Inherently Political Museums: How Does the White Cube Affect Art’s Agency?
I. ZEYNEP DAMGACIOGLU
University of Michigan
THEORY AND PRACTICE, VOL. 4, 2021
Keywords museum, political, contemporary art, white cube, objectivity
Abstract Politics are inherent to museums’ existences, despite the current wave of museums that are attempting to showcase their collections in objective environments. These contemporary art museums, with their white cube gallery spaces and perfectly placed pieces of art, seem like they are giving us the freedom of forging our own connections and extracting our own narratives from what we see. Though this serves to bring more people into the museums, is it really acceptable for us to represent museums as objective, non-political entities? This kind of representation not only causes the art to lose its agency and relevance in the contemporary world, but also renders museums unable to accomplish other goals, such as education. From this lens, the article traces the history of museology to unearth the inherent political structures of museums. Next, the article explores how this stance affects the art and its agency. Finally, the article examines, using contemporary news articles, how we can balance the power of museums for a more transparent way of displaying objects that constructs legitimized social narratives.
About the Author I. Zeynep Damgacioglu (born in Istanbul, Turkey) is currently practicing as an architect at SOUR Studio. Prior to this, she was a Master’s in Architecture student at the University of Michigan where she has taken courses in Aesthetics and Museum History on the side. She also earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture from the University of Cincinnati. Zeynep has also worked professionally at architecture firms in places such as Singapore, New York, Istanbul and Chicago. Zeynep has written about issues of the nature of representation at contemporary art and architecture museums, from the perspective of how it affects the visitors and their access to knowledge. She believes that museums as inherent places of perceiving can aid in constructing transparent awareness in different fields of art and architecture, and enable a more responsive society. She recently won an award for her essay on “The Identity of the Generic City” from the Architectural Association in Ankara, Turkey and had her essay published in their journal.
The White Cube
Given museums’ powerful influence on the way we think, and considering all of the layers of interpretation involved in curating an exhibition, an objective museum space is unimaginable. However, in today’s contemporary art museums, we are faced with the phenomenon of the white cube, where the walls are decontextualized and all traces of decisions and ideologies that lay behind the curation and the presentation are erased. This inevitably creates a power imbalance and a loss in the agency of the works of art. As the referential relationship of the art museum and the outside world diminishes, the esoteric nature of the galleries grows.
What being political means in the context of contemporary art museums is important. In the simplest terms, the MacMillan Dictionary defines political as “relating to relationships of power that exist between people in an organization,” and offers this example: “Everything in our company is so political that you never know who you can trust.” This definition and example provides a foundation for this article, which attempts to challenge the objectivity of the white cube contemporary art museum. Historically, museums have been places of power due to their ability to showcase and house objects together in one place. In “The Politics of Museums,” Clive Gray discusses the way museums exercise this power. “Museums can be seen to establish a means to represent the manner in which power is distributed within societies in terms of what is believed to be worthy of exhibiting within them, the manner in which this exhibition takes place, and whose interests are represented within these exhibitions.” In museums, there are many decisions being made before the objects make it into the galleries, and an imbalance in the distribution of such power can easily allow the domination of a single idea or perspective. And since this perspective is bolstered through the representation of concrete evidence—the objects being exhibited—it can create a very subjective and didactic environment that is disguised as proper truth and objectivity. This play of power in museums includes the objects’ relationship to each other as well as between the objects and the people who are viewing them.
In addition, museums have a long-standing relationship with daily life. As Gray suggested, choosing what objects are deemed worth taking care of and exhibiting, picked from the flow of history, points to a series of decisions and interpretations that are made before they arrive to the seemingly objective environment of the white cube. Therefore, speaking of museums as political entities without examining their external context would be ignoring one of the true sources of the museum’s power and intention.
Museums’ Inherently Political Nature
To understand these power dynamics and hence how decisions are made in the museums, the initial question to ask is: “What are museums for?”. This is not a simple question as museums are entities that change to reflect the needs and themes of their era. Therefore, this article focuses on the typology of the contemporary art museum of today where a collection is exhibited in a building to an audience.
