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Museums: Dilemmas and Paradoxes

Keith Thomson

"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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