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Museums: Dilemmas and Paradoxes

Keith Thomson

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.

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