Witnessing Culture: Museums, Exhibitions and the Artistic Encounter
As public institutions that serve society by conserving and communicating the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity, museums aim to provide opportunities for social groups to engage with their unique collections and gain ‘unforgettable’ experiences (López-Sintas et al., 2012). As with many other cultural institutions, museums are highly dependent on national histories, traditions and funding, and vary widely by organizational structure, audiences and exhibits.
In this chapter, I argue that the Durkheimian theory of the sacred is a crucial yet not fully recognized resource for cognitive sociology. It contains not only a theory of culture (which is acknowledged in contemporary sociology), but also a vision of culture-cognition relations. Thus, Durkheimian cultural sociology allows us to understand the crucial role the sacred/profane opposition plays in structuring culture, perception and thought. Based on a number of theories, I also show how another opposition – between the pure and impure modes of the sacred, allows us to explain dynamic features of the sacred and eventually provides a basic model of social change. While explicating this vision and resultant opportunities for sociological analysis I also criticize ‘cognition apart from culture’ approaches established within cognitive sociology. I argue, thus, that culture not only participates in cognition but is an intrinsic ingredient of the human mind. Culture is not a chaotic and fragmented set of elements, as some sociologists imply to a greater or lesser degree, but a system; and as such it is an inner environment for human thought and social action. This system, however, is governed not by formal logic, as some critics of the autonomy of culture presuppose, but by concrete configurations of emotionally-charged categories, created and re-created in social interactions.
The paper deals with the theory of collective trauma, which is built within the framework of the “strong program” in cultural sociology by Jeffrey Alexander. The theory highlights the importance of the trauma in the shaping of contemporary Western collective identities. The central message of the theory is the avoidance of the “naturalism fallacy”, i.e. of such a vision of the trauma, which doesn’t differ seriously the fact of collective perception from the objective event. Following Alexander, sociologically valid way to explain collective trauma should focus on the symbolic mechanisms of the creating trauma, and is driven by such a notions as code, master narrative, drama, ritual, etc. The power of developed explanation is illustrated by numerous historical cases.