New museums and the making of culture
by Kylie Message, 2006, Oxford: Berg, 241pp.
ISBN: 1845204532 (hbk), RRP A$173.00. ISBN 1845204549 (pbk), RRP A$68.00

review by Sharon Macdonald
New museums and the making of culture book cover

Selling things by labelling them as new is an old game. A walk around any supermarket can confirm that 'new' can be used to package a wide range of products, many of which are only new in minor ways or in their presentation; and some of which are not new at all. 'New', moreover, does not always mean 'improved'. Claims to novelty undoubtedly deserve careful and critical attention.

That claims of novelty — or 'newness' as Kylie Message puts it — are currently widely used in the world of museums is clear from the equivalent of a supermarket stroll. This is surely rather interesting in an institution whose legitimacy might be thought to rest heavily on claims to age. But is this claim to newness new? Can it be accommodated with self-legitimising via other temporalities? What cultural work do claims of newness do? And do the claims reflect 'real newness'?

New Museums and the Making of Culture includes a wide range of examples and discussion that bear upon these fascinating questions. Message's 'intention to create a big-picture book' (p. 7) is admirable and holds the potential to help us get to grips with what might be at issue in novelty claims. Frustratingly, however, and despite the fact that there is much relevant material here, the questions and arguments are not clearly articulated and worked through. Chapters focus on different cases — all of which are interesting in themselves and include highly topical subjects such as the International Freedom Center that was planned as part of the Twin Towers commemorative complex but never realised. But there's a lack of signposting of what is going on or of bringing together the many different theoretical angles mentioned — so they don't get pulled together into more than a set of, albeit interesting, individual studies.

Another reason for the sense of confusion that the book sometimes generates is that Message does not clearly set out the different ways in which she employs 'the new museum' and she often, apparently unwittingly, slides between them. So she variously refers to (a) museums' own claims to be new; (b) the claims by others that certain museums are new; (c) her own ideas about what constitutes museological newness (on which more below) — the new museum perhaps existing more as a model than reality (or even, as she says at one point, 'as a model of a model' p. 50); (d) museums that have opened in the last ten years; or (e) some museums that have opened in the last ten years that either themselves claim to be new, have been claimed by others as new, or that the author identifies as new. Certainly, there is no reason why she should not look at all of these. But it is often hard for the reader to know which she is talking about at any particular time. Moreover, to gain analytical purchase on such key questions as the real newness of claims to be new or the varieties of phenomena that might be included as 'new' requires careful differentiation between these different levels.

The potential that such differentiation holds is partially evident in some of the substantive chapters that, in their detailed consideration of particular institutions, do show thoughtful attention to, for example, what is being performed by newness claims. In Chapter 2, on the redesign of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Message provides lots of examples of the museum's and also critics' invocations of newness, but also sets these against some consideration of to what extent the museum in 2004 was actually new. She points out that while it was given a new entrance and some new spaces, 'the subsequent galleries follow the general organization developed by the museum in the 1970s and 1980s' (p. 63). This, she suggests, is indicative of a wider deployment of 'the image of newness to indicate the current relevance and postmodernity of the building, [which] obscured the enduring ideological modernity of its guiding principles' (p. 74). Various other chapters also contain the suggestion — though rarely as strongly developed — that claims to novelty are overstated, serving to hide continuities or even rather conservative approaches. But we are not left with any sense of how widespread this might be. Moreover, for a 'big-picture' account the suggestion also deserves pursuing further into questions such as whether such misleading or superficial novelty claims are especially likely to be made by certain kinds of museums. At one point, she asks, for example, 'what does it mean that many new museums across the world are government-funded?' (p. 37). This is a really good question, that might contain part of an answer to the question of why newness is often more rhetorical than real, as well as having bearing upon the extent to which they might genuinely challenge the status quo. But these fascinating possibilities are left as questions or hints rather than being more systematically explored.

While sometimes looking at how the rhetoric of newness is used by certain museums themselves, Message also tries to identify features that she sees as characteristic of 'new museums' or 'the new museum' as she also puts it. Trying to identify trends that may be underway is undoubtedly potentially useful — though it is again often unclear whether she is referring to claims, reality, all 'new museums' or just some of them. At one point she writes, for example, that 'The promotion of cultural diversity [is] a trademark of the new museum' (p. 26); and she provides some interesting case-studies of such museums – the Centre Culturel Tjibaou in Nouméa, New Caledonia and the National Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa) – which also usefully highlight some of the complexities involved. But I didn't know how to bring this contention about 'the new museum' together with, for example, the assertion that the Bilbao Guggenheim is 'the archetypical new museum' (p. 46). If the McGuggenheim brand can be said by any stretch of argument to be promoting cultural diversity, it is surely doing so in a very different way from the 'cultural centres' that at other times are presented here as the vanguard of the new. Likewise, when Message writes that 'the new museum is presented as being an always already and instrumentally political institution' (p. 30) or 'the central aim of new museums globally is to render their pedagogy transparent so that it can be more readily perceived as "up for grabs"' (p. 35) I was left struggling to see how such claims were so for many of the museums referred to here as new, not least the Guggenheim. (And that was even if I suspended my surprise that the Guggenheim movement was presented so positively, with none of the criticisms raised by authors such as Mark Rectanus in Culture Incorporated, 2002.) And if these did not apply, did this mean that she did not really count them as new after all

Part of Message's difficulty in identifying the new in museums is that she largely eschews a historical approach. While understandable in terms of the possible scale of the task, it does have the effect of implying for the most part that museums have only embraced the discourse of the new in the last ten years. This is fortunately challenged in Chapter 3, which makes a nice comparison between the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Festival of Britain 1951, alongside the London Development Agency's 2005 plans for the former Crystal Palace site. This makes clear that 'newness' was robustly asserted in both 1851 and 1951 too (though as Message relies entirely on secondary accounts, she is not able to analyse this in as nuanced a way as she might have done otherwise). Particularly valuable here is the attempt to show how what counted under the banner of 'new' altered; the 'new' attempts at national unity of 1851 having 'become old-fashioned' (p. 102) by 1951. More such carefully selected contrasts, and especially for the 10–20 years before what she here presents as the 'new museum' period — but which more often is seen as such — would have also helped to refine better the nature of the newness (or not) of the 'new museum'. In particular, interrogating whether or how the cultural diversity agendas of many recent museums differ from those of the 1980s, discussed in volumes such as Exhibiting Cultures (Karp and Lavine, eds, 1991) and Museums and Communities (Karp, Kreamer and Lavine, eds, 1992) might have been highly revealing.

Given the importance attached to language in Chapter 1, New Museums is curiously inattentive to its own rhetorical devices. One of these is to depict many commentators as discussing 'the new museum' — without inverted commas and thus as a real, existing phenomenon — even where they were not using this terminology, possibly talking about a different time and not necessarily subscribing to Message's various characterisations. This is part of a wider practice of adding apparently substantiating references where the authors listed do not necessarily discuss the topics, or make the points, that are implied.

New Museums is very nicely packaged and Message is to be especially commended on some super photographs in the book. However, maybe in haste to get the book out before yet more new museums came along — or before the museums flagged up as new here came to seem old — the book seems to have been rushed to press before being properly revised and pulled together. Or perhaps many of these chapters were originally written to a different remit and so attention to newness has been superimposed later, to give the impression of newness. Whichever, it seems a shame to miss the opportunity — and some very appropriate groundwork — to properly explore what is going on in diverse claims of newness and to really interrogate whether there is such a thing as 'the new museum' at all.

Sharon Macdonald is professor of social anthropology at Manchester University, United Kingdom.