City Museums & Park Museums

By Fenech, Mark | Art Education, January 2003 | Go to article overview

City Museums & Park Museums


Fenech, Mark, Art Education


"How often do we consider the 'place' and the 'going' in the equation of visiting the art museum?"

Art museums are important arenas of discourse and cultural activity in contemporary society. They are widely regarded by their communities as institutions of learning and cultural knowledge; they are store-houses of publicly sanctioned artistic treasures and, increasingly, they are tourist venues and theatres of "infotainment." However, as places to go to, how often do we consider the "place" and the "going" in the equation of visiting the art museum? The geographical location of art museums can be a telling characteristic of their institutional and civic missions and a revealing feature of their cultural "personalities." As part of research in progress, this paper looks at The Art Institute of Chicago as a "city museum" and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia as a "park museum" in an investigation of the potential for location to construct experiences and guide educational and curatorial programs for the museum visitor.

The Physical Setting of Art Museums

Art museums are popular places. The American Association of Museums (AAM) identifies museums as the most popular cultural institution visited by Americans today.1 In the decade up to the Year 2000, AAM asserts, museum visitorship increased by over 200 million. Yet the physical setting of art museums can easily be overlooked by visitors as an unimportant feature in an increasingly seductive milieu of infotainment and cultural glamour.

There seems to be a great deal that is left undisclosed when we visit art museums, including the physical engagement that we have with them as "places." I contend that despite their educational mission to enlighten, art museums can unwittingly coerce visitors in their construction of knowledge by a system that packages culture as a commodity. Art museums present as places of reflection, but how aware are we of the subtle imperatives that steer museums to function as tourist sites or theatres of thoughtless entertainment? Unless art educators act as aware and critical subjects in connecting with art museums, then claims of the liberating and egalitarian uniqueness that these sites offer us educationally become hollow and unfulfilled.

The two types of physical settings of art museums discussed here are the city museum and the park museum. The Art Institute of Chicago is used as an illustration of the city museum form. It is characterised by a close geographic and symbolic proximity to the city as a bustling metropolis. The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, is used as a typical example of the park museum, a form modelled from the private galleries of the 19th century, which emphasized the sublime and idyllic pursuit of reflective contemplation associated with aesthetics, taste, and ownership of the high arts.

The Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) is a world-renowned art museum in terms of the scale and depth of its collections and the strength and diversity of its curatorial and educational programs. As Illinois' major art museum, it is located on South Michigan Avenue at Adams, in close proximity, both in a visual and practical sense, to the financial and retail hub of the city. Architecturally, it is a temple form, typical of late 19th-century classical revivalist architecture that growing cities across the Western world at the time reserved for their places of civic importance, such as institutions of learning and theatres of high culture.

The Art Institute has had a strong educational mission from its beginning. The intention of accessibility of artworks to its publics motivated the museum to publish catalogues and handbooks and to sponsor popular lectures from as early as 1895. It was in this year that W. M. R. French, then Director of the Art Institute, appointed special gallery lecturers to fulfil the educational mission of the Art Institute.

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