The Crisis of Cultural Authority

The Crisis of Cultural Authority

In campaigning for repatriation, senior professionals participate in activities that result in the removal of, at times, highly valued material from research collections. They appear keen to highlight the negative historical legacy of colonialism, the deleterious impact on communities, and the role that museums have played in this. But until recently, members of the sector would not advocate the removal of valued material from museum collections, nor would they critically question the role of the institution. They were the gatekeepers of such institutions, guarding the collections. Now, some members appear to be opening the gates. What, then, do these activists achieve by questioning the role of the museum, promoting acts that appear to alter, even undermine, their own role and status? Why do they participate in these activities?

Those examining the construction of problems identify and explore the claims-makers’ interests in promoting an issue. Joel Best (1990) observes that activists may stand to acquire more influence, or that there may be indirect symbolic benefits which contribute to explaining their activities. In what follows, we see that the campaigners for repatriation are responding to a crisis of authority, and attempting to secure new legitimacy by distancing themselves from a discredited foundational remit. In the past 40 years, the cultural authority of the museum has undergone considerable scrutiny and a number of criticisms, which have resulted in the destabilization of its legitimacy. A number of overlapping social and intellectual shifts have resulted in significant and widespread questioning of the purpose of the museum, which has weakened its traditional sources of justification. Museum theorist Steven Conn (1998) suggests that museums have always perceived themselves to be in crisis. While the crisis discourse may have been present for some time, and there have been fluctuations in the purpose and credibility of these institutions, my central argument is that the foundational principles of the institution have been consistently and profoundly questioned in the past four decades, and that the extent of this legitimation crisis has not been fully recognized.


Max Weber’s (1968) conceptualization of legitimacy in relation to state authority has provided the analytical framework for most analyses of authority. Weber was interested in legitimate forms of domination. Broadly, he argued that society evolved historically from political orders based on charismatic and traditional types of legitimation, to a modern state legitimated primarily on legal grounds. Authority demonstrates possession of status or a social position that compels trust or obedience. As part of this ability to demand trust or obedience, authority suggests the potential to use force or to penalize people in some fashion. For example, political authority can threaten imprisonment, which makes people reliant upon such authorities for their freedom. However political authority requires respect and consent, rather than domination. Authority therefore incorporates two sources of control: dependence and legitimacy. Political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1977) is careful to stress these two foundations of authority, identified as crucial by Weber, both of which are equally, concomitantly required. Where and when force is used, Arendt suggests, authority has failed. It has also failed when only argument and persuasion are used, for this presumes equality rather than superiority.

Social theorist Richard Sennett (1980) echoes these observations about the importance of legitimacy, in his discussion of authority in the domain of professional and personal relationships. He asks, what makes an authority? Sennett illustrates his answer with an example of the conductors Toscanini and Pierre Monteux. Both were able to discipline the orchestra, but through very different methods. He concludes: ‘Assurance, superior judgment, the ability to impose discipline, the capacity to inspire fear: these are the qualities of an authority’ (Sennett 1980: 17–18). Authority, then, can involve more than laws or rules. It can also refer to the imposition of definitions of reality or judgments of value and meaning, where the legitimacy of that or those defining reality or making judgments is crucial. Sociologist Paul Starr (1982) terms the authority that defines and affirms judgments of meaning and reality ‘cultural authority’. Social and cultural authority differs in several ways, Starr explains. Social authority controls actions and behavior through law, rules and instructions. Cultural authority involves the construction of reality through definitions of fact and value. Institutions such as the church and the academy make authoritative judgments about the nature of the world, as do museums.


Museums hold a cultural authority that frames and affirms the pursuit of truth and defines what is historically and culturally significant. These institutions, which can have varying specialisms; including science, natural history, art and anthropology, play a role in affirming ideas about the pursuit of knowledge and how it is organized, reinforcing ideas about what is considered important and valuable from human civilizations, for reasons that are historically constituted. While aspects of the museum can be traced back to the medieval Schatz, a treasury of goods collected by the Habsburg Monarchy, or private collecting in the Renaissance, it was the development of public collections in the eighteen and nineteenth century that, arguably, rationalized private collections into a specific meaningful public context (Abt 2006). The museum in this period is generally understood as forming in overlapping stages. The first is the move, in the eighteenth century, of the Royal Collections in France into a semi-public context, reconceptualizing the space and the collection from artefacts chosen randomly by private individuals, into a rational organization of artefacts based on ideas of progress (Prior 2002). As museologist Eileen Hooper-Greenhill writes of this period, the French Revolution created ‘the conditions of emergence for a new “truth”, a new rationality, out of which came a new functionality for a new institution, the public museum’ (Hooper-Greenhill 1989: 63). With the Enlightenment, ideas developed about the absolute character of knowledge, discoverable by the methods of rationalism and its universal applicability, which informed the purpose of the museum and the display of artefacts.

