I think that the quiet whispers that are expected in many museums can fit with this idea.

1 Janet Marstine, “Introduction” in New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introdution by Janet Marstine, ed. (Blackwell Publishing, 2006. See also C. Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 1-2. See also D. Preziosi and C. Farago, Grasping the World: The Idea of the Museum (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), p. 13-21.


Politics, the Capitoline Museum, and the She-Wolf

This quarter I am working with just a few of the senior art history majors on a special “Directed Study” course. We are exploring museum history and curatorial theory, using two new books: The First Modern Museums of Art: The Birth of an Institution in 18th- and 19th-Century Europe (2012) and New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction (2011). I really like that The First Modern Museums of Art is written in a very approachable, yet scholarly, way. Each chapter serves a case study for a different museum that was established; the book proceeds in a chronological fashion, based on founding dates for the institutions.

This week, my students and I read about the Capitoline Museum (established 1733). Carole Paul writes about how the objects within the museum serve as strong signifiers of political and cultural heritage. The museum, which contains a lot of Roman art, emphasizes Roman authority and jurisdiction. The artistic “progression” and superiority of Roman culture (and those Westerners who are heirs to the Roman tradition) are implied in many ways, including the display of art. For example, the visitor encounters Egyptian figures before the Greco-Roman antiquities, which suggests both artistic and political succession.

Capitoline She Wolf, 5th century BC or medieval

The political associations and signifiers of power also extend into the collection. I think it’s particularly interesting that the bronze sculpture of the she-wolf forms part of the collection, given the history of the piece. Before Sixtus IV donated this sculpture to the Compidoglio (Capitoline Hill), the she-wolf was displayed in the Lateran Palace, the pope’s official residence.1 This she-wolf was seen as a symbol of the city, since the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were suckled by a she-wolf. As part of the papal collection, this statue then served as a symbol of papal jurisdiction and the papal succession of authority after pagan rule.

Given these associations with Roman history, I can see why the Capitoline Museum seemed a bit hesitant to acknowledge the recent analyses which determined that the “She-Wolf” statue was cast during the medieval period! This was big change in the traditional attribution, which placed this statue in the fifth century BC (as an example of Etruscan art). When I covered this story in 2010, over two years after the new study results were made available, I was surprised that the Capitoline Museum did not have the updated medieval date on its website! Now that I understand the political and authoritative statements behind the formation of this museum, though, I can see why the museum seems to have been hesitant to acknowledge this new information. The museum would want to endorse this as a work of art as an authentic piece from the Etruscan/pre-Roman period, in order to emphasize the institutional message of Roman authority. If the “She-Wolf” is a medieval work of art, there isn’t as direct of a connection to Roman history.

However, today I went back and checked the Capitoline Museum website again. Now the site has been updated to acknowledge the alternate date and also mentions the Carbon 14 analysis (albeit that the information is slightly hidden under a “Reveal text” button).

What have been your experiences at the Capitoline Museum? Did you feel like the message of Roman authority and power came through during your visit?

1 Carole Paul notes that this wolf (lupa) was in fact returned to its rightful home through Sixtus IV’s donation. Paul writes that the wolf “had originally stood on the Campidoglio and in 65 BC had been struck by a bolt of lightning that apparently broke her feet and destroyed the suckling twins, who were replaced only in the fifteenth century.” See Carole Paul, “Capitoline Museum, Rome: Civic Identity and Personal Cultivation” in The First Modern Museums of Art: The Birth of An Institution in 18th- and 19th-Century Rome, Carole Paul, ed., (Los Angeles: Getty, 2012), 22. Given that the she-wolf is now thought to have been produced in the medieval period, I personally think that Paul might be referring to a different depiction of a wolf (perhaps lost) or that this story might have been a myth. Paul cites a 1980 publication by Richard Krautheimer in relation to this story about the lightening bolt. Therefore, she does not seem take into account the more recent Carbon 14 analysis and medieval date.


Art Books for Adults and Kids!

My husband and I have a great weakness for large, heavy art books. I keep saying that I won’t buy any more art books until I’ve thoroughly read every copy in my possession, but that never happens. I can’t help myself! In fact, this past weekend we were thrilled that our local art museum hosted a used book sale. Gombrich for $3! Hibbard for $2! I was in heaven. We came home with a heavy box of books and very light wallets.

I thought it might be fun to show some of the art books that are in our home. The art books that I use most regularly are in my home office, next to the computer:

This bookshelf is in my home office. I mostly keep theoretical books and textbooks here.

