What use is a museum of concepts to the historian?

Image: Daniele Prati

Why are there so few museums for the history of ideas? It is a question that sounds a little trite — like a first-year philosophy undergraduate who, after their first lesson in formative ontology, asks: ‘But is that desk really there?’ — or even unnecessary, wilfully ignorant or contrarian. Rather like those men who, annoyed at the spread of feminism’s so-called anti-male agenda coined the term ‘meninism’,[1] it appears to be missing the point. Ideas, after all, are not ‘things’ in the material sense; we do not experience ideas in the same way our philosophy student senses the desk in front of them. However, ideas are at least partially formed through our experience of the material, and material objects are often experienced through the lens of ideas.

Things and ideas have lives and biographies. As historians use materials to understand and unravel the processes of the past, so too do historians use ideas and concepts for similar ends. Historians working in material cultures use museums as part of a dialogue with the past. An eighteenth-century tobacco tin owned by a merchant in the East India Company, for example, has a genealogy, a lineage of owners, uses, values, transformations and movements through space. Its materiality is inherent to its value as a source for the twenty-first century historian; the material turn in cultural and social history towards the end of the last century has opened new roads of inquiry. A major partner in that has been the museum, helping historians to negotiate a new relationship with things, preserving items of significance, refreshing and revising historical narratives and presenting those things informed by historical scholarship.

But no such partner exists for intellectual history. Terms, concepts and ideas are as much a part of the fabric of human experience and yet there are no public presentations of their history and potency; there is no exhibition for ‘authority’, no museum of ‘liberty’, or ‘property rights’.

In particular, while the teaching of intellectual history is dominated by political thought, the presentation of those ideas, perhaps influenced in the UK by Quentin Skinner and the Cambridge School, remains textual and linguistic. Too often, when historians talk about the history of ideas, they actually mean the history of a bunch ideas that fall roughly within the field of study of the humanities or social sciences. There is seldom much of a look-in for physics, biology and engineering, for Hawking’s Brief History of Time, say, within a tradition of intellectual history dominated by the study of liberal political thought and its landmark texts.

A new approach to the display of the history of ideas could transform the field, renegotiating lines of demarcation, revisiting key texts and thinkers in visual, metaphorical, allegorical ways.[2] Opening to the public the scholarship of intellectual historians could help to reverse or renegotiate the ahistorical assumed hegemony of concepts like ‘human rights’, ‘liberalism’ and ‘democracy’ as timeless ideals handed down to us from the Greeks (of the British Museum). ‘People don’t realize how much they are in the grip of ideas’, Saul Bellow wrote. ‘We live among ideas much more than we live in nature.’[3]

Can we be so sure that the material and the immaterial are so different? George Berkeley, a late seventeenth-century philosopher, questioned whether material things were really things at all, instead reasoning that material objects depend on minds to perceive them. Berkeley held that ‘we perceive qualities, not “things” or “material substances”, and that there is no reason to suppose that the different qualities which common sense regards as all belonging to one “thing” inhere in a substance distinct from each and all of them’.[4] This reasoning is valid. The concept of the ‘thing’ is unnecessary to our perception of its qualities or its ‘thingness’. Berkeley also holds that there are unperceived objects, since some things in reality are unperceived, and that when a thing is perceived we ‘mean something more than that it occurs.’[5]

Bertrand Russell, however, doubted Berkeley’s idealism: ‘[A] mind and a piece of matter are, each of them, a group of events. There is no reason why every event should belong to a group of one kind or the other, and there is no reason why some events should not belong to both groups; therefore some events may be neither mental nor material, and other events may be both. As to this, only detailed empirical considerations can decide.’[6]

Berkeley had a profound influence on problems in twentieth-century philosophy, such as subject-object quandaries[7] and perception, and his valuable insights are relevant for the present discussion. As events mental and material cannot satisfactorily be separated by our perceptions, the practices of material history, which operate among these relations, can be modified and informed by a new approach to monumentalising ideas in the form of a museum. Considering how museums have been conceived in conceptual spheres, it will be possible to locate ‘museums of ideas’, metaphorical or otherwise, and argue for the value of such projects.

The conceptual museum has been developed by artists. Artists collecting art has a long history but, Kynaston McShine writes, ‘it has relatively recently expanded into the idea of making a museum of one’s own’, that is, in ‘applying museological practices to the field of art.’[8] Often requiring neither a permanent location nor a permanent collection,[9] artists have helped to pioneer the ideational museum.