Tracing the roots of this typology, the idea of a collection curated to form connections with each other and the space they are housed in was prominent during the cabinet of curiosities era in the West, during colonialism’s golden hour. These cabinets contained many objects from around the world and acted as a tool for people to sort through this information by categorizing and arranging the objects. This was a way to try to comprehend the holistic systems that create the world we live in.
Even though these cabinets of curiosities were mostly self-referential, as the owner’s subjective view of the world was what brought the objects together, they weren’t just for research. These cabinets were also proof of possession, a power flex, by showing how the owners had access to these types of unique objects. At the time of the rise of the bourgeois, these cabinets gave the public a chance to gain high status in society, as social standing was no longer just dependent on their bloodline, but also on what they owned. Hence, people of the time would organize tours of their houses and take their visitors around to display their status.
Additionally, as states started to comprehend the importance of such an exhibition of power, museums started to thrive. One of the great examples of this is the Altes Museum. Built in 1830 during Germany’s struggles to become one of the powerful countries of Europe, the museum showcased artifacts with an air of veneration. The main room, the rotunda, contained the most important pieces on pedestals, forcing visitors to look up to them, and invoking a sense of pride in the power of the German state. The room itself was decorated with Corinthian columns, which is the highest order of column design in ancient Greek architecture, hinting the national identity Germany was obtaining through these objects.
The Musée du Louvre was founded in 1793, pre-dating the Altes Museum (Berlin, Germany). Founded after the French Revolution of 1789, it couldn’t have been further from playing an objective role. It was the first museum to grant free access to the public. The public, who had never had free access to what used to be a royal palace filled with art usually reserved for the aristocratic class, flooded the halls of the Musée du Louvre (Paris, France) not to see the artworks but to be seen in the presence of them. Though entrance was free, the museum still played a role in creating social and cultural relationships through the simple method of who had been in it. Having been in the museum and in the presence of objects that had belonged to the royal family gave the public a sense of empowerment, further emphasizing the power relationship between the audience and the objects.
Furthermore, the Musée du Louvre’s collection was laid out in a certain way to facilitate unification among the French people, aligning with the era’s movement against the monarchy. Thus, the pieces at were categorized by school to show progression over time, allowing people to experience their ancestry and position themselves in the history of France. This experience fostered nationalism and enabled French citizens to construct an identity and a sense of united community while they were in the midst of rebuilding the way their country operated. The exhibition and interpretation of the museum collections were used to create an ideology.
The Musée du Louvre is also vital because of the pieces it added to its collection during the Napoleonic era. Through Napoleon’s expansive conquests in Europe, the Musée du Louvre obtained many pieces from places such as Italy, the Netherlands, and Austria, demonstrating the power of the French Empire much like the Altes Museum did for Germany. As the owners of the cabinets of curiosities displayed their power through access to and ownership of objects from around the world, so did the colonial empires of the era by using museums to display how far their power extended.
Museums are not only political because of their role in social systems, but also because of their most fundamental characteristic: possession. Just as the objects in the cabinets of curiosities granted status to their owners, museums are about a collection of items that are exclusively owned by that organization and no one else. This sort of exclusive ownership has implications embedded in humanity’s most primal instincts. According to Walter Benjamin, the most intimate relationship we can have with an object is ownership because of our ability to infuse these objects with our own meaning once we own them, rebirthing them into the society. This object, its fate, and the narratives built into it will change, and the perspective others view it from will differ depending on who owns it.
In “Museum Culture”, Boris Groys speaks about how in the Soviet Union, Russians used this characteristic of museums to their advantage. Museum collections were altered intentionally to perpetuate the ideas of the state and to educate citizens to position themselves in the current time and in history in a way that supported these views. Museums were only able to do so because they had the power to possess said collections. Groys wrote:
“For this reason, they themselves situated the art within the system of proletarian education: indeed, in order to construct the beautiful in life itself, the proletariat first needed some ideal of beauty to embody. It was inevitable that this ideal be discovered in the artistic heritage of the past, though that heritage first had to be sorted out so that museums ended up only with works edifying to the proletariat, and it had to be purged of everything that might hinder that education.”