My husband and I have very different personal tastes in art, but we can appreciate lots of different styles. Nonetheless, we still usually collect books within the narrow spectrum of our distinct personal preferences. Our living room bookcases have even evolved into a “His” and “Hers” section. Can you guess which of the following bookcases holds my books, and which holds my husband’s books?

Living room bookcase #1

Living room bookcase #2

While we were at this recent book sale, I made it a point to buy some children’s art books for my little boy. I found a couple that were cute, and my son has already enjoyed reading them with me. I thought that I’d include a list of my favorite art books for children, in case some parents are looking for a few recommendations:

“Babar’s Museum of Art” by Laurent de Brunhoff (2003)

  • Babar’s Museum of Art: This is probably my all-time favorite children’s book about art. Babar the Elephant builds an art museum, and all of the works of art are inspired by actual masterpieces – but the human figures have all been replaced by elephants. I think that the pictures are quite charming: Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Seurat, Delacroix, Raphael, and Rubens are just a few of the artists highlighted in the book. (And a list of the artists and titles of the original paintings is included in the back.)
  • Miss Piggy’s Treasury of Art Masterpieces from the Kermitage Collection: This book is a hoot. We love the Muppets in our family, and this book is a great add to our family library. This book is a little dated (as you can tell from Miss Piggy’s attire), but it still holds its charm. The Muppet characters (mainly Miss Piggy) are placed within famous artistic compositions. You can see some of the images from the book HERE.
  • The Art of the Body (published by the MOCA). This board book is a great way to introduce babies and kids (and even adults!) to different 20th century and contemporary artists.
  • The Yellow House: Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin Side by Side by Susan Goldman Rubin. I just bought this book at the art sale this past weekend. I think it’s a great way to introduce children to different artistic styles and ideas about art. I had a teensy issue with how Rubin cast Gauguin’s “The Painter of Sunflowers” in such a positive light (Van Gogh didn’t think that Gauguin portrayed him in a favorable way!), but I’d still recommend the book.
  • The Art Book for Children (published by Phaidon). This book is geared for children who are probably at least seven years old. The book features different themes, with a different artist dedicated to each theme. For example, the theme “Obsession” features Hokusai’s different representations of Mt. Fuji. And Cindy Sherman is highlighted for the theme “Dressing Up.” I like the page “A Puzzle”; it which encourages children to think about what might have been depicted in the now-missing remainder of Carpaccio’s painting, “Two Venetian Ladies on a Balcony.”
  • Micawber by John Lithgow. This book, which is written as a clever poem, is darling. The story revolves around a squirrel who goes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and looks at masterpieces through the rooftop skylights. This is my favorite segment from the book: “Through the windows he’d gaze at Van Dyck and van Gogh, / Appraise every Rembrandt and Titian. / He would scrutinize Rubens, peruse each Rousseau, / Inspect each Lautrec and Cassat and Miró. / He would find a new favorite each time he would go, / And nobody charged him admission.”
  • The “You Can’t Take a Balloon” series: You Can’t Take a Balloon to the Museum of Fine Arts, You Can’t Take a Balloon to The Metropolitan Museum and You Can’t Take a Balloon into the National Gallery. I love these wordless books because they not only include works of art from the permanent collections of the highlighted museums, but each book also focuses on landmarks and historical figures (hidden throughout the pages) that are specific to the city in which the museum is located.

Do you have any favorite art books or children’s art books that you’d recommend? We haven’t run out of bookshelf space…yet!


Book Review: “Stealing Rembrandts” by Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg

"Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists" by Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg (2011)

This past weekend I finished reading the fairly new book, Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists. I thought that this book was an interesting and engaging way to discuss art crime, since it specifically revolved around heists of Rembrandt paintings and etchings. I thought that the approach to the book was well-balanced, too. Amore and Mashberg included tidbits of information about Rembrandt’s biography within their discussion of different crimes, which helped to vary the writing and information presented in the book. Without occasional tangents into Rembrandt’s life and works, I think that the presentation of crime scenes would have become too monotonous for the reader.

I thought that I would present just a few of the fun things that I learned from this book.

