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Museums: Dilemmas and Paradoxes

Keith Thomson

Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust doth corrupt.

—Gospel according to St. Matthew

We are all daily in violation of multiple Biblical injunctions—coveting this or that, for example—but, as someone whose scholarly work is conducted in museums, I always feel particularly awkward about this one. Laying up treasures is just what museums are for. Rust, moths and a thousand other kinds of pestilence (especially Insecta: Dermestidae) are our ancient adversaries.

People who work in museums are a lot like the fabled King Canute, remembered for plunking his throne on the beach and commanding the tide not to come in. He got wet. By creating museums, we try to stop the tides of entropy and decay from ruining our earthly treasures. Whether we can permanently avoid getting wet is a difficult question.

A spectacular recent case of true treasure laying up is the project to restore the huge flag from Fort McHenry (Baltimore), which, of course, was originally made without any intention that it should last forever. The latest price tag for preserving it is $18 million (soon you will be able to buy a Jasper Johns painting of a flag for that!). Perhaps I am in the minority for believing such an expenditure to be close to a foolish sentimentality. All the powerful symbolism of the flag exists quite independently of the object itself, and most people do not require this particular flag to be any more concrete than Washington's cherry tree. Perhaps making it real even diminishes it. But it has survived, tattered and falling apart, and is therefore a terrible responsibility.

For the money spent to preserve this single artifact one could do a lot of good work in some existing museums or (Heaven forbid) found a new one or two. Beyond simple cash, however, the example of the flag causes us to ask a deeper and nastier question: Must every symbol be made patent and material? Must every possible artifact and natural object be collected and saved? How, where? And why?

Evidently we do think everything must be saved, for we are building museums at a phenomenal rate to hold all our "stuff"—more than one a week for the past few decades. It is rumored that a few years ago museums were being founded at a rate of one per day.

Material things—artistic, natural, historical, technological, frivolous, serious, dead, alive, sublime, trivial—occupy a place of unusual importance in our 20th-century lives. Not only do we create and use material objects on a scale never seen before, we also study them intensively and collect them passionately. The institutions that hold these objects for the public—museums, defined broadly—play an ever-growing role in the collection, preservation, study and use of all this richness of nature and talent.

Science has contributed greatly to the tasks of preservation, conservation and restoration of all material objects. But it has not succeeded in driving down the price of these functions, and perhaps even the opposite is true. Meanwhile there is much we lack: a safe, effective insecticide for museum collections, for example. Science has been particularly useful in making the inventories of museums more accessible through electronic means, and we are just on the edge of broad access to images of museum objects—again, all at huge cost.

But, of course, nothing electronic will substitute for the one essential role of the museum—to present the "real thing." Certainly, an electronic image of the venation of a bee wing can be transmitted across the world and provide an identification. But no reproduction of the Louvre's Winged Victory of Samathrace or of the Rembrandts stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum can substitute for the real object.

In a highly materialistic world our obsession with the physical objects of culture is hardly surprising. The museum collections of America are a treasure beyond the dreams of avarice, comprising perhaps more than a billion paintings, drawings, sculptures, thousands of houses and estates, ships and railways, countless antiquities, ethnographic and archaeological specimens, and more than a billion natural history specimens. Whereas nature in all its glory created many of these objects, honest toil and occasionally genius created the rest. Emperors and barbarians of every age have killed for such treasures (often for these very ones). They are the material manifestation of something intangible and precious: our cultural heritage.

Our culture has evolved in a strangely Darwinian way. We have built it only on fragments of the past rather analogous to the chance mutations that nature throws in the path of evolving organisms. We take these scraps and make major landmarks out of them. Particularly in the past 150 years, we have worked to construct our own histories by using not just all the written documents but also the "objects" of history in a sort of intellectual back casting that authenticates our roots. And so we collect and preserve everything we can, and everything is given cultural value and meaning, trash and all.

