Portrait of curator and writer Dorothea von Hantelmann

Dorothea von Hantelmann, 2015

One doesn’t need to go very far to discover connections between the museum and choreography. In his book The Birth of the Museum, the sociologist Tony Bennett postulates an intrinsic link between the museum and specific mind- and body-shaping practices. He even speaks of museum objects as ‘props for a social performance’ of the visitors. For him, this social performance marks the actual core of the museum ritual. Presented artefacts merely act as a cultural resource, which is utilised as a tool (or prop) for physical and mental practices that aim to induct the visitor into an improving relationship to the self. In other words, we learn to contemplate objects aesthetically by observing others as they observe art works. We come to both understand and embody the abstract category of progress as we literally progress through an architecture that translates time in spatially compartmentalised historical epochs – from the collections of the old masters to our contemporaries.

Seen in this perspective, the museum is a fundamentally choreographic endeavour. It stages, prescribes and programmes the body as well as the mind. In Museum Bodies, the scholar Helen Rees Leahy describes how walking, talking, reading, looking and being looked at have constituted a repertoire of bodily techniques. She also reminds us that the sensorial regime on which museums are built is based on a hierarchy that prioritises seeing and a visual nature, and with these the facilities on which modern Western thinking and culture is based – ie, reflection and judgement. Vision is a distancing sense, which, like other concepts relating to separation and distinction, is fundamental to the rise of modernity: the separation of nature from culture, of people from their existing social structures, of rationality from other belief systems, and of exhibited objects from their networks of use and function. One of the most prescient attacks on this fundamental gesture of separation was articulated in 1943, by the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, whose essay, ‘Art and Reality: From the Standpoint of Cultural Anthropology’, presents the idea of a ritual that addresses the being as a whole, in all its senses, as a rational but also embodied spiritual or transcendent being.

To reflect on the choreographic element of museums means to work on the museum’s corporeality in all its social, political and governmental aspects. This implies a challenge to the sensorial regime that underlies the museum and deviations to the canon that it produces. The museum’s canon of the twentieth century is one of the object and of art history. It is deeply linked to concepts of modernity and modernisation. In the canon of the twenty-first century, Balanchine would be as important as Malevich. This canon would also comprise a history of bodily postures and forms of embodiment.