Roles, Functions and Powers of the Museum: Looking through Daniel Buren’s lens of institutional critique at the Hungarian House of Terror

House of Terror, Churches room, Terror Haza.
House of Terror, Churches room, Terror Haza.

As socially accepted cultural institutions, museums indisputably hold a position of power in relation to potential exhibiters, visitors and the art world in general, and even beyond. This article examines structures and mechanisms of these power relations based on the French artist Daniel Buren’s conceptual network of roles and functions of the museum. In addition to these, I propose three notions of power. These theoretical ideas are compared and challenged through the use of contemporary commentary and by way of applying them to the Hungarian museum House of Terror. This text is an open invitation to look at museums through the institutional critique lens: How do these theoretical concepts of a museum’s position become visible and tangible in exhibition spaces? The examination of these layers in the text is intended to encourage the reader to analyse the museum as institution during their next visit.

Diving into theory

Daniel Buren – Simply stripes?

Daniel Buren (*1938) is known for his visual installations, in which he commonly uses 8.7 cm stripes, alternating white and various coloured. The use of the stripes has a firm theoretical basis. Buren was one of the main artists practicing institutional critique since the 1960s. He has published numerous texts, in which he aims to examine elements of the art scene that are presumed self-evident. Through his visual and theoretical work, he makes a thorough analysis of museums as institutions.

What is institutional critique?

The Tate Modern museum describes institutional critique as “the act of critiquing an institution as artistic practice, the institution usually being a museum or an art gallery“. [1] The first big wave started in the 1960s. The term critique has a negative connotation in everyday language, yet here, institutional critique means challenging, differentiating and evaluating actions, operational standards and goals of institutions. Buren’s institutional critique addresses both art institutions and, more generally, actions, norms and goals of society.

The museum beyond its building

The Brockhaus encyclopaedia defines the term museum place for scholarly activities. [2] Since the 18th century, we understand museums as public collections of artistic and scientific objects and the building holding these. [3] A museum comprises both architectural structure and complex inner and outer networks of actions, norms and goals. It acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment. [4]

In the following, we will track the development of various power relations within a museum’s network. Power is understood as the sum of forces and means, which the museum has at its disposal for executing its intentions. [5]

Roles, powers and functions: network of the museum

Buren divides the museum’s roles into aesthetic, economic and mystical; and the functions into preservation, collection and refuge. These terms also refer to galleries and other spaces with cultural claims.

From roles to powers:

From aesthetic role to contextualising power

The first role of the museum described by Buren is called aesthetic: It refers to the substantial, topographical and cultural framework “upon which the work is inscribed/composed.” [6] This includes the concrete material like a wall, showcase and the exhibition location, [7] as well as theoretical layers, such as provided historical background information, through which the museum contextualises the work. From the aesthetic role, the contextualising power arises thus.

From economic role to hierarchising power

Displayed objects are taken out of their original environment and function. The museum chooses to exhibit certain works, which also makes them privileged and more valuable outside of the collection. [8] Inner and outer hierarchies emerge. This ensures the popularisation and consumption of the works: each of them gets a commercial value. This is what Buren calls the economic role of the museum. Through the focus on selection and evaluation, this becomes the hierarchising power of the museum.

From mystical role to categorising power

The third role of the museum – the mystical – means that exhibited items are instantly assigned “Art“ status through the museum’s space and institution. [9] Questioning of the piece’s validity as a work of art is thereby restrained to a greater or lesser extent. “The Museum […] constitutes the mystical body of Art.” [10]

The mystical role of the museum is a combination of the aesthetic and economic roles: the topological and cultural context and the inner and outer hierarchisation evokes the mystification of the exhibition objects. The contextualising and hierarchising powers combine into the categorising power, making Buren’s use of the fleeting term mystical more graspable.

These three roles and powers can be found in any museum, yet their intensity varies due to socio-politics, as they are in interaction with surrounding roles and powers.