In America's museums you can find everything from the guns with which Lincoln and Kennedy were shot to last year's computers, from Mongolian dinosaurs to butterflies from Fiji. We have museums dedicated to Andy Warhol, American Indians, the pretzel and the mushroom. And why not? "Out there" among the general public, the "collecting" hobby has become an even more madcap, high-stakes business. A brief look at the contents of what is (often rather disingenuously) called an antiques store, or reference to the multitude of books devoted to "Collectibles" and their prices, will show the scale of the problem. Everything is being saved and collected—1950s plastic cap pistols, Barbie (of course), and toothpicks, beer cans, mass-produced "collectible" plates and dolls.

Culture Vultures

People love museums. Towns and cities profess that "culture" is a key drawing card for downtown development and business (especially tourism). And so we already have some 200,000 museums in the United States. All should be well in such a gifted world. However, this weight of culture comes at an enormous cost in terms of time and money and carries with it some alarming growth trends. If we are to save everything, where are we to put it, and who is to pay? And so the question: Must everything be saved?

Will there eventually be a museum for everything? Will there be a whole museum devoted to the medical leech? Too late, it already exists (Medical Leech Museum, Charleston, South Carolina). How about a museum devoted to Jell-O (yes, in Le Roy, New York)? The more the better. At least until the money runs out.

In the Unites States, museums (except for the obviously governmental ones) are part of a category of institutions rarely encountered elsewhere in the world. The "not-for-profit" museum is both public in the sense that it enjoys considerable public support (if only indirectly through the tax code) and also private in the sense of being "owned" by a board of trustees.

Museum collections are always said to be held as a type of public trust, but at the same time they also belong to the institution. The status of semi-public museums, in short, is paradoxical. For example, whereas the semi-public has a strong semi-legal "interest" in the collections of, say, a local historical society or large museum, this interest does not extend to full public support. The museum is expected to generate support for a public institution, grounded in a populist philosophy, via appeals to an elite composed of wealthy families and generous corporations. Furthermore, the public tax code that allows a handsome tax break to an individual who donates a painting or antique car does not require that donor to provide the means to maintain those objects, thereby creating an additional burden on the private sector.

A striking paradox concerns size. Museums almost always grow in size: Bigger must be better. The sensible (or lucky) few—such as the Barnes Collection (a magnificent collection of early 20th-century paintings in Merion, Pennsylvania) or the Freer Collection (Smithsonian Institution) that are legally enjoined against growth, and those like the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, that have traditionally chosen not to grow—have a magnificent advantage. Other museums grow. Collections are acquired; collections are eagerly sought. Natural-history museums actively collect all the time. And this creates a duality of roles within the large institutions, between the (smaller) collections of wonderful objects used for public display and the (much larger) study collections used for, well, study. For the public, if not for the museum itself, there is a divide between the open exhibition and closed, scholarly functions. The big natural-history museums have the largest research collections, extending to tens of millions of specimens: With respect to biodiversity, we are sure that if we do not collect now, much will be irretrievably lost. But art museums feel the same way. And the Jell-O Museum does too.

All of this is fine, except for the consequent dilemma: In the process of growth it may be unreasonable or impractical to expect the broader public to support collections that they never see, a vast hidden museum used by scholars around the world but by relatively few at home. The research museum is a wonderful thing, of course, but this may not quite be what the public imagines is in its unwritten social contract with the institution. The great "private" research museum is expected to operate like a major university, but without the advantage of tuitions, large research grants and alumni giving.

"Think Globally, Fund Locally?"

I referred above to a "populist philosophy" of museums. There is, of course, a broadly held feeling in society that it is inappropriate for the great objects of our culture—Old Master paintings, George Washington's inkwell, John Paul Jones's telescope, John F. Kennedy's rocking chair, Mrs. Kennedy's pearls, the dinosaur "Sue"—to remain in private hands and susceptible to the whims of commerce. In the same way, the courts have ruled, for example, that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech, delivered before 200,000 people and rebroadcast countless times, cannot be copyrighted by his family. Amen. But in part we see reflected a related political view that art and other cultural objects should not belong only to those who happen to be able to afford them. Private individuals are only supposed to discover, preserve, rescue (perhaps bring back in fashion) cultural objects. Then they should hand things over to the public. Or, in fact, to museums, the semi-public. The problem is that putting all these objects into museums entails the risk that all but the most dramatic items will disappear into the collections, far from "public" access, anyway. (There is also a touch of xenophobia here: a fear that one of "our" impressionist paintings [French, of course] might be sold to a foreign country!)