In museums, national or foreign objects obtained by the public or the government were configured in specific ways to create statements of power and ideologies, recalling Gray’s statement that, “In this respect museums are the sites within which ideologies are displayed just as much as they are sites where collections of artefacts are displayed.”
According to Louis Althusser, a state apparatus (SA) is the combination of tools that the state uses to exercise its power over its public. Hence what Althusser sees as the ideological state apparatus (ISA) “function massively and predominantly by ideology.” These advocate forand ensure the longevity of the “ruling ideology” and can operate through institutions such as churches or schools. One more characteristic that is very important to ISAs is that they require of the willingness of the people. This speaks to people’s desire to be included in an ideology, which can result in “a subjected being, who submits to a higher authority, and is therefore stripped of all freedom except that of freely accepting his submission.” After submission, the person no longer has the free will they once did and can only exist in that ideology by obeying the rules of that ideology. This kind of exercise of power proves why museums are used as a center for education as an ISA. This is an extreme example of how museums can be used to educate and manipulate; however it does a good job of revealing the traces of polity and power in museums.
These ideological frames are also a method for museums to make sense of the information and objects at hand. In “The Order of Things”, Foucault examines how humans orient things in relation to each other in a certain way to create tables of knowledge. These tables of knowledge are a way for people to organize and understand the overwhelming amount of information that exists in our universe by categorizing and creating information systems. Museums categorize their collections based on a certain table of knowledge and method of comprehension. As with cabinet of curiosities and the Musée du Louvre, this inevitably creates a perspective or an interpretation that is ultimately subjective. Hence, this subjectivity and ideological frame push museums to act politically as, intentionally or unintentionally, they are serving certain interests of a certain class of people over the others. As a result, though today’s white cube art museums seem objective to the public, in reality, the inner workings of interpretation are hidden, as these spaces only disguise the true political and ideological structures that create the information that the audience is receiving.
In museums, curators usually drive these interpretations. As mentioned in Campanella’s “The City of the Sun”, the “gesture of exposure” symbolizes the exposure of the public to information extracted by certain people and implies a “flow of truth.” These claims of truth also exist in museums as museums also present information to their audiences as though it is the only truth. The concrete evidence of objects puts the curators in a powerful position and elevates them over the public as the more knowledgeable of the two, reinforcing the effects of museums’ power structures and the role they play in the creation of ideological frames.
Curators choose which pieces of the collection are exhibited, the manner they are exhibited in, and the ideas that are represented. Curators can interpret objects because they well informed on the subject and can reveal information, ideas, and connections to the audience. However, this is also political, as the curator holds the power of information. Gray defines this power in terms of legitimacy:
“At their core, the debates that are generated by the claims and counter-claims that are involved in this process are concerned with the political issues of who has the power to make decisions, and normative statements and beliefs about who should have the power to make them. At this level questions of legitimacy inevitably spill over into broader political issues of power, ideology and control.”
Presenting of specific objects in certain configurations as the truth becomes political through museums’ and curators’ positions as authorities on the collection, which is reinforced by the subjective and ideological nature of the often invisible processes of curation and exhibition.
Effects of False Objectivity
In “Reshaping Museum Space,” Ross Parry and Andrew Sawyer discuss how museums adapt to the zeitgeist of the time:
“Critics have noted the importance for the museum of this ‘adaptation to changing circumstances and to the requirements of the time’. …However, equally significant within this process have been the changes in ways of seeing and ways of knowing that each society has built for itself. As disciplines, discourses and taxonomies change so do museums.”
Social change affects the museum’s curation and exhibition style, as illustrated by the origins of the Musée du Louvre; the structure of the museum adapts to a changing context. This adaptability would ensure the longevity of the museum by keeping the institution relevant to the people of the era. This also demonstrates how museums represent daily life and events through the ideas they convey and the way they reflect historical and contemporary lifestyles. If daily life can never be purified of the politics, then neither can museums.