Museum theorist Tony Bennett explains that the emergence of the museum coincided with, and presented, new sets of disciplinary knowledge:

The birth of the museum is coincident with, and supplied a primary institutional condition for, the emergence of a new set of knowledges—geology, biology, archaeology, anthropology, history and art history—each of which, in its museological deployment, arranged objects as parts of evolutionary sequences (the history of the earth, of life, of man, and of civilization) which, in their interrelations, formed a totalizing order of things and peoples that was historicized through and through. (Bennett 1995: 96)

The assemblage of private objects, once categorized as unique artefacts, was transformed into a collection that demonstrated scientific themes and rational principles of classification. This was a significant shift, where museums holding objects became more than displays of eclectic treasures and developed into institutions concerned with the pursuit and display of knowledge within a rational framework.

Tony Bennett posits that during the nineteenth century the museum was informed by the symbolic use of such institutions to the emerging modern state (Bennett 1995). Pointen (1994) describes how the promotion of the European state in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century developed with the modern national museum, in his analysis of the Louvre in France. The Louvre had been a palace for the King. When the French revolutionary government nationalized the King’s art collection it became a symbol of the fall of the old regime and the rise of the new order. For Carol Duncan (1995) too, in her exploration of the development of the discipline of art history, the transformation of this palace into a public space accessible to everyone made the museum a demonstration of the state’s commitment to the principle of equality and the idea of national identity. Benedict Anderson’s (1983) discussion of nation states as imagined political communities shows that museums were used as repositories and narrators of official nationalism and were symbols of those imagined communities.

While Britain did not have a royal art collection to take over as a national symbol, it is argued that museums did become places of Britishness (Bennett 1988). In his study of museums and modernity in Britain, sociologist Nick Prior (2002) explains that museums in the eighteenth century were not usually owned by the state, but in the nineteenth century, following the emergence of citizenship, governance and democracy, they gradually came to be held by the state on behalf of the people. During this period the state began to ‘construct a nineteenth-century state art apparatus.’(Prior 2002: 79) This period, according to Nick Prior, gave clarity and concrete form to the museum project, which was then taken up across Europe.

The organization of the social space of the museum occurred alongside the formation of the bourgeois public sphere. Tony Bennett (1995) suggests that the opening of museum to a wider public in the nineteenth century should be read as a regulating mechanism that aimed to expose the working class to the pedagogic mores of middle class culture, in order to civilize them. Bennett, drawing on theorists Foucault and Gramsci, highlights the ways in which the development of the museum was involved in attempts to transform a populace into a citizenry. Bennett discusses what he terms the ‘exhibitionary complex’, where the exhibition space was a response to public order and which won heart and minds, while the prison institution disciplined and controlled bodies (p. 335). He concludes that the public museum is a product of an outlook that seeks to civilize and educate the masses to produce a ‘self-regulating citizenry’ (p. 63).

Theorists have thus argued that museums are institutions of ‘overpowering cultural authority [ … ] [expressing] ambitious and encyclopaedic claims to knowledge’ (Karp and Kratz 1991, cited in Corsane 2005: 39). Crane argues that the authority vested in museums remains ‘a fixed aspect of the cultural landscape, so certain does their purpose seem to be’ (1997: 46). In line with this analysis, the common sociological understanding of the gallery or museum, as encapsulated by Bourdieu (1984), can be referred to as a dominant ideology approach to state-sponsored cultural institutions, where they are seen to function for the cohesion and reproduction of capitalist society. Museums are taken to contribute to civic ritual, ideals of nationhood, and the promotion of structural inequalities (Fyfe 2006).


It is widely recognized that the state and associated institutions, including educational, medical and cultural organizations, are in a condition of a legitimation crisis (Arendt 1977; Gabe, Kelleher and Williams 1994; Owens 1985; Eagleton 1993), although there is considerable debate over the causes, periodization, and institutions affected by this crisis. Broadly, a legitimation deficit arises when older sources of justification for institutions have been undermined and eroded (Habermas 1987). I suggest that a number of overlapping social and intellectual shifts have resulted in significant and widespread questioning of the purpose of the museum. These have weakened its traditional sources of justification and contributed to a crisis of cultural authority. It is this that helps to explain the broader context in which professionals have become key advocates in elevating the problem of human remains.

The social theorist Zygmunt Bauman explains that the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the time of the emergence of the modern museum, was a time when men of knowledge—the intellectuals—had authority that could be described as legislative (Bauman 1987; 1992). This intellectual climate underpinned the formation of the modern state and official institutions of culture, including education and the early public museums. In the present period, however, Bauman argues that the role for intellectuals as legislators of meaning has weakened. They no longer securely hold legislative authority or the ability to define meaning and outline judgments. Instead, men of knowledge play a role more akin to that of an interpreter. Bauman traces the changing role of intellectuals, the ‘legislators of meaning’, in relation to the development of the state and the market over the past 200 years. The state’s dependence upon intellectuals for legitimation was superseded in the nineteenth century, Bauman writes, by political technologies of panoptical power, fields within which ranks of experts, and expertise, proliferated. Expertise developed with the creation of techniques of surveillance, medicalization and education. As the state’s reliance on culture for the reproduction of its power diminished, market forces rose to challenge the autonomy of intellectuals. Bauman describes a clash of interests between philosophers and aestheticians, and emerging market-orientated intellectuals where the production of culture serves the market:

It is therefore the mechanism of the market which now takes upon itself the role of the judge, the opinion-maker, the verifier of values. Intellectuals have been expropriated again. They have been displaced even in the area which for several centuries seemed to remain uncontestably their own monopolistic domain of authority—the area of culture in general, ‘high culture’ in particular. (Bauman 1987: 124)

A role in social reproduction remains for intellectuals, Bauman notes, but it is a weaker role of bureaucratic usefulness rather than of legislative power.

The rise of the market has had a significant impact on the role of the museum. In particular, in relation to this study, British cultural policy underwent a significant change in direction in the 1980s (Sinclair 1995; Selwood 2001). Theorists argue that the impact of the fiscal crisis of the welfare state led to cuts in public spending including arts subsidy (Quinn 1988; Gray 2000). During this period arts institutions could not rely on the idea of ‘art for its own sake’ to justify funding and support, but had to find other utilitarian values with which to promote their work. In the context of decreasing state support, and the introduction of admission charges for most nationals, institutions began to conceptualize and promote exhibitions as products to be marketed with the aim of encouraging larger numbers of paying visitors (Macdonald 1998a). Cultural historian Robert Hewison (1991) argues that the influence of the market during this period shifted the values of the institution away from serious scholarship, which has triggered a crisis of purpose. He suggests that scholarship and stewardship have been abandoned due to market forces.

Postmodern Thinking

In addition to the constraints and pressures arising from the operations of the market, the central tenets of the Enlightenment, which informed the remit of the museum in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, have been called into question (Foster 1985; Bennett, O. 1996; 2001). While the principles of the Enlightenment have always evoked some hostility, a number of intellectual trends since the late 1960s have furthered this stance, thus profoundly challenging claims about truth, and the idea of the museum as a distinct realm removed from social and political forces. In particular, these trends are: postmodernism, cultural theory, and postcolonial theory. These trends are complicated, specific and overlapping, and to give a precise account of them and the relationship of each to the other in a few paragraphs will necessarily truncate and reduce their complexity. However, I will attempt to provide a summary of this process.

Postmodernism is a periodizing concept that describes a break with the aesthetic field of modernism. It has come to be used as a term to describe a rupture, in the last few decades of the twentieth century, from the modern period and modernity (Docherty 1993; Jameson 1993). The aspect of postmodernism thinking that has had a major impact on the role of the museum is a scepticism about modernist ideas. This is a way of thinking that developed out of poststructuralist theory in the 1960s and 1970s, as proposed by theorist Jean François Lyotard (1984). Scholar Terry Eagleton (2003) describes the outlook of postmodern thinking as rejecting concepts of totality, grand historical narratives, universal values, and the very possibility of objective knowledge. Postmodernism is sceptical of truth and progress, and tries to tear down hierarchy, celebrating pluralism and relativism.

[T]he contemporary movement of thought which rejects totalities, universal values, grand historical narratives, solid foundations to human existence and the possibility of objective knowledge. Postmodernism is sceptical of truth, unity and progress, opposes what it sees as elitism in culture, tends towards cultural relativism, and celebrates pluralism, discontinuity and heterogeneity. (Eagleton 2003: 13)

In relation to intellectual practices, the terms ‘modernism’ and ‘postmodernism’ indicate differences in understanding the nature of the social world and the purpose of intellectual work. With the modernist outlook, relativism was to be struggled against and overcome. The postmodern outlook instead holds the view that knowledge is relative. Bauman (1987) makes a helpful distinction between the two, commenting that while it is debatable whether philosophers of the modern era ever established the foundations of objective knowledge, the point is that they pursued it with ‘conviction’ (Bauman 1987: 120). Under Postmodernity, he argues, the search for truth was deemed pointless and abandoned.

Cultural relativism, the principle that an individual beliefs and activities should be understood in terms of his or her own culture, was originally developed in anthropological research by Franz Boas, influenced by the thinkers Kant, Herder, and von Humboldt, in the first few decades of the twentieth century (Marcus and Fischer 1986). Frank Furedi (2004) maintains that while these ideas were initially held by the right-wing thinkers, then amongst a small group of artists and intellectuals, they became increasingly influential from the 1960s when they were adopted by leftwing thinkers: the ‘New Left’. This is a development described by the American cultural critic Alan Bloom as the ‘Nietzscheanisation of the left’ (1987: 217), when left-wing thinkers became disillusioned by modernism and embraced particularism and heterogeneity. Cultural relativism has subsequently become a prevailing intellectual force.

Cultural Theory

Cultural relativism influenced the development of cultural theory. Its central idea is that culture is a signifying practice that is bound up with value judgments (Hall 1992). Milner and Browitt (2002) identify that cultural theory developed within the academy in the late 1960s, although they trace the origins to the ideas of nineteenth-century thinkers. Cultural theory advanced a broad definition of culture beyond the fine arts, to a more anthropological understanding of common meanings and material practices in a whole society. Culture did not exist in reified spheres but was a product of social and material relationships and therefore could be ‘ordinary’, wrote Raymond Williams in the late 1950s (Williams 2001). The emergence of cultural studies and the work of academics such as Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, Tony Bennett and Stuart Hall, popularized a political role for culture in society. These theorists were part of a new institution established to address questions of ‘cultural apparatus’: the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, founded in 1964 (Hewison 1995). Their contribution to academic debate was also reflected in the roles they undertook in the arts world. Williams sat on the board of the Arts Council in the 1970s, and Hall has played a prominent role in artistic networks and cultural institutions.

Broadly there are two strands to cultural studies. One involves theorists who argue that cultural studies are a critique that impartially analyzes cultural products and representations, better to understand structuralist dynamics. This approach is predominant in early cultural studies (see for example Jameson 1998; McGuigan 1996; 1999). It draws on a Gramscian analysis of the hegemony of the state in shaping ideology, and sets out to create strategies of resistance to this through critique. The second strand comes from those who argued that it was impossible to think that cultural studies could be separated into a transcendent space for abstract analysis. Theorists argued that cultural studies could never be free from the agenda of state power. Tony Bennett was an influential advocate of this position, arguing that cultural studies was problematic if it saw itself as a critique, for culture would always be used politically (Bennett 1992; 1998). Reformation rather than revolution was seen as the solution.

Museums, for these theorists, are not able to abstract rational thinking for the public, but instead reinforce the values and position of the elites. Theorists developed a highly critical analysis of culture, and advocated that it should be subject to critical engagement, or consciously used to tackle contemporary political problems. Stuart Hall (2001) argued that the history of modernity in the Western canon needed to be reconsidered—although this would be difficult, because ‘museums are still deeply enmeshed in systems of power and privilege’ (p. 23). The museum, suggested Hall:

[H]as to be aware that it is a narrative, a selection, whose purpose is not just to disturb the viewer but to itself be disturbed by what it cannot be, by its necessary exclusions. It must make its own disturbance evident so that the viewer is not trapped into the universalized logic of thinking whereby because something has been there for a long period of time and is well funded, it must be ‘true’ and of value in some aesthetic sense. Its purpose is to destabilize its own stabilities. (Hall 2001: 22)

For Hall, then, the museum should no longer claim to be the legislator of truth, or to consider itself as benign, as this is not possible. Instead it should constantly question these ideas and to disturb them, constantly to draw attention to the museum’s unreliability. With this approach, permanent and continued questioning is advocated in relation to any idea of truth and value. The authority of the institution, for Hall, must constantly be in doubt.

Tony Bennett (1998) argues that museums should discard the old universalist outlook and become a space to discuss diverse narratives and values. Instead of trying to separate culture from the interests of the powerful, Bennett advises that society should use culture as a positive political tool. The curator, he suggests, should discard their traditional position of the legitimate authority and instead become more of a catalyst for debate. Museums should not aim to establish a singular truth claim or narrative, or universal standards of ‘the best’, but to show the inherent instabilities of truth claims, and give different individuals and ethnic or social groups the opportunity to present their own versions of the past and of cultural value (Bennett 1998).