Installation views: Guggenheim International Exhibition, 1971
Installation views: Guggenheim International Exhibition, 1971, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 12–April 11, 1971. Photos: Robert E. Mates

Powers in the three functions of preservation, collection and refuge

In preservation

Buren names the three functions of the museum as preservation, collection and refuge. Preservation is an initial, technical function which differs between museums and galleries: preserving for exhibition versus for sale, long-term versus short-term. Museums are commonly obliged to conserve their art works in terms of material, information and value. This preservation “from the effects of time” [11] is one of the oldest functions of the museum. It creates an illusion of immortality or timelessness, strengthening the ideology of Art and maintaining the value of the art works. [12] Without the idea of eternity, the idea of preservation does not actually make any sense. Accordingly, preserving a valueless object is purposeless. As the original context of an object cannot be completely maintained, a selective preservation and repeated exhibition of its material and immaterial parts as well as new research serve to keep the idea of eternity and the value of the work intact. The museum preserves exhibited works by forcing them into its framework through its contextualising, hierarchising and categorising power “in a deep and indelible way“. [13]

In collection

Museums collect in order to preserve, simultaneously becoming cultural and visual monopolies,  singular viewpoints from which art works are considered. Collecting generates simplification: Through (re)contextualising and categorising in group exhibitions or one-wo/man shows, each art work is reduced to just one among many pieces. Ironically, the aspiration to maintain the artwork indefinitely is thwarted by the very attempt to do so: As an art work is welcomed into the museum, it enters “an enclosure where art is born and buried“. [14]

Collections are perceived as a combination of art works and the institution itself, flattening different artists into movements, groups and isms. The work’s own socio-historical weight is secured but diminished, concurrently raising the importance of the museum. By differentiating the physical presence and cultural weight of the art work from the museum, the institution’s power becomes visible. For example, in group exhibitions, specific works are highlighted – often selected according to economic value – showing the hierarchising power and further simplifying the art work: “the collection forces into comparison things that are often incomparable“. [15] A similar economic selection takes place in establishing and maintaining a single artist’s collection: the hierarchising power selects which works are classics, side products and failures. Categorising and contextualising works into groups have a cultural and economic aim. Collecting raises the financial value of the masterpieces, through which the same artist’s less successfully rated works also go up in price, simultaneously increasing the financial value of the institution.

In refuge

Implying the escape from a threat, the third function of the museum is to provide refuge. “The Museum is an asylum” [16], offering shelter from weather, transience and any kind of questioning – as mentioned before in preservation. “The museum selects, collects and protects. All works of art are made in order to be selected, collected and protected“. [17] The museum offers comfort and a frame – a frame that is considered natural, although it is merely historical. This includes even works which are initiated outside of the museum building, such as Land Art, as its documentation still finds refuge in museums. Inevitably, all art works are imprinted by the places they are exhibited in and each work exists inside several frameworks: for example, a painting is held by a physical frame, the material of the canvas, a cultural place and a cultural context (an intangible time period and a tangible medium). These frames are inescapable and can merely be reflected on: Buren asks for explicit examination of the influence of the museums’ refuge frame upon one’s work, as otherwise it falls “into the illusion of self-sufficiency – or idealism.” [18] Only by (purposefully) forgetting that every art work is essentially framed by time and space, can one continue believing in the existence of an immortal art and eternal work, produced by the roles, functions and powers of the museum. By presenting a supposed objective and apolitical time, eternity and history of an object, we imply the same for humans. By ignoring the existing frames – through the not-seeing, not-naming and not-showing of them – conventions and mechanisms of the museum and the society are maintained and uniformed.

Additional voices

The European institution of a museum dates back to approximately 200 years ago. [19] It still occupies a central cultural position, although the contemporary museum affirms the reflection on transience and heterogeneity, unlike in Buren’s writings. The aesthetic dictionary Ästhetische Grundbegriffe describes the museum space to be an expression of power in its representative dimension. [20] Political and economic power are named; both resonating with the three powers developed in this article. The hierarchising power, for example, is closely connected with the political, due to the political system’s influence on the selection of exhibited and socially accepted values. The hierarchising power also has an economic impact on the museum, as mentioned before. It is not merely inherent to museums; it is a dominant aspect of the art funding as a whole. The unsolvable dilemma of distributing funds amongst the arts manifests in the economic role of the museum. Whether it be general politics or inside one institution, art funding always requires content-related decisions. It even involves non-consumers of art, as art contributes to societal discourses.

