Museums as ritual spaces?

The museum, like other ceremonial monuments, is a complex architectural phenomenon that selects and arranges works of art within a sequence of spaces. This totality of art and architectural form organizes the visitor’s experience as a script organizes a performance. Individuals respond in different ways according to their education, culture and class. But the architecture is a given and imposes the same underlying structure on everyone. By following the architectural script, the visitor engages in an activity most accurately described as a ritual.

Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach, ‘The Universal Survey Museum’, Art History 3:4 (1980)

This essay critically analyses a paragraph from Carol Duncan’s and Alan Wallach’s article ‘The Museum of Modern Art as Late Capitalist Ritual: An Iconographic Analysis’[1]. The focal point of this analysis examines the topic of modern museums and the visitor’s experience that was, in the essay,[2] and later in ‘The Universal Survey Museum’[3] by Duncan and Wallach, likened to a ritual. The essay was written in 1978 and focuses on the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), providing a unique position of the museum as an ideological instrument. My aim is not to explore MOMA’s institutional ideological status, but to examine why modern museums do not share a ceremonial status anymore. The reason is that their persistently changing ideology, as the Duncan and Wallach’s concept, has gone through many social and ideological changes that influenced art history, museology and exhibition studies as well as interpretation of institutional influence. Firstly, this paper will investigate the statement that Duncan and Wallach proposed in the paragraph and interpret the main ideas of the passage. Secondly, it will aim to place the idea of the ritual experience of a museum into the context of modern museums and introduce their authoritative attribute. After focusing on institutions and their impact on public experience over a period of forty years, I move on the influence of the concept and its need for adjustment.

The following section examines the main thesis of the passage and clarifies the important ideas the authors propose. Duncan and Wallach imply that a museum is a space of ritualistic energy communicating with a visitor on different levels through the spatial arrangement and its architecture. The unity and coherence of the museum’s architecture and art elements within the museum formulate the visitor’s experience. While the architectural form of the museum structures the visitor’s experience and accentuated art displayed. Furthering the main points of the argument with Duncan and Wallach’s comparison of a museum to a ‘ceremonial monument’. An indication that a museum is a work of art itself involving its audience in a ceremony, the authors connect the ceremonial monumental architecture of a museum with its exclusive ideology[4]. According to Duncan and Wallach, ‘museums […] belong to the same architectural class as temples, churches, shrines, and certain types of palaces’[5]. All of these architectural monuments share an attribute of being ceremonial, indicating a religious, or sacred setting that affects a visitor in a subconscious way. The passage denotes that ‘the architecture [of a museum] is given’[6] and the audience’s experience is based on the fundamental structure of the museum. This architectural form of a museum – according to Duncan and Wallach – is unchangeable and constant among all visitors. The authors distinguish between the visitor’s reaction implying that it varies considering the visitor’s education, class, and culture. The main thesis of the paragraph is that ‘the architectural script’[7], understood as the totality of art and architectural form of a museum, establishes the visitor’s experience through its ceremonial attribute, the visitor becomes a part of a ritual.

To build on the idea of a museum as a ritual experience, the authority of a museum as an institution must be examined. As Duncan and Wallach mention, the architectural script formed in the museum creates a solemn repetition captivating the visitor into an experience likened to a ritual of an authoritative character demanding reverence. The authority of an institution is the main source of the museum’s ideology. It constructs the main pillars, rules, and structure of the visitor’s experience. The way in which it states the ideological rules modifies and, more importantly, manipulates one’s experience. The visitor is affected by the space, lighting, the relationship between the outer and inner architecture as well as by the museum’s interpretation and curation of artworks and thus the subject associates and creates a closer connection with the ideology provided by the institution through the museum.

The ideology of the architectural script nowadays creates an abstract system of beliefs within society. This paper argues that this system is a never-changing process that suggests there have been many variations in the institutional impact on a visitor over forty years, and that the ideology of a museum reflects the social, political and economic changes within society. In the 1980s, strategic discourse within museums in how to promote their exhibition further developed in detail[8]. Formalism began to be confronted by postmodernism and the feminist movement; the collapse of the Soviet Union enhanced capitalism and the privatization of institutions; technology has become an important social and industrial tool. The distribution of art into public realms through social media and technology has digitized and globalized art museums. As a result, art is no longer attached to the physicality of the art museum, therefore the experience of seeing art in the art museum is no longer likened to a ritual.

