Historical Social Research

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Gordon J. FyfeEstablished-Outsider Relations and the Socio-Genesis of the Museum’ [Abstract]

It is surprising that little research has been conducted by Eliasians on museums and that, with some exceptions, academics working on museums do not cite The Civilizing Process. All the more so given that: (i) museum research supports Elias’s claim that elements of modernity originated in court societies, (ii) the nineteenth-century museum was a leading edge of the West’s belief in itself as a singularly civilized place and (iii) there is a contradiction between the museum’s universalism and its latent capacity to stigmatize some visitors as uncivilized outsiders. Indeed, Elias’s theory of established-outsider relations offers profound insights into the museum dimension of social stigma and the socio-genesis of the museum. First, an Eliasian perspective illuminates the relationship between museums and the peculiar structures of feeling that flowed from the interdependencies of modernization. Secondly, in studying European upper classes, he stressed the co-existence of different propertied strata within nineteenth-century states. This explains the apparent inchoateness of European national museums as they emerged at the interface of ruling dynastic elites and upwardly mobile bourgeois outsiders. Thirdly, documentary evidence reveals the museum to be a place where middle class people incorporated and transformed a courtly habitus whilst simultaneously stigmatizing both aristocratic and working class ways of living the body. Finally, Elias elaborated dynamic models of established-outsider relations, emphasizing their ‘complex polyphony’ as the key to explaining the power to stigmatize. The museum performed that polyphony at the interface of established-outsider relations; it could be said that they were the very causes of museums.

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