What are museums for?
Three highly contrasting views reflecting current debates and controversies in policy and practice
By Maurice Davies. Books, Issue 224, May 2011
Published online: 24 May 2011
People hold strong opinions about museums. Some assert that their primary function should be scholarship, others insist that it’s more important to communicate with a wide audience. In pursuing either of these goals, should museums focus on exploring objects or investigating their contexts—are they about looking at things or telling stories? Adding to the debate, there’s lingering anxiety about relativism; some commentators (and probably many visitors) think museums should strive to be objective, others relish a variety of views.
It has become a cliché to say that museums are today’s churches—special places for contemplation, separate from day-to-day concerns; conversely, there’s an argument that museums should aim to be commonplace, part of normal life. It is intriguing that museums were once talked of as places that reinforced cultural hegemonies, but now they are more often seen as democratising access to art, and even as politically correct when they attempt to include groups formerly omitted from history. While some believe museums have changed far too much, others think they haven’t been transformed enough. The books reviewed here reveal differing views about the role of museums.
Tiffany Jenkins believes museums are suffering from “a crisis of cultural authority” because of unremitting questioning of their “foundational purpose”, which she isolates as “the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge”. She wishes museums were still seen “as a distinct realm, removed from social and political forces”. She seems to want museums to separate themselves from a world changed by postmodern relativism, cultural theory and postcolonialism, to rediscover their earlier “implicit universalism” and to ditch today’s “explicit subjectivism”.
In making her case against 21st-century museums, Jenkins helpfully summarises several key texts from the past 20 to 30 years of museological theory. She is alarmed to discover that museum professionals themselves have been responsible for many new ideas about museums. In her interviews with museum people, some describe a fundamental change from caring for collections to sharing those collections with audiences. I will return to the main focus of her book later.
Julian Spalding is one of those dangerous museum professionals who has spent his career sharing collections rather than stashing them away, safe from contemporary society. He is passionate about engaging audiences and inspiring appreciation of art. For him “seeing is everything”. He has run museums in Sheffield, Manchester and Glasgow, “hunting for art that truly merits public display”, and explains: “I chose this career because I wanted to show real works of art to people.” And when showing art, Spalding could be an iconoclast, overturning many of the conventions and traditions that create “the inevitably artificial and often, regrettably, precious atmosphere of museums”.
Spalding confesses that he has come “increasingly to prefer art in its living context”, but he’s a pragmatist and most of the 101 works of art in his idiosyncratic guide survive in museums. Not all of them are on show because “while claiming to be the custodians of art, nearly all museums bury countless treasures in storerooms.” Spalding challenges the orthodoxy that leaves most works on paper “hidden in boxes in museum print-room stores.” He argues that “with properly managed controls of environmental conditions” the Royal Collection could always display at least some of its Holbein drawings. With a little imagination and co-operation it should be possible for Goya’s Disasters of War “to be shown permanently around the world” (there are around 500 sets of them). Better museum practice would increase familiarity with the paintings of Victor Hugo, of which there are more than 4,000.
Spalding criticises conservation strictures for preventing people viewing the original of the [Limbourg Brothers’] Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, around 1410. Printed reproductions or digital images on screen cannot equal “the eye-tingling sensation of seeing the build-up of hair’s-breadth brushstrokes on the gently undulating surface of fine animal hide”. Wonders of art “can only be fully enjoyed by looking at the originals with the naked eye”.
Spalding says: “This book is a plea for the right to see the great art of the world” and enthusiastically encourages his readers to travel to see an eclectic selection of works of art from countries including China, India, Peru, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia and Japan, as well as Europe and North America. He directs travellers to lesser visited places such as the Portinari Chapel in Milan and the “tiny” Sculptured Stone Museum in Meigle, 15 miles north of Dundee. He highlights rare survivors of entire traditions of art, such as life-size funeral effigies housed at Westminster Abbey Museum in London. He promotes less fashionable artists, especially ones overshadowed by abstraction, such as Norman Rockwell: “Sadly, there are virtually no Rockwells in public collections, though they were, in their time, far and away the favourite modern paintings of the American public”. Spalding reckons “popularity made it suspect: modern art was supposed to disturb the public—not bring them with it.” He is particularly dismissive of conceptual art, instead praising the work of artists like Peter Angermann, who suffered under the tutelage of Joseph Beuys at art college in Düsseldorf in the 1960s, eventually in 1986 taking the step “by then bizarrely radical, of painting in the open air…The contemporary art world has become a self-referential court sustained by public funds and a few rich dealers and collectors.”
In a perhaps related argument, James Simpson presents abstract expressionist art as an example of iconoclasm, which he argues is a central strand of Anglo-American modernity and not only something promulgated by the Taliban destroyers of Buddha statues, or England’s dissolvers of monasteries. In his account, museums are places of safety, offering images “silent protection from the noisy violence of the iconoclast’s hammer”. However, in protecting, the museum neutralises. “The image, now safely ensconced in the museum and observed by the cultivated and the wealthy, enables the cultivation of taste, rather than salvation.” Paradoxically, this itself may be a form of iconoclasm. Simpson’s argument is complex and, regrettably, is sometimes obscured by convoluted language, in sharp contrast to Spalding’s lively writing.
Jenkins also writes clearly; this is particularly admirable since her book is based on her PhD thesis that set out to explain UK museums’ recent changes in attitude to human remains. She describes, with thinly disguised dismay, the changes that led the British Museum and Natural History Museum to abandon their opposition to repatriating human remains. She presents campaigners for return as cunning and manipulative, with their talk of “body parts”, unsuccessfully opposed by scientists who argued for the research value of “specimens”. I was a protagonist in government reports and museum-sector thinking at the time and she gives a forensic, if one-sided, account of what happened (and her apparent suggestion that I “associate scientific research with Nazism” is a shocking slur).
Jenkins is alarmed by “continued internal questioning” of museums’ purpose and remit, fearing it leaves them “open to challenges” and “unable to sustain and demonstrate authority”. In a rare thicket of theoretical jargon, she thinks their role as “legislators”, constructing and affirming knowledge, has been driven out by a focus on facilitating audiences’ exploration of identity in a process of “therapeutic recognition”.
She’s quite wrong to say museums no longer value knowledge. They continue to be highly didactic institutions and, as Spalding shows, remain passionately committed to promoting understanding, and to rather old-fashioned ideas such as truth and beauty. Long may museums continue to change to find new and more effective ways to share collections and expertise with ever wider audiences.
The writer is head of policy and communication, the [British] Museums Association, and a museum consultant
Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: the Crisis of Cultural Authority, Tiffany Jenkins, Routledge, 174 pp, $95 (hb)
The Best Art You’ve Never Seen: 101 Hidden Treasures from Around the World, Julian Spalding, Rough Guides, 288 pp, £14, $22.99 (pb)
Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition, James Simpson, Oxford University Press, 204 pp, £25 (hb)
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