Claes Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum (1965-1977) was ‘a freestanding structure containing a collection of fictionalized objects (some found and altered, others created by the artist)’. These included foods, body parts, tools and souvenirs. The museum was ‘a comment partly on collecting (the selection’s combination of irrationality and obvious system throwing the whole practice into question) and partly on the ingenious, yet inane, mass of mechanically reproduced material that floods our society’.[10]

Susan Hiller’s From The Freud Museum (1991-96), a collection of fifty cardboard boxes containing personal objects belonging to the artist, allowed her collection, ‘a construct of the artist’s imagination’, to become ‘a personal epic with biographical, archaeological, and political elements that move the spectator through a gamut of intellectual and emotional tonalities, from the banal and sentimental to the academic and metaphysical.’[11] Hiller succeeded in raising a fundamental issue of the museum, for both the curator and the visitor, McShine, writes, that is ‘the need for visitors to establish their own rapport with what is presented and to create for themselves a unique, personal poetic experience.’[12] Indeed this personal experience is one of metaphysics, envisaging the item one perceives in contexts other than the one in the current collection; the visitor traces the item into their imagination, dematerialising the thing, giving it impermanence and taking it from (perceived) mind-independence to something intellectually real. As these artists have shown, the conceptual museum has us dematerialising its collection, putting the multifarious thingness of the things at the heart of the collections. Ideas are at the core of the museum.

Reinhart Koselleck, the German historian who pioneered conceptual history, was arguably such a collector. Along with Werner Conze and Otto Brunner, he co-edited the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe (Basic Concepts in History: A Historical Dictionary of Political and Social Language in Germany, 1972-1997), a multi-volume encyclopaedia in intellectual history which charted the genealogy and development of concepts in (not exclusively) political thought such as “solidarity”, “anarchy” and “ideology” in the context of their historical meanings.

Koselleck, in his entry on “crisis”, in the third volume, sought to reappraise the usage of “crisis” in the modern period as a descriptor of temporal semantics, conveying a certain human drama or an end point. He compared the term’s use in an Ancient Greek context, identifying the root of the word (“krisis”) to mean, roughly, a moment of diagnosis by a doctor. Its negative connotations, as it is taken in a modern context to mean a dangerous state in which an individual or society may be at risk, developed historically, coming to mean in the Middle Ages (in the Christian world) something eschatological, used to describe a telos in which human history would come to an end. In the age of revolutions in Europe, “crisis” came to mean a political disaster but one subject to rational prognosis, one which required the cognition of probabilities, as politics prepared for the future; it came to mean something mundane, a man-made problem resolved by man as opposed to a spiritual one resolved only by the awesome destructive power of God.[13]

The Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe functions a little like a museum. We can see Koselleck’s processes of collection across eight volumes and 122 concepts, his mode of curation, citing concepts alphabetically (Volume 1: A—D, and so on) rather than by theme or period and his method of representation, displaying his concepts in textual form, attempting to defeat the reductivism of such a collection via an engagement with the complexity of the concepts, using economic and philosophical approaches to historicise the concepts and their changing semantics.[14] It is a museum devoid of the material, but operates on the same plane as a museum.

Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk (Arcades Project, 1927-1940), a substantial body of works on urban life in nineteenth-century Paris was, though never finished, a significant critique of bourgeois consumer culture. Benjamin reproduced the nineteenth-century Parisian arcade in a palimpsest of images and short aphorisms. Benjamin sought to present quotations from others alongside discussions of his own, categorising these insights into groups as apparently disparate as ‘photography’, ‘Baudelaire’, or ‘progress’.[15]

A material historian might take a particular interest in Benjamin’s interest in commodities by which he historicises the modernist era (and pre-empts the postmodern one[16]). Conceived as a Marxist analysis of urban commercialism and space (and supported, in stipends, by Theodor Adorno for that reason), it is a work profoundly embedded in tensions of temporality, concerned as Benjamin was with the experience of time in the nineteenth century. His grouping of reflections is undoubtedly a form of curation, inspired by his concern with contemporary efforts to exhibit materials. World exhibitions, he wrote of the Exposition Universelle (World Exhibition) in Paris, ‘glorify the exchange value of the commodity. They create a framework in which its use value recedes into the background. They open a phantasmagoria which a person enters in order to be distracted.’[17] Benjamin saw the commodity as impossible to imagine without its conceptual framework. His ‘museum’ of the arcades can be read as a project in the history of ideas.

A more recent example of such a curation is in the work of Orhan Pamuk. The Nobel Prize-winner’s Masumiyet Müzesi (The Museum of Innocence, 2008), is a fictional ‘museum’ within a 2008 novel in which Kemal, the male protagonist, attempts to aid his emotional pain at separation from his lover, Füsun, by collecting objects important to his memory of her. Each object comes to represent a temporal moment in their relationship, often a moment of happiness for Kemal. He then displays these items in Füsun’s home, after they are again separated, as a ‘museum of innocence’. Influenced by Milan’s Bagatti Valsecchi Museum, a reconstructed home made from found objects from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Pamuk created a museum of his own, based on the one in the novel, in Beyoğlu, Istanbul. The museum has a collection of items that in some way represent the period in Istanbul in which his novel is set, containing the ephemera of everyday life, minute conversations with the rules of existing culture, a dialectical process that Certeau might call the ‘procedures’ or ‘tactics of consumption’.[18] The novel and the museum are as one,[19] to be considered as partners in our experience of his work. ‘Still,’ Pamuk writes, ‘words are one thing, objects another. The images that words generate in our minds are one thing; the memory of an old object used once upon a time is another. But imagination and memory have a strong affinity’.[20] Indeed, the imagined (not to mention to fictional) is key to Pamuk’s concept of the museum, his mode of presenting memory and time. The immaterial, for him, is as crucial to the museum as its physicality.

