In a 1927 lecture the Director of the British Museum Sir Frederic Kenyon countered the futurist leader F. T. Marinetti's calls for the destruction of museums by arguing that “in times of upheaval . . . salvation is to be found in adherence to tradition” rather than in “break[ing] loose from” it. Kenyon explained the museum's role in promoting this salvation:
A visit to a museum will not by itself quench a revolution. It would have been useless to invite the pétroleuses of the Commune to an official lecture in the Egyptian Gallery at the Louvre; but if they had been brought up to respect the past, there might have been a revolution without pétroleuses. Every form of instruction or experience which teaches men to link their lives with the past makes for stability and ordered progress. Hence the value of history and hence also the value of those institutions which teach history informally and without tears. (24–25)
This is perhaps the most explicit statement of the British Museum's ideological function in early twentieth-century museum discourse. The museum acts as an ideological state apparatus that calls out to museum-goers to identify with, rather than agitate against, the social order symbolized in the “examples of great men” and the “monuments of the past” (23–24). Though not without critics, much of the new museology since the 1980s draws on this historical record and poststructuralist theory to argue that the modern museum operates as a site for the reflection or reinforcement of existing power relations. Critics have associated the museum, for example, with racism and sexism (Haraway), with classism (Bourdieu and Darbel), with imperialism and colonialism (Barringer and Flynn), with mechanisms of social control (Sherman and Rogoff), and with the consecration of state authority (Duncan and Wallach). Whereas Kenyon's defense of the museum suggests a reactionary position, the cultural destruction he combats amounts to a revolutionary act, whether accomplished by the “gay incendiaries with charred fingers” exhorted by Marinetti in his movement-founding manifesto of 1909 or the communardes
accused of torching the French capital during the semaine sanglante
in 1871 (43). For cultural destruction is inescapably political, as Antonio Gramsci argued in “Marinetti the Revolutionary” (1916). The Italian theorist and political activist identified the futurist discourse against the museum and the aesthetic tradition it perpetuates with the Marxist task of destroying “spiritual hierarchies, prejudices, idols and ossified traditions” to make way for the creation of a new, proletarian civilization (Gramsci 215).