Museums in the twenty-first century: Still looking for signs of difference

Kylie Message*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    3 Citations (Scopus)


    This article presents the argument that the Museé du Quai Branly symbolizes debates concerning the contemporary anthropological museum and its transitional position between modernist aesthetic ideals and the postcolonial theoretical field. The article has three sections. The first, «Twentieth century modernism», introduces these debates in relation to a recent travelling exhibition of paintings by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, an Aboriginal Australian artist who attracted the moniker of being an «impossible modernist ». The second section surveys and accounts for the transitional period that museums of anthropology, art and social and natural history currently occupy. I explore the increasing interest expressed by national museums globally in promoting ideas of interdisciplinarity, hybridity and exchange with Indigenous cultural producers and artists, and argue that the ideological basis for these shifts has contributed to make the last three decades a key period of change. This period can be further identified and marked out by bookending the art historian and cultural critic Rosalind Krauss's famous prognostication about avant-garde modernist art museums in the era of «late capitalism» with the cultural historian James Clifford's tentative analysis of the Museé du Quai Branly as a museum for a new century. The final section of the article, «Twenty-first century modernism», suggests that while the Museé du Quai Branly maintains the problematic tension between the avant-garde modernist aesthetic and anthropological systems associated with the twentieth century, it also presents an interface with the more recently evolving ideas about cultural citizenship and community consciousness that are associated with the emergent cultural processes and idealized museological practices of the twenty-first century.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)204-221
    Number of pages18
    JournalKonsthistorisk Tidskrift
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - 2009


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