Rembrandt, Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III (commonly called the "Takeaway Rembrandt"), 1632. Image courtesy Wikipedia

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Rembrandt’s portrait of Jacob de Gehyn III is the most frequently stolen painting in history.1 (I think that this definition of “stolen” might need some more precise definition, especially when you consider works of art that were displaced or looted during times of war.2) Nonetheless, it is impressive to consider that this painting was stolen four times from the Dulwich Picture Gallery: in 1966, 1973, 1981 and 1983. Eight paintings were stolen in the 1966 heist, including Rembrandt’s A Girl at a Window (1645, see detail HERE). (Side note: Dulwich has had a difficult time with art thieves! In December 2011, a Barbara Hepworth sculpture was stolen from Dulwich Park, which is just a stone’s throw from the Dulwich Picture Gallery.)

Gauguin, "Brooding Woman," 1891

One of the most amusing stories in Stealing Rembrandt revolves around the 1972 heist of the Worcester Art Museum. During this heist, several works of art were stolen, including Gauguin’s Brooding Woman. I was amused (and horrified) to read that Gauguin’s painting was placed on the car roof rack of the thieves’ getaway car; a man in the passenger seat stuck his right arm out of the window to hold the painting down during the escape!3 Gauguin’s subject doesn’t look too happy about her rough ride through the Worcester streets, does she?

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, 1629. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

I also learned something interesting about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist of March 18, 1990. During the heist, for reasons known only to the thieves, a Rembrandt painting was removed from the walls and then abandoned. When officials came to the museum after the robbery, they noticed that Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait (1629) was sitting on the floor and leaning against a chest, with the back panel facing outward. Perhaps the oak panel was too heavy to carry, or perhaps the thieves forgot to carry it out. Either way, this painting was spared (although another Rembrandt painting, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, was stolen during the heist). Given that none of the stolen Gardner paintings have been recovered yet, I feel like Rembrandt’s portrait deserves some special Harry Potter-esque nickname, like “The Painting That Lived” or “The Painting That Was Spared.”

Titian, "Rest on the Flight to Egypt," 1510

Stealing Rembrandts also discussed some very interesting recovery stories for works of art. Titian’s “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” was stolen in an art heist in 1995 (from the Marquess of Bath’s estate in Longlead, England). The painting was recovered – of all things – in a plastic shopping bag at a bus stop.

Rembrandt, "Prodigal Son," 1636. Dry-point etching

I also was personally interested to know that a Rembrandt etching was stolen from a home in Sammamish, Washington in 2007. (I chuckled when I noticed that Sammamish was described as a “tiny Northwest village” in the book. That’s not quite true!) Stealing Rembrandts discusses the crime and the arrest of the individuals who were trying to sell the etching. However, I learned this evening that the book fails to mention one thing: although the owner identified the recovered frame, the owner believes that the recovered etching may be a fake.

Hans Memling, "Last Judgment," 1467-1471. Image courtesy Wikipedia

And finally, although this isn’t a recent crime, I wanted to include one last tidbit that I learned in Stealing Rembrandts. I didn’t know beforehand that Hans Memling’s “Last Judgment” triptych was stolen by pirates in the late 15th century (shortly after the triptych was completed). The painting was being shipped from Bruges, Belgium to Florence’s Medici Chapel. However, ever since the theft, the triptych has been located in Gdansk, Poland.4

Has anyone else read Stealing Rembrandts yet? Any other art crime books that you would recommend for my summer reading?

1Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg, Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 67.

2 According to Noah Charney, the Ghent altarpiece claims the title of the most “coveted” work of art, having been involved in the highest number of thefts and crimes than any other work of art. To learn more about the Ghent altarpiece and crime, see Noah Charney’s book, “Stealing the Mystic Lamb.” Review and information are found HERE.

3 Amore and Mashberg, p. 43.

4 Ibid., 11.


A Meaty Post

I belong to a really fantastic book group. This month we have been reading The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory by Carol J. Adams. This book is really fascinating to me. It explores how meat consumption is related to patriarchal values; meat has longstanding associations with power, strength, virility, and wealth. Adams makes some interesting parallels with how the “masculine” consumption of meat is related to the sexual consumption and objectification of women, too. (You can get a sense of the parallels made between meat and women-as-meat in Adam’s slideshow.) There is a lot more to this book too, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in theory, literature, or the history of vegetarianism.

While reading this book, I continually thought of how meat is represented in art and visual culture. Although I have yet to read Adam’s other book, The Pornography of Meat, I feel like I’ve already come up with a substantial list. In many ways, the following representations of meat can also be related to patriarchy and power. I find it telling that the majority of the depictions of meat (that I have come across, at least) were created by men. And I also think it’s interesting that male artists like Rembrandt and Snyder (see below) decided to include women with the carcasses of dead animals. Are these artists merely referencing the fact that women have been delegated the responsibility to prepare meat (for male consumption)? I think we can we make deeper associations between what objects are construed for “the male gaze” in these images, especially from our modern-day perspective.

