We have grown accustomed to associating the rise of the museum with the decline of organized religion as a source of individual meaning and social cohesion. Art and culture have become new sources of spirituality in the West, the argument goes; art museums are the cathedrals of our time. Over two hundred years ago the young Goethe made the connection when he described his first visit to the Dresden museum as an experience which “opened a new prospect to me, and one that has had its effect on my whole life. With what delight, nay intoxication, did I wander through the sanctuary of that gallery!” From that moment “the love of art … stayed with me like a guardian angel.” 1 Goethe's testimony notwithstanding, recent critics have drawn only negative conclusions from the analogy, identifying the sort of uplift Goethe describes as bourgeois mystification masking the denaturing of art and the interests of the museum's sponsors. In this account, museum rituals have replaced rituals of the church and serve to enforce social hierarchies, political agendas, nationalistic myths, and art's commodification. The loss of original function inflicted on art transferred to the silent, eternal resting place of the museum gave rise to a second metaphor: the museum as tomb - and lately to a third: the museum as a shopping mall.
The force of these analyses is undeniable and a museum visit may indeed be construed as a ritualized lesson in societal values (though arguably no more so than a football game), but I would suggest that the metaphors of church, tomb, and mall fall short in their failure to account for the remarkable and enduring success of museums across time, space and significant cultural divides. These critical metaphors, born of avant-garde impulses in the arts and academia, obscure the fundamentally positive goals of museums which motivate governments, philanthropists, and corporations in the first place. Insofar as museums are social institutions dedicated to producing a better life here on earth (rather than an afterlife in heaven) and have proven themselves adaptable to contingent historical circumstances and shifting visions of what constitutes a better future, we should think of them also as utopian institutions. As a paradigm, the museum as a utopian space not only accommodates the social aspirations and future-driven ameliorative dimension of museums, but it also has powerful