Rather than being predetermined aspects of the museum, the hierarchising power and economic role are formed on the art market as ideological constructs with little influence by the artists. [21] Tourism and audience maximisation are points of orientation for the economic role and hierarchising power of the museums. This transforms art works into instruments, while losing their own value. Mayerhofer et al. trust in democratic control by involvement of the general public, as it seems to be the only effective protection from turning necessary decisions concerning art politics into plain censorship. [22]

Austrian art historian Werner Hofmann (1928–2013) has commented on similar aspects as Buren in his essay Funktionswandel des Museums, which was published nine years after Buren’s texts. In contrast to Buren’s critically deducing approach, Hofmann develops a new concept for a museum ideal.

Analogous to Buren’s functions of the museum preservation and refuge, Hofmann notes that the museum seeks to preserve museum objects and art immaculately and to separate from the everyday reality. According to Hofmann, museums became islands of beauty amidst the deformed world of the 19th century; aesthetic churches, protective spaces – a refuge for the art. [23] In both theories, the hierarchising power becomes apparent in the curation of exhibited objects. [24]

While Buren criticises the ideal of a pure objectivity, [25] Hofmann suggests a more vivid, subjective museum with a closer connection to the present in order to reduce the aspiration to objectivity and eternity. Hofmann describes a new museum, which opens up to the reality outside of the institution and offers habitation to art, which otherwise remains homeless. In contrast to Buren, Hofmann depicts transformed functions of the museum since the 19th century. In his ideal, he sees the museum and the artwork merging organically – like shell and core. The museum functions as commissioner and place of transaction for new ideas. [26]

Throwing the network: Applying Buren to the House of Terror museum

Unlike Buren’s texts, which seek to criticise, reveal and lever out the powers of museums, the Hungarian museum House of Terror utilises them to direct the visitor’s physical and mental navigation. The museum opened in 2002, presenting itself as a “memorial to the victims” [27] of the two terror regimes of national socialism and communism. Its theatrical, dramatic exhibition spaces affect the visitors’ emotions through a multi-sensual conception. When entering, you are welcomed by violin music specifically composed for this museum, candlelight and a video, where a man is mourning about terror underline the dramatic atmosphere. Throughout the exhibitions, items and images such as this entrance video, collected documents and objects are presented with a focus on an emotional instead of an informative impact on the spectators. The scenographic methods used by the museum are theatre-like. Examples include playing with darkness in order to disorientate and illuminate only chosen objects, or providing only a singular route through the exhibition spaces. This method of experience and knowledge composition qualifies the House of Terror for investigation into whether the roles, functions and powers of the museum are also to be found in a non-art institution.

The aesthetic dictionary states generally about museums that selection and presentation aesthetics can feign a historical linearity, in which the museum visitors see themselves either as the last link to a historical series – reducing everything from the past to a mere antecedence of today – or as a sovereign critic, who – seemingly timeless, at least from the overview of a later-born – judges and denounces at will and according to their own interests. [28] The House of Terror seems to put the visitor in an emotionally engaged, but distantly assessing position: Through precise selection of the presented data and information, the theatre-like presentation aesthetic and technique direct the visitors through the exhibition – which starts from the top floor and ends in the basement. The controlled guidance of the visitors conveys more than a historical linearity: it seems as if there exists a singular reality, which has lead from the past into the present time.

The hierarchising power of the museum is articulated through the selection of information, exhibited objects and route. In a museum which claims to be educating about a certain part of the past, one might question and challenge the presented realities less than in an art museum, as art is generally seen as more subjective than history. The contextualising power of the House of Terror does not lift the exhibited objects into the sphere of Art – they become truth. The aesthetic role of the museum presents data as facts, they are categorised as such. As a seemingly neutral space, the House of Terror presents itself as a refuge for history by preserving and collecting documents. The financial value of the objects is also raised outside the museum, securing its economic role. Without pre-knowledge about the terrors of national socialism and communism, the demand for such information and museums thematising these would be much lower.

