What's a Museum?

By Panero, James | New Criterion, March 2012 | Go to article overview
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What's a Museum?


Panero, James, New Criterion


However perplexing the problems of the present and the future, however sobering the obligations laid upon the museums of America through the destruction of war, the past gives confidence for the days to come.

--Winifred E. Howe, A History of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1946

What's a museum? Lately, it seems, the answer is whatever we want. Today's museums can be tourist attractions, department stores, chic centers, town squares, catalysts of urban renewal, food courts, licensing brands, showcases for contemporary architecture, social clubs, LEED-certified environmentally conscious facilities, and franchise opportunities. A "well-run museum is eerily like an upscale suburban shopping mall," says an article in The New York Times. A cafe with "art on the side," advertises London's Victoria and Albert Museum. "We are in the entertainment business, and competing against other forms of entertainment out there," says a one-time spokesman for the Guggenheim museum. "Inclusive places that welcome diverse audiences" and "reflect our society's pluralism in every aspect of their operations and programs," suggests the American Association of Museums. "We live in a more global, multicultural society that cares about diversity and inclusivity," so "service to the community" is now among the museum's a la carte options, says Kaywin Feldman, the latest head of the Association of Art Museum Directors. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, museums are even about "bringing art to those with Alzheimer's or post-traumatic stress disorder, and farming crops for donation to local food banks," initiatives that have been promoted through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.

By the numbers, today's museums are thriving enterprises. Billions of dollars have been spent in recent years on expansion projects. In the United States, there were 46 art museums in 1905, 60 in 1910, and 387 in 1938. Today there are 3,500 art museums, more than half of them founded after 1970, and 17,000 museums of all types in total, including science museums, children's museums, and historical houses. Attendance at American art museums is booming, rising from 22 million a year in 1962 to over 100 million in 2000, with 850 million Americans visiting museums of all varieties each year.

Yet if today's museums are successful cultural caterers with wide-ranging menus, no matter where we find them, their fare manages to taste more and more the same. A handful of the same celebrity architects now designs new wings and even whole museum cities such as Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. Facilities in Spain, Boston, the Middle East, and Los Angeles all look different in the same way. An international class of museum professionals job-hops among Beijing, Paris, New York, and Qatar spreading a common corporate culture, where top directors are expected to command million-dollar salaries, oversee thousands of employees, fund-raise, invest and spend endowments on massive expansions, horse-trade the assets on the walls to create blockbuster shows that can attract headline-making crowds, and spin these activities to the press.

Is all this hyperactivity the glow of health or the flush of fever? Philippe de Montebello, the former director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, suggests the latter. With yesterday's art traded away for today's trends, exhibition halls taken over by "social space," and new buildings expanding around traditional facilities, museums are shedding their old skin and remaking themselves in our image. It is said that museums have gone from "being about something" to "being for somebody" "The work of art, once sovereign, has ceded primacy of place in many an administration's attention to the public," de Montebello lamented in a lecture at Harvard, published in the book Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust. Museums have traditionally been focused on their permanent collections. By emphasizing the visitor, museums now risk forsaking the visited and their own cultural importance.

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