- Reply to My Commentators
I am immensely thankful to Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee, Enrique Martínez Celaya, Klaus Ottmann, and Sean Ulmer for their comments on my book. And to Daniel A. Siedell for organizing this mini-symposium, which really is an author's dream. By gently pressing me to think about important issues, these sympathetic commentators have advanced dialogue.
When writing Museum Skepticism I became very aware that there are two kinds of literature that discuss museums. There are memoirs of curators or other museum employees, and there are the commentaries by academics, which usually look at museums from the outside. My ambition was to look at this institution in a way that would both be sympathetic to the practical concerns and embody a theoretical point of view. One otherwise sympathetic reviewer complained that I was only looking at the museum from the outside.1 That certainly is correct, but for obvious reasons people who work in museums are unusually unwilling to describe their inner workings. To have a good theory of the museum, you need to be practical. Often, for example, critics complain about the proliferation of shops and restaurants, urge that admission be free, or say that blockbuster shows are destructive and overcrowded. However one judges such moralizing, the museum director who needs to balance the budget can hardly be guided by such reasoning. One can be critical, as I am, about the power of the super-rich in museum life. But in what other way could funding be found? The history of debates about the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) points to obvious ways in which, in America at least, reliance on public funding poses problems. My goal, then, was to develop a realistic analysis.
Sean Ulmer correctly notes that to understand the art in museums, