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María Bolaños

The Museum of modernity. 1789-1950 URL: http://www.march.es/conferencias/anteriores/voz.aspx?p1=2595&l=2

The concept of museum has such a central role in our way of understanding culture, that we tend to forget that these institutions are not only relatively recent, but also a quite complex historical object, which is much more fragile than what their current public presence and symbolic value would imply.

One of the most common topics, represents museums as an oasis of beauty and knowledge, restrained by history and covered from politics; like a place of eternity where only objects of fixed value are preserved. But this is far from the truth. Few institutions are so permeable to the convulsions of their time. The two dates between which the historical cycle that we will address here spans are 1789 and 1960, the dates of birth and of final crisis of a historical museum model, which is also closely connected to the construction of modernity.

This model was born and died in between barricades, in the middle of violent episodes of our contemporary history: The first year refers to the beginning of the adventure with which Europe, as Tocquenville expressed, divides in two its future, creating an abyss between what Europe had been until then and what it wants to be from there on. In this "Year Zero" of novel political ideas, the concept of a public museum symbolically represents this historical conscience of breaking up with the past and attempting to achieve an utopian future of respect for memory, social equality, and civic education. The second date, one hundred and eighty years later, inaugurates the decade of the 60's where a vigorous wave of contra-cultural reply will invalidate, also from the barricades, the structures of power dominating art, attacking this way the historical legitimacy of museums and their right to exist, due to being perceived by the eyes of that generation as decadent and dogmatic anachronisms, towers of ivory accomplices of the bourgeois aesthetic values and the commercialism of art.

But it is in the period in between these two dates, basically all of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, when the museum was consolidated as the most genuine institution of its time. Walter Benjamin in his work Das Passagen-Werk explained that if the cathedral is the most representative building of the Middle Ages, and the palace of a 17th century dominated by absolutism, the most representative building of the 19th century -a century obsessed with history, with the cult to past and ruins- is the museum, which following a model established by the Enlightenment was consecrated as a place of formidable intellectual power. The Enlightenment's view of history and the creation of the historical sciences, will endorse the construction of the museum as one of the big myths of modern rationality, and its implementation as a model of ideal knowledge, as a space for demonstration and absolute truth, for consolidating values and fixing the imagination of authenticity. An institution introducing itself as the guarantee of scientific and scholarly production of its time.

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