The match of structure (the museum that holds the power) to the agency (the needs and norms of the society) enables a certain interpretation and ideology to be upheld. In order for any change to happen in the way things are interpreted, the structure must fail to keep up with the agency. Otherwise, all the attempts at including a variety of perspectives would be overwhelmed by the structure, which emphasizes the rule of one dominant ideology above others. The seemingly neutral walls of many current art museums imply a static and timeless context, disconnected from the outside world. However, just as museums cannot be separated from their context, they also cannot be a neutral or objective entity that remains unchanged throughout history. As Tokarczuk articulates in her book Flights, humanity is always looking to explore more, and being rooted in one place is against its nature. Therefore, if the agenda of the museum is flexible and changeable, and cannot be removed from its subjective context, how can the museum itself stay static or objective?
Returning to Althusser’s “ruling ideology,” art that is kept in white cubes is also kept under one dominant ideology, with its only reference point the museum and its decision-making processes. In this static context, the ruling ideology becomes the perspective of the museum. As a result of this isolation, an opportunity arises for the museum to use the tool of ISAs to ensure that the art matches their agenda at all times.As a result, the seemingly blank walls of the museum create a tabula rasa effect for the art, removing it from historical narratives and positioning it instead within the narrative of the museum.
Museums may have many reasons to use this to their advantage. For example, the director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, Nicholas Cullinan, recently revealed to the Art Newspaper that 70% of the museum’s funding comes from ticket sales. Although he also mentioned in the article that they don’t just do blockbuster exhibitions to leave room for education and research (as a museum should do, according to him), he does not mention the nature of these smaller exhibitions. From lack of his examples and just how much of the budgeting comes from ticket sales, it is hard to believe that the museum would want to turn away some of their audience by taking a political stance.
However this populist approach puts the works of art at a disadvantage. One of the reasons art is so affected by this depoliticization—or the disguise of objectivity—is that contemporary art is no longer a self-sufficient entity that consists of realistic or sublime pictures enclosed in frames intended to pull us into a world of its own, as it was in the 18th and 19th century. Today, art is highly referential and connected to the world, and it asks viewers to consider the questions it is asking. They depend on the binaries that are formed (e.g., abstraction vs. reality). Yet, as the gallery walls become charged with ideologies, the artwork—already acting as a conduit of ideas—enters a dialogue with the space, raising other questions and interpretations of the exterior context, inevitably causing the art to lose some of its original agency and intention. 
Additionally, from the perspective of the visitors, this creates a disconnect between the audience and the art. O’Doherty calls this the alienation effect, in which the viewer is aware that the work in front of them is art. Simultaneously, the alienation causes the audience to have an out-of-body experience where they can no longer identify or create an intimate relationship with the art due to a lack of direct, first-hand experience. Hence, what they experience always lacks a certain level of comprehension. Art that does not have context and that exists within a hidden power structure pushes us away from forming an intimate relationship with it and understanding its intention. Attempting to understand intention may aid the viewer to build a narrative that can include them or reveal something novel.
However, the political nature of museums doesn’t need to be taken as only didactic or manipulative. In Peter Weiss’, “The Aesthetics of Resistance”, the underlying theme is the relationship between art and politics, and why art should exist in politics. Weiss suggests that objects carry meanings from the past and can be used to uncover the patterns in history by relating artworks to each other in novel ways. Novel relationships will lead to the creation of new narratives around objects, unearthing oppressed moments in history and art. This kind of approach will certainly create a new and diverse ownership and understanding of art. Weiss utilized various forms of labor-related art from the Industrial Revolution era to exemplify this. Though the story that was created was fictional, the historical narrative the pieces created together was truthful. Looked at separately, these objects wouldn’t have revealed what they revealed together, such as the hierarchy of society and the extreme environments laborers worked in. Together, the commonalities between the art objects, such as the sad and tired faces or striking differences between the depictions of the bourgeois class and laborers, revealed this historical narrative. Art, in this case, was used to form novel relationships and meanings to build a whole new identity that was necessary for bolstering an oppressed community and giving them a past just, like the people in Musée du Louvre.