The mystical role of the museum can be read in the numerous emotional and empathetic reactions in the reviews of the museum. [29] The amount of negative comments is low and they are mainly concerned with the fact that often information is only available in Hungarian. There are hardly any comments on the presentation aesthetic. The museum claims authenticity for itself and the exhibition objects through the mystical role and power. Hereby, the past is artificially separated from the present. The past is understood as true, relevant and emotional, yet kept at a certain distance from everyday life. The extraordinarily dark spaces, where only chosen parts are illuminated through sharp spotlights and the wax-like haptic of partition walls ensure this delusive experience. The perception differs greatly from our everyday life and makes sure the exhibition stays in the context of the museum, far away from our present.

Reeling in conclusions

The theory of roles, functions and powers of museums can be found in art and non-art museums. Some nuances might differ, such as exhibited objects being categorised into facts instead of art works. Nevertheless, they can yet be recognised in different institution types – making the theory intriguing to search for in any institution.

As the example of the House of Terror shows, each museum utilises these aspects in their own way. The double character of the museum as concrete location and imaginary space creates a complex frame for each exhibition. [30] Designing this network of roles, functions and powers is inevitable for a museum. Yet, the crucial point is how a museum recognises and consciously puts this network into place. Some museums intentionally draw attention to their roles, functions and powers. One interesting example is the Pinakothek der Moderne with its exhibition Feelings [31], in which all exhibition texts and information are deliberately left out. The spectators are left alone with their experience and the art works. This gives the opportunity to reflect on a visitor’s dependence on information provided by the museum – part of its role, function and power.

House of Terror, 2009, Tbachner, CC BY 3.0.
House of Terror, 2009, Tbachner, CC BY 3.0.

Institutional critique, such as Buren’s theory, aspires to analyse and evaluate the existing structures. Instead of being the institution’s opponent, institutional critique can become the developer and re-inventor of art and non-art museums, as well as other cultural spaces, such as galleries, festivals and theatres.

Text: Tanja Becher

Tanja Becher writes, lectures and researches on how we give meaning to artworks. As a content creator crossing borders, she holds prize-winning master’s degrees in both Scenography (2019) and Art History (2020).

Originally, this text was written in 2017. This article is a shortened translation produced for Mustekala in 2020. The full text “Macht der Museen – In Theorie und Praxis“ is available in German.


[1] Tate n.d.

[2] Brockhaus 2006c, 145. Originally in German: “Ort für gelehrte Beschäftigung“; Museum: “lat. [in Latin] »Ort für gelehrte Beschäftigung«, von griech. [in Greek] mouseīon »Musensitz«, zu moūsa »Muse«“.

[3] Brockhaus 2006c, 145.

[4] ICOM n.d.

[5] Brockhaus 2006b, 363: “Im allgemeinsten Verständnis bezeichnet M. die Summe aller Kräfte und Mittel, die einem Akteur […] gegenüber einem anderen Akteur zur Durchsetzung einer Absicht zur Verfügung stehen.“.

[6] Buren 1993, 189.

[7] Buren 1995a, 128–129.

[8] For further reading, I suggest Hasala 2020, in which chief curator of the Ateneum Art Museum Sointu Fritze elaborates about variations of art works, for example, in advertisement.

[9] Buren 1993, 189; Buren 1995b, 144.

[10] Buren 1993, 189.

[11] Buren 1993, 190.

[12] Buren 1995b, 145.

[13] Buren 1993, 190.

[14] Buren 1993, 190.

[15] Buren 1993, 191; Buren 1995b, 148.

[16] Buren 1993, 191.

[17] Buren 1993, 191.

[18] Buren 1993, 192.

[19] Vedder 2010, 148.

[20] Vedder 2010, 185. Originally in German: “[i]n seiner repräsentativen Dimension […] der museale Raum Ausdruck einer Macht“

[21] Mayerhofer et al. 2005, 184.

[22] Mayerhofer et al. 2005, 189.

