"Pictures of an Exhibition: Museums and Collections in Literature and Media" NeMLA (April 7-11, 2010)

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41st Anniversary Convention, Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA)
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a panel at the 41st Anniversary Convention, Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA, April 7-11, 2010
Montreal, Quebec - Hilton Bonaventure

This panel explores the ways in which museums and the pre-modern practices of collection that preceded them have been treated in literature, film and other media. The goal of the panel is to assess the cultural place of museums indirectly; complementing the cultural studies scholarship on museums and collection themselves – including, for instance, the work of Tony Bennett and Susan Stewart – with a look at how museums circulate as objects of interest in the culture at large.

As densely significant sites of material culture, museums provide authors with a rich set of associations, opening the specificity of their work to broad questions of culture, nature and representation. The various roles played by museums and collections – as conservators of cultures past and present, as halls of public instruction, as sites of ideological reinforcement and negotiation, and as sites of aesthetic experience – overlap with the functions and values we associate with literature, film and other media. This overlap is reflected in the ways that authors have presented museums in their own work – viewing them as both partners and competitors in their effort to explore cultural values, render beauty and present a view of the world.

Papers are invited to address any of these intersections as they examine literary or visual media texts in which museums or other collections play an important role. Such work could address any period, from representations of early private collections of natural and cultural specimens, through the transition to public museums and up to the present day.

Broad approaches to the subject might include:

  • Examining the appearance of museums or collections as sites in which personal and cultural identities intersect
  • Reading texts that present museums or collections as metonyms for cultural or natural truths embraced or challenged by the author
  • Examining ways that texts define the capacities of their medium in contrast to the strengths and limitations of the museum or collection

Particularly in papers addressing popular forms, essays could investigate common tropes, such as:

  • Stories about artists in which museum and gallery exhibitions play out questions of commodification and the role of art criticism
  • Museum heists, in which the mingled cultural and exchange values of the stolen objects play out issues of culture, class and social order
  • Gothic or other horror tales in which a museum's attempt to contain natural or cultural forces is undone in violent upheaval
  • Science-fiction futures, in which museums exhibit contemporary culture as relics of the future's ancient past

Please send abstracts of 200-400 words to Edward Wesp at ewesp@wnec.edu by September 30, 2009.