Sooner or later, however, Malthus strikes: Museum collections usually grow faster than the pool of resources available to nurture them. There is an added dilemma here: The great American museums with international reputations must largely rely on local funding bases. The public of Chicago does not contribute to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for example, nor do Kansans contribute in huge numbers to New York's Guggenheim Museum. International success can be quite a burden at home. "Think globally, fund locally" is not a formula for success. Yet our "local" natural history institutions (the biggest being in New York, San Francisco, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia) have the mission of recording and preserving a whole world's biodiversity.

Current tax laws also make it almost impossible for someone who has spent a lifetime assembling a particular collection simply to allow it to pass back where it came from—the circulation of the marketplace. Once a collection is made, almost by definition, the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts, and each of the parts has appreciated hugely in value anyway. No one can afford to burden the family with inheritance taxes and capital gains. As existing museums become larger, and their collections perforce less accessible, potential donors may not wish their works to be buried there. So new museums are founded and the cycle starts again. The tax laws turn out to encourage the founding of a museum.

In this century, as a result of a genuinely enlightened philanthropy (operating on a scale unseen elsewhere) and encouraged by considerable tax advantages, there has been an huge transfer of wealth, in the form of earthly treasures, from the private to the "public" sector in America. This creates the further dilemma for museums that as objects are removed to museums, the prices of what remains (from art to fossil fishes) rise astronomically. Museums that then cannot afford to purchase the objects they truly need must rely on donors and thereby accept materials that they do not.

Every large museum owns objects that it does not, by most definitions, "use," although most would make the argument that they need everything, just in case. On this view, of course, the deaccessioning of specimens already in collections is utterly unthinkable. Woe betide the institution, therefore, that wishes to realize the value of its collections. An institution may, as in the much-publicized case of the New York Historical Society, need to deal with a financial crisis or, as in the case of the Pennsylvania Historical Society, wish to change its emphasis—perhaps even to serve its public better.

Is the museum at liberty to sell objects that it "owns?" Not at all, and not just because of the paradox that museums own collections that they do not fully own. No one else owns them either, at least not in the all-important practical sense of owning up to the responsibilities: that is, paying the bills.

Museums also create their own paradoxes by bestowing "greatness" on the commonplace. There was recently a wonderful example in Britain when an artist (apparently as a joke) suggested that the ice-cream van parked in front of the Royal Albert Hall should be moved into the Tate Gallery as a piece of conceptual art. The director of the Tate seems to have taken the suggestion seriously, much to the delighted amusement of half the world's newspapers. More commonly, museums attempt to collect or save things that were originally intended to be ephemeral, Australian aboriginal bark paintings, for example. And this brings us back to the Fort McHenry flag. Sometimes one is reminded of Jonathan Swift's character whose career was devoted to trying to extract from cucumbers, sunbeams, which were to be let out "in raw inclement summers" (Gulliver's Travels: Voyage to Laputa).

In all this I have come to the view that the public would be better served by less rather than more: smaller collections and fewer museums. The current unchecked, almost unthinking, growth of existing museums and founding of new museums may not be in the public interest. I have also come to the highly unpopular and contrarian position that we must become less intransigent about the role of the marketplace in the life of museums. We must clarify who owns what and then either give museums the right to treat objects as their own (deaccessioning) or else arrange for appropriate and truly public support. Since we cannot support everything, we have to find some way of being more discriminating about what we think might constitute the appropriate category and scales of collecting—of laying up treasures on earth and attempting to preserve them for the future. That means making choices, however, something that could scarcely be less popular.

© Keith Thomson

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