[23] Hofmann 1979, 265.

[24] Hofmann 1979, 268.

[25] Hofmann 1979, 268.

[26] Hofmann 1979, 275.

[27] Terror Háza n.d.

[28] Vedder 2010, 183. Originally in German: “Durch eine mit Hilfe von Auswahl und Präsentationsästhetik fingierte historische Linearität kann sich der Museums- […]besucher entweder als letztes […] Glied in einer historischen Reihe begreifen, die alles Vergangene zur bloßen Vorläuferschaft des Heute reduziert, oder aber als souveräner Kritiker, der scheinbar zeitenthoben, jedenfalls aus dem geschichtlichen Überblick des Nachgeborenen nach Belieben und eigenen Interessen urteilt und verurteilt.“

[29] TripAdvisor n.d.; Google Maps n.d.

[30]Vedder 2010, 184.

[31] Pinakothek der Moderne 2019.


Alberro 1997

Alexander Alberro, The Turn of the Screw: Daniel Buren, Dan Flavin, and the Sixth Guggenheim International Exhibition, in: October 80 (Frühling 1997), 57–84.

Ateneum 2016

Ateneum, Alice Neel, in: Ateneum Art Museum Homepage, 2016 (7.2.2017),

Brockhaus 2006a

Art. Kritik, in: Brockhaus Enzyklopädie, Band 15 KIND–KRUS. F.A. Brockhaus, Leipzig/Mannheim 2006.

Brockhaus 2006b

Art. Macht, in: Brockhaus Enzyklopädie, Band 17 LINL–MATG. F.A. Brockhaus, Leipzig/Mannheim 2006.

Brockhaus 2006c

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Buren 1993

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Buren 1995a

Daniel Buren, Grenzen/Kritik, in: id., Achtung! Texte 1967–1991, ed. Gudrun Inboden. Verlag der Kunst, Dresden/Basel 1995, 123–142.

Buren 1995b

Daniel Buren, Die Funktion des Museums, in: id., Achtung! Texte 1967–1991, ed. Gudrun Inboden. Verlag der Kunst, Dresden/Basel 1995, 143–151.

Buren 2012

Daniel Buren, Les écrits: 1965–2012. Volume 1. 1965–1995. Flammarion, Paris 2012.

Google Maps n.d.

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Hasala 2020

Irina Hasala, Kun klassikkoteos valjastetaan mainontaan, Mona Lisa työskentelee mehumyyjänä, eikä sitä voi estää – Asiantuntija kertoo, mikä tekee tietyistä maalauksista houkuttelevia mainostajille, in: Helsingin Sanomat, 16.7.2020 (2.9.2020),

Hofmann 1979

Werner Hofmann, Funktionswandel des Museums, in: id., Gegenstimmen. Aufsätze zur Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1979, 265–276.

ICOM n.d.

ICOM, Resources: Museum definition, in: ICOM Homepage (14.2.2017),

Mayerhofer et al. 2005

Elisabeth Mayerhofer, Monika Mokre, Paul Stepan, Die Kunst der Kunstpolitik: Kunstpolitik im Spannungsfeld zwischen Zensur und Markversagen, in: Europa braucht wieder Politik, eds. Franz Vranitzky, Rupert Weinzierl. Novographic, Wien 2005, 183–190.

Meissner 1997

Günter Meissner (ed.), Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon: die bildenden Künstler aller Zeiten und Völker, Bd. 15. Bucki–Campagnari. Saur, München/Leipzig 1997.

Pinakothek der Moderne 2019

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Queens Museum 2016

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Tate n.d.

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Terror Háza n.d.

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TripAdvisor n.d.

TripAdvisor, House of Terror Museum: Bewertungen, in: TripAdvisor Deutschland (7.2.2017),

Vedder 2010

Ulrike Vedder, Museum/Ausstellung, in: Ästhetische Grundbegriffe, Band 7, eds. Karlheinz Barck, Martin Pontius, Dieter Schlenztest, Burkhardt Steinwachs, Friedrich Wolfzettel. J.B. Metzler, Stuttgart/Weimar 2010 (2005), 148–190.