In her article “Museums have a duty to be political”, written for The Art Newspaper, Jillian Steinhauer emphasizes that “neutrality is a fiction” in a museum context and urges museums to take a stance on contemporary issues. She writes that, “truly democratic spaces are not made by remaining neutral; creating them requires recalibrating the balance of power.” She then goes onto discuss how today’s current museum boards and staff in the Western world are largely white, which often results in decisions that exclude people of color. This includes, for example, the still-occurring representation of African art as exclusively historical or ethnographic artifacts, rendering these objects into inert pieces of history, instead of art that has the ability to help viewers build an identity. This further confirms the disconnection people feel in presence of the artworks if they cannot identify with the ruling ideology.
Steinhauer also speaks of all the wrong narratives that are being fed to us in museums and how this could change if museums transparently picked a side. Without a true comprehension of how museums are making decisions, we cannot understand the nature of the narratives.Through the creation of seemingly objective galleries, art is losing its agency. It is clear that in today’s world, contemporary art is an art movement that is an esoteric concept to many. Art placed into these galleries without the context of the outside world is bound to reference the ruling ideology instead. A hidden ideological structure creates the idea that we perceive as an objective truth. In order for art to be able to build the identity that we ask it to build, it has to first be positioned in context and be transparent about its subjectivity, and this inevitably pushes art to gain a certain political meaning.
Two recent articles exemplify how curation and transparency can affect our comprehension of artworks. The Jewish Museum in London recently had an exhibition under the name of “Jews, Money, Myth” that examines anti-Semitism that exists even today. The museum not only sets the context and creates a novel narrative by telling the history of Jewish communities in Britain, it also combats some of long-standing anti-Semitic narratives. One of the methods the museum used is collecting paintings depicting Judaism in various ways and ordering them chronologically to exhibit how these depictions have changed over the course of history. One of the narratives depicted Jewish people as money-hungry as a way to separate Christians from Jews in the New Testament, and as a way to illustrate what it is to be sinful; this marked the beginning of a long-lasting and harmful stigma. The museum takes a political stance by reordering and re-contextualizing artworks to help build a new identity for a historically underrepresented group. The political stance the Jewish Museum is taking and its transparency in doing so reveals new patterns in history.
Another example is the Europejskiego Centrum Solidarności (European Solidarity Centre) in Gdansk, Poland. As a museum funded in large part by the government, the newly elected party wanted to restructure the institution to be directly accountable to the Ministry. However, knowing that this would alter the ideologies of the museum, the museum refused this proposal and kept its independence. Hence, the museum survived becoming an Ideological State Apparatus that may have been used to convey narratives that it didn’t believe in and could be used to manipulative the public. The museum’s transparency about such decision-making enables people to understand the true nature of the information the museum presents.
Even if these examples are small steps in changing the seemingly objective white cubes at the museums, they do begin to reveal how much we are affected by the manner museums decide to exhibit objects to us. As a result, looking at these current events and the inherent political structure of museums, a change in the current museum’s identity seems necessary. Especially with the current rise of internet, and source and authorship issues that come with it, museums may be able to obtain a role of verifier of truthful narratives and keep on building novel ways to view art for the sake of revealing undiscovered traits and stories. However, for this to happen, the museum first needs to acknowledge and embrace its political nature and expose its decision-making process to the public. Then the public can consume the information in an informed manner on what they are consuming through which perspectives and advantage whose interests. It’s almost like citing your sources at the end of an opinion essay for legitimacy. After all, a change in society requires a new narrative, the construction of a social narrative is an action and an action requires causation, which is inevitably political.
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 Clive Gray, The Politics of Museums (Palgrave Macmillan Limited, 2015), 8.
 Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (San Francisco: The Lapis Press, 1986), 34.
