Theory and Society

, Volume 43, Issue 6, pp 617–645 | Cite as

Preserving the unpreservable: docile and unruly objects at MoMA

  • Fernando Domínguez Rubio


The aim of this article is to theorize how materials can play an active, constitutive, and causally effective role in the production and sustenance of cultural forms and meanings. It does so through an empirical exploration of the Museum of Modern Art of New York (MoMA). The article describes the museum as an “objectification machine” that endeavors to transform and to stabilize artworks as meaningful “objects” that can be exhibited, classified, and circulated. The article explains how the extent to which the museum succeeds in this process of stabilization ultimately depends on the material properties of artworks and, more specially, on whether these behave as “docile” or “unruly” objects. Drawing on different empirical examples, the article explores how docile and unruly objects shape organizational dynamics within the museum and, through them, the wider processes of institutional and cultural reproduction. The article uses this empirical example to highlight the importance of developing a new “material sensibility” that restores heuristic dignity to the material within cultural sociology.


Museums Materiality Docile objects Unruly objects Cultural sociology 



Funding for this project was provided by the European Research Council through a Marie Curie Grant (PIOF-GA-2009-254783). I have been immensely fortunate to benefit from the intellectual generosity of many colleagues and friends including Howard Becker, Gemma Mangione, Terence McDonnell, Harvey Molotch, Chandra Mukerji, Kathleen Oberlin, Álvaro Santana Acuña, Elizabeth Silva, Christo Sims, and Glenn Wharton. I would also like to thank the Theory and Society reviewers of this article for their extremely helpful, constructive, and insightful comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of CommunicationUniversity of CaliforniaSan DiegoUSA

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