An important text for museum and cultural studies

An important text for museum and cultural studies, Civilizing Rituals destabilizes binarisms such as art/artifact, ritual observed/ritual enacted, and sacred/secular. Duncan’s theoretical approach is based on notions of liminality and ritual; how the museum serves to temporarily suspend “normal” social behaviour in its effect on the visitor. The result of this suspension is that the viewer, gendered male by modernist art historical discourse and curatorial practice, is propelled towards a form of aesthetic enlightenment similar to spiritual illumination.

Within the liminal space of the art museum, Duncan argues, the (male) viewer, the male benefactor and corporate funding compose a ritualized experience that flows smoothly along the modernist trajectory. Duncan describes this experience and trajectory as characterized by a socially exclusive, economically elitist and, often, sexist conception of reality. Convincingly argued, Duncan’s feminist analysis of MOMA completes several brief but rigorous social histories of major Western museums such as the Louvre and the British National Gallery. In the final chapter, she describes how MOMA positions images of women as destructive or seductive Other to the otherwise cerebral aesthetics of modernism.

Duncan’s underlying theme is that the literal and conceptual construction of such museums maintains an eighteenth-century notion of aesthetic experience. As it has been described and desired in various philosophical and museological texts, aesthetic experience equates with revelation. Sensitive to the historical circumstances which generated the art institutions discussed, Duncan presents the gallery as a flexible tool that can have political and nationalistic purposes as well as fulfilling individuals’ need to exonerate themselves through public commemoration. Duncan balances her reading of the museum as economically motivated and culturally specific sign with a theoretically promising investigation of ritual and liminality in the gallery context. C. H.