 Ross Parry, and Andrew Sawyer, “Space and the Machine,” in Reshaping Museum Space ed. Suzanne Macleod (Taylor & Francis, 2005), 39-52.
 Paula Findlen, “The Modern Muses: Collecting and the Cult of Remembrance in Renaissance Italy,” in Museums and Memory, ed. Susan Crane (Stanford University Press, 2000), 161-244.
 Andrew McClellan, Inventing the Louvre (University of California Press, 1994)
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 Boris Groys, “The Struggle Against the Museum; or, The Display of Art in Totalitarian Space,” in Museum Culture – Histories, Discourses, Spectacles ed. Daniel J. Sherman and Irit Rogoff (University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 145-6.
 Gray, The Politics of Museums, 17.
 Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays – Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Monthly Review Press, 1971), 149.
 Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays – Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, 150.
 Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays – Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, 182.
 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (A Divison of Random House, Inc.)
 Tommaso Campanella, The City of the Sun: A Poetical Dialogue, eds. Louise G. Clubb, trans. Daniel J. Donno (University of California Press, 1981), 27-90.
 Gray, The Politics of Museums, 21.
 Parry, Sawyer, “Space and the Machine,” 39.
 Gray, The Politics of Museums, 20.
 O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube, 7-12.
 Olga Tokarczuk, Flights, trans. Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018)
 Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays – Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, 150.
 Gray, The Politics of Museums, 170.
 Nicholas Cullinan, “When it comes to museum attendance, it’s more than just a numbers game,” The Art Newspaper March 25, 2019, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/it-s-not-just-about-the-numbers.
 O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube, 29.
 O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube, 52–55.
 Jillian Steinhauer, “Museums have a duty to be political,” The Art Newspaper March 20, 2018. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/museums-have-a-duty-to-be-political.
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 Abigail Morris, “Ancient antisemitic tropes are resurfacing—it is time to uncover the myths,” The Art Newspaper March 19, 2019, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/ancient-antisemitic-tropes-are-resurfacing-it-s-time-to-uncover-the-myths.
 Richard Unwin, “Poland’s right-wing government accused of hijacking prize-winning museum,” The Art Newspaper March 21, 2019, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/poland-s-right-wing-government-accused-of-hijacking-prize-winning-museum.
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Cullinan, Nicholas. “When it comes to museum attendance, it’s more than just a numbers game.” The Art Newspaper March 25, 2019. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/it-s-not-just-about-the-numbers.
Findlen, Paula. “The Modern Muses: Collecting and the Cult of Remembrance in Renaissance Italy.” In Museums and Memory, edited by Susan Crane, 161-244. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
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Groys, Boris. “The Struggle Against the Museum; or, The Display of Art in Totalitarian Space.” In Museum Culture – Histories, Discourses, Spectacles, edited by Daniel J. Sherman and Irit Rogoff, 144-62. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.
McClellan, Andrew. Inventing the Louvre. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Morris, Abigail. “Ancient antisemitic tropes are resurfacing—it is time to uncover the myths.” The Art Newspaper March 19, 2019. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/ancient-antisemitic-tropes-are-resurfacing-it-s-time-to-uncover-the-myths.
O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. San Francisco: The Lapis Press, 1986.
Parry, Ross, and Andrew Sawyer. “Space and the Machine.” In Reshaping Museum Space, edited by Suzanne Macleod, 39-52. Taylor & Francis, 2005. Accessed April 21, 2019 http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/umichigan/detail.action?docID=243285.
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Steinhauer, Jillian. “Museums have a duty to be political.” The Art Newspaper March 20, 2018. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/museums-have-a-duty-to-be-political.
Tokarczuk, Olga. Flights. Translated by Jennifer Croft. Croydon, United Kingdom: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018.
Unwin, Richard. “Poland’s right-wing government accused of hijacking prize-winning museum.” The Art Newspaper March 21, 2019. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/poland-s-right-wing-government-accused-of-hijacking-prize-winning-museum.
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