Such a museum of concepts or ideas can have value to historians in pedagogical, genealogical, proprietary, representational, temporal and metaphysical terms.

The first use for a museum for ideas would be in pedagogy, in the simple instruction of ideas and concepts to historians and the public as a means of presenting the past. In transferring knowledge in philosophy, law, politics, science, culture, art, and beyond.

The second use would be in reconstructing new genealogies of fundamental ideas and concepts which would inform both the study and practice of history and also our social memory, our communal relationship with the past. Genealogy, Michel Foucault wrote, must ‘record the singularity of events outside of any monotonous family; it must seek them in the most unpromising places, in what we tend to feel is without history — in sentiments, love, conscience, instincts; it must be sensitive to their recurrence, not in order to trace the gradual curve of their evolution, but to isolate the different scenes where they engaged in different role[s].’[21] A museum of ideas could help to track the development, emergence and dominant powers that have helped to shaped the critical concepts of modernity.

Another use for such a museum might be to reflect on the proprietary rules within a ‘material’ museum and consider how this may be similar to the ownership of particular concepts and ideas, the persons and nations that may seek to claim an idea for their own. A reflexive dialogue between historians of the material and the intellectual, it would open up new borders of inquiry as material historians sought to unravel the possession of museum items within conceptual frameworks.

A further technique for the historian may be in considering how a museum of ideas presents its content: which ideas are missed?[22] As historians consider museums for their representation of artefacts, so too might they consider the role of curators in hosting the immaterial.

Furthermore, concepts in (for example) political thought are in certain ways invented, designed or developed to remedy changing conceptions of temporality. Scholarship in the shifting relation of time to ideas – which began in earnest with Koselleck – is of vital importance to historians.[23] Just as the material historian appeals to a concept of time at all stages of reading a particular text, so too must we understand the temporal forces which act at all times upon that text.

The final approach may be to consider the way metaphysics shapes material history. The evaluation of a text, in the mind of a material historian, analysing mind-independent things, appeals to metaphysics, to physicality beyond sensual experience. Metaphysics in this way helps to do the history but it is largely lacking from the narrative so-called, of history. The ideational has spheres within the material world.

As many material historians might say that some things in the past are not mind-independent, what thing, not of myself, can I study as a thing if it is part of myself? History, after all, is not biography. Things that we cannot perceive cannot be studied by material historians, but they are part of the tools of the historian. Things that can be both perceived and imagined can be so studied. Those things perceived by the material historian are a soup of interpretations, politics and contexts; they are appeals to concepts that may or may not be in relation to something mind-independent.

The museum of ideas has a vital role in stitching these paths together.



[1] Cf. ‘What is Meninism?’, May 13, 2007 <http://menimism.blogspot.co.uk/2007/05/what-is-meninism.html> (Accessed January 9, 2014). ‘Lads, It’s Time for Some Meninism’, The Huffington Post, January 10, 2014 <http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/george-gillett/mens-issues_b_4568914.html> (Accessed January 16, 2014) is a recent example.

[2] On how museums have played a significant role in shaping intellectual life, see Steven Conn, Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

[3] Sanford Pinsker, Conversations with Contemporary American Writers (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1985), p. 14.

[4] Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (London and New York: Routledge, 2004; 1946), p. 592.

[5] Ibid., pp. 597-598.

[6] Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p. 599.

[7] On the subject-object dilemma in relation to things, see: Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (New York and London: Routledge, 1993).

[8] McShine, ‘Introduction’, in The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1999), pp. 11-23, in Bettina Messias Carbonell (ed.), Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), pp. 506-520

[9] Cf. Marcus Broodthaers’s conceptual museum Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, 1968-1972).

[10] McShine, ‘Introduction’, p. 509. See also: Malcolm Baker and Brenda Richardson (eds.), A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum (Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1997).

[11] McShine, pp. 509-510. See also: Christian Boltanksi’s Archives (1987) exhibition.

[12] Ibid., p. 510.

[13] Koselleck, ‘Crisis’, Journal of the History of Ideas (2006), Vol. 67, No. 2, pp. 357-400; Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (London: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1979).

[14] Niklas Olsen, History in the Plural: An Introduction to the Work of Reinhart Koselleck (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2012).

[15] Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, (Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991).

[16] Hannah Arendt (ed.), ‘Introduction’, in Benjamin, Illuminations (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), pp. 1-58.

[17] Benjamin, The Arcades Project (London: Belknap Press, 1999), p. 7.

[18] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol: 2 (London: University of Minnesota Press, 1998; 1980), p. 108.

[19] The book contains a ticket printed on one of its pages which is stamped at the door of the museum for free entry.

[20] Pamuk, The Innocence of Objects (New York: Abrams, 2012), p. 18.

[21] Foucault, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, in John Richardson and Brian Leiter (eds.), Nietzsche (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 341.

[22] Stephanie Moser, ‘The Devil is in the Detail: Museum Displays and the Creation of Knowledge’, Museum Anthropology (2010), Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 22-32.

[23] Koselleck, ‘Modernity and the Planes of Historicity’ in Futures Past, pp. 3-21.


Image: Daniele Prati