Do Museums Still Need Objects?

Do Museums Still Need Objects?

Do Museums Still Need Objects?

Do Museums Still Need Objects?


"We live in a museum age," writes Steven Conn in Do Museums Still Need Objects? And indeed, at the turn of the twenty-first century, more people are visiting museums than ever before. There are now over 17,500 accredited museums in the United States, averaging approximately 865 million visits a year, more than two million visits a day. New museums have proliferated across the cultural landscape even as older ones have undergone transformational additions: from the Museum of Modern Art and the Morgan in New York to the High in Atlanta and the Getty in Los Angeles. If the golden age of museum-building came a century ago, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Field Museum of Natural History, and others were created, then it is fair to say that in the last generation we have witnessed a second golden age.

By closely observing the cultural, intellectual, and political roles that museums play in contemporary society, while also delving deeply into their institutional histories, historian Steven Conn demonstrates that museums are no longer seen simply as houses for collections of objects. Conn ranges across a wide variety of museum types--from art and anthropology to science and commercial museums--asking questions about the relationship between museums and knowledge, about the connection between culture and politics, about the role of museums in representing non-Western societies, and about public institutions and the changing nature of their constituencies. Elegantly written and deeply researched, Do Museums Still Need Objects? is essential reading for historians, museum professionals, and those who love to visit museums.


We live in a museum age.

At the turn of the twenty-first century more people are going to more museums than at any time in the past, and simultaneously more scholars, critics, and others are writing and talking about museums. The two phenomena are almost certainly related, but it does not seem to be a happy relationship. Even as museums enjoy more and more success— measured at the gate, in philanthropic giving, and in the cultural influence they command —many who write about them express varying degrees of foreboding.

I think the New York Times was right when it proclaimed in 2002 that all over the world we are enjoying a “Golden Age of Museums.” From Berlin to Beijing, from the United States to the Gulf States, the last quarter of the twentieth century saw the creation of whole new museum institutions, some modest and some quite audacious. Major cities have added significant new museums to their already crowded cultural landscapes, while more modest metropolises like Kansas City and Denver have recently opened museums big enough and ambitious enough to have garnered national attention. Indeed, all this new museum building, often showcasing the work of a fashionable architect, or “starchitect,” hasn’t simply added to the inventory of museums. The openings of many of these new museums have been treated as major cultural, geopolitical, or economic events, an enthusiasm captured by the oft-used phrase the “Bilbao effect.”

In fact, we are witnessing a second “golden age” of museum building in the United States (and, really, around the world). The first came one hundred years ago during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth, and included the construction of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Field Museum of Natural History, to name just a few. Many of these older institutions have partici-

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