Museum Atmospheres: Notes on Aura, Distance and Affect

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This paper, taking its cue from Gottfried Korff’s theory of museum display, reflects upon the atmospherics of museum objects. When Korff develops his idea that museums provide a ‘brokering service’ to do with the regulation of distance, he invokes Walter Benjamin’s formulation of ‘aura’, which is understood to arise out of an interplay of proximity and distance, emanating from what Theodor Adorno would describe as the ‘more of the phenomenon’ that exceeds its raw facticity. Benjamin’s concept is also taken up by the philosopher Gernot Böhme in his influential theorisation of atmospheres as aesthetic phenomena. Böhme clearly understands Benjamin’s ‘aura’ as atmosphere, albeit in a theoretically undifferentiated form, and locates it within his overall therapeutic programme to develop an expanded conception of aesthetics that overturns the Kantian schema and returns it instead to Baumgarten. While Böhme advances his idea of atmosphere with a view to a recovery of the totality of the body and its senses for aesthetic theory, this paper questions to what extent atmospheric experience in fact turns out to be in concert with environments that strategically limit or restrain sensory experience, often in ways that participate in the kind of assumed hierarchy of the senses that Böhme wants to reject. And here the museum, an institution that Susan Stewart has described as an ‘elaborately ritualised practice of refraining from touch’, seems a particularly interesting example, not least in the way it emerges as one of the sites within modernity in which the structure of ritual auratic art, as theorised by Benjamin, comes to be re-performed. The paper concludes by reflecting on some of the anxieties that attend distance—social alienation and estrangement from objects—and examines two cases in which atmospheric manipulation is solicited in an attempt to overcome it.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)187-201
Number of pages14
JournalThe Journal of Architecture
Issue number2
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 25 Apr 2014


  • aura
  • museum
  • atmosphere
  • affect


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