Since the 1980s, an enormous amount of new art museums have been established[9]. The museums have changed from private societies enhancing the rarity and solemnity to touristic attractions and brands that accommodate the entertainment industry and business. I refer to the case of the UK’s national galleries and museums entry fee termination in 2001[10]. Since this shift, museums have neglected the ritual experience in favour of a more a mass-market cultural business.[11] The increase in visitor numbers caused an ideological turn. The museums ceased to be monuments of art and ceremonial character, no longer do they belong to the same architectural class as churches or cathedrals. The globalization of art museums confirms that their ceremonial identity is in decline.[12]

The following section examines the impact of Duncan and Wallach’s concept of museums as rituals and its criticism. Their approach has become a basis for several critical concepts concerning museums and institutions and exhibiting. The essay by Lianne McTavish ‘The Decline of the Modernist Museum’[13], or the book by Emma Baker ‘Contemporary Cultures of Display’[14] examines the concept of rituals and consider cultural changes that occurred and changed the visitor’s experience. Uncovering the contemporary museum exhibiting, Michaela Giebelhausen claims that the modern architecture of museums ‘emphasises processes of production and consumption, rather than quiet contemplation’[15]. Giebelhausen’s observations add further credence to the claim that modern museums are no longer ceremonial monuments. Alan Wallach’s essay[16] in 1992, however, reassesses their approach and claims. Referring to the concept of modern museum experience, he admitted: ‘I undermined our analysis […] by treating the Museum as a latter-day equivalent of [such] traditional religious monuments […] and thus neglecting what is fundamental to MOMA as a modern institution’[17]. Alan Wallach acknowledges a need for an adjustment of the concept as he failed to capture a cultural and historical identity of ‘an institution of late-capitalist society’[18].

This essay has critically analysed the topic of the modern museum ceremonial status and ritual experience. This essay concludes that modern museums are no longer ceremonial monuments due to their changing ideologies. Having examined the main thesis of Duncan and Wallach’s paragraph as well as clarified the main points of the concept, I clarified the modern museum concept and explanation for the changing ideologies within the sphere of art institutions. Moreover, I discussed the impact of changing modern museum ideologies over a forty-year period. The paper demonstrates that one’s ceremonial experience of the museum likened to a ritual has been diluted over the years due to museum’s changing of identities and that art has undergone an ideological shift caused by the institutionalisation of the art world.


[1] C. Duncan and A. Wallach, ‘The Museum of Modern Art as Late Capitalist Ritual: An Iconographic Analysis,’ in Marxist Perspectives 4, 1978

[2] Duncan and Wallach, ‘The Museum of Modern Art’

[3] C. Duncan and A. Wallach, ‘The Universal Survey Museum’, Art History 3, no. 4, 1980: p. 448-69.

[4] Duncan and Wallach, ‘The Museum of Modern Art’, pp.28

[5] Duncan and Wallach, ‘The Museum of Modern Art’, pp.28

[6] Duncan and Wallach, ‘The Museum of Modern Art’, pp.28

[7] Duncan and Wallach, ‘The Museum of Modern Art’, pp.28

[8] R. Mason, ‘Cultural Theory and Museum Studies’, in A Companion to Museum Studies. Blackwell Companions in Cultural Studies, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006) p.17

[9] E. Vivant, ‘Who Brands Whom? The Role of Local Authorities in the Branching of Art Museums’, The Town Planning Review 82, no. 1, 2011, p.100

[10]10th anniversary of free admission to national museums, National Museums, (National Museum Directors’ Council, 2014),, [accessed 4th November 2018]

[11] Vivant, ‘Who Brands Whom?’, p.99

[12] J. H. Dobrzynski, ‘High Culture Goes Hands On’, New York Times [Aug. 10, 2013], [accessed 4th November 2018]

[13] L. McTavish, ‘The Decline of the Modernist Museum’ Acadiensis 33, no. 1, 2003, p. 97

[14]E. Barker, Contemporary Cultures of Display. Art and Its Histories, 6 (New Haven, Conn. ; London: Yale University Press in Association with the Open University, 1999).

[15] M. Giebelhausen, ‘The Architecture of the Museum : Symbolic Structures, Urban Contexts. The Barber Institute’s Critical Perspectives in Art History Series’, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003). p.6-7

[16] A. Wallach, ‘The Museum of Modern Art: The Past’s Future’, Journal of Design History 5, no. 3, 1992, p. 207-15.

[17] A. Wallach, ‘The Museum of Modern Art: The Past’s Future’, in Journal of Design History 5, no. 3, 1992: p. 214

[18] Wallach, ‘The Museum of Modern Art’, p. 214

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