Rembrandt, "The Slaughtered Ox," 1655

Frans Snyder, "The Pantry," c. 1620

Along these lines of sexuality and male consumption, it is especially interesting to consider how Snyder depicted the maidservant with birds on a platter. The Dutch word “vogelen” (which means “to bird”) not only refers to fowl, but also to the sexual act. This painting, therefore, seems to reference worldly temptations or physical love.

Artists in the 20th century also were interested in exploring “meaty” subject matter. One work of art that immediately comes to mind is Francis Bacon’s Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef (1954, see below). As an air raid warden in London during WWII, Bacon saw many of the horrors of war (a grisly enterprise which, I think, can be interpreted in many respects as a “masculine” endeavor). With two slabs of meat flanking the sides of a ghostly figure, Bacon explores parallels between meat and death.

Francis Bacon, "Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef," 1954

Other 20th century artists have made some interesting parallels between meat and male consumption, including the Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim. Her work, The Governess (see below) depicts a pair of stilletto heels (objects which can signify female sexuality and arousal). The heels are tied together and decorated with paper crowns – the type of decoration sometimes found on a leg of lamb or chicken.

Meret Oppenheim, "My Governess," 1936

One of the most influential works of art involving meat is Carolee Schneemann’s performance Meat Joy (1964). This performance, which is very aggressive and controversial, involved men and women who danced, rolled on the floor, and played with a mixture of raw flesh (e.g. partially-plucked bloody chickens, raw fish, and raw sausages). The sexual connections between meat and “pleasures of the flesh” are quite clear in the performance.

I also think that it is unsurprising that audience members would squirm during Meat Joy. After all, Schneeman is including bloody and partially-plucked chickens, something that relates to what Carol Adams calls the absent-referent. When people consume animals today, the flesh is usually cooked and modified (and sometimes given a different name than the actual animal, like “veal” or “beef”) to help obscure the reality that a once-living creature has comprised the meal. So, in essence, animals are absentreferents on the dinner table. They are there, but they are also not there. Schneeman’s aggressive reference to flesh and blood in her “happenings” performance restores the absent-referent, which undoubtedly contributed to why viewers squirmed.

Many artists have been influenced by Carolee Schneeman. In fact, in 2008 exhibition titled Meat After Meat Joy brought together the works of various artists who have explored different meanings between meat and flesh. (You can read one blogger’s take on the exhibition here.) One of the videos on display in this exhibition was Zhang Huan’s performance, My New York (2002, see below).

Zhang Huan, "My New York," 2002. Video still from performance.

Many of Huan’s performance works involve endurance and masochism. In this particular performance, Huan walked through New York wearing a heavy suit with actual pieces of raw beef. Looking like a “beefed-up” body-builder (which alludes to masculinity and virility!), Huan would occasionally release doves during the performance.  It was interesting to interpret this performance in a political light, given the recent 9/11 attacks.  The small figure of the artist (within the powerful, beefy costume) was a reflection on how America (and New York itself) were vulnerable – as a nation and as a city.

And finally – I can’t finish this post without a pop culture reference. Lady Gaga has clad herself in “meaty clothes” a few times, once in a meat bikini on the cover of Vogue Hommes Japan. Soon after, Lady Gaga also appeared in a “meat dress” at the 2010 Video Music Awards, complete with a steak on her head (see below).

Lady Gaga's "meat dress" at the VMA music awards, 2010

Although Lady Gaga said in an interview that her dress was a statement about fighting for rights (and asserted “I am not a piece of meat”), I can’t help but see how her dress just reinforces the associations with the masculine consumption of women (which other feminists, including Carol J. Adams, have observed). In this outfit, I think Lady Gaga is suggesting that she is available for consumption on two levels: to satiate sexual and physical hunger. And because of the associations with animals and meat, Lady Gaga seems to reinforce her sexuality by suggesting that she, too, is animalistic.

Any thoughts? Have I spoiled your appetite? (Sorry!) I’m curious to see what other depictions of meat are out there. Do you know of any more? I’m also reminded of Pieter Aertsen’s two works The Butcher’s Stall (1551) and Cook in Front of a Stove (1559). Another example is Van Gogh’s Still Life with Apples, Meat, and a Roll (1886).


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.