On the Object of the Museum and its Architecture


In the architecture of some recent social history museums can be seen a series of new and significant developments in the museum institution more generally. This thesis examines these developments with reference to two specific works of museum architecture: the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and the National Museum of Australia, Canberra.

Both buildings are simultaneously functional museum spaces, and artworks of great affective power. Both are centred upon absence, loss, and the ineffable pastness of the past as such, and both rely on a certain level of interactiveness between art and beholder to enact their commemorative function. Perhaps most significantly, each of these works of museum architecture can be understood as specifically allegorical. This is true in the sense that they invite interpretation, they are politically engaged, site specific, and explicitly ‘constructed’. They are also pledged, hopelessly, to the material world. All this is to say that they have a double existence – they are both specific and universal, engaged and autonomous, container and contained. They are objects, but objects mortified and hollowed. This is an architecture always already conceptually ‘ruined’, and a museum institution that addresses its mausoleum character by incorporating it equally as form and as content.

The thesis argues that the very ambiguity of architecture, its status as both art and artefact, with objecthood and also a certain autonomy, can serve to anchor the negative but necessary alienation of the museum institution from empirical reality. Further, it argues that it is this very deathliness from which the museum’s principal social utility derives. The museums examined here demonstrate that it is still viable to have an institution that contains and requires objects – albeit artworks as well as artefacts. The appearance of art in and as the museum thus brings the larger argument full circle: art can represent the unpresentable, equally as it acts as a bulwark against the disappearance of objects, of all categories, from museums altogether. And if the art of museum architecture provides it with the capacity for critique, the artefactuality of this same architecture, and the objects contained within, provides it with both motivation and reward for this critical role


1. Introduction

2. A Critical History of the Museum; A History of Museum Criticism

3. The Dead, the Deadly and the Deathly: Museums and the Mortification of Culture

4. ‘Killing Art to Write its History’: Decontextualisation and the Avant-Garde

5. Alienation and Negativity: The Critical Function of Autonomous Art

6. Presenting the Unpresentable: Allegories of Destruction at the Jewish Museum, Berlin

7. Theme Park or Mausoleums: ‘Black Armband’ Populism at the National Museum of Australia

8. Conclusion: The Art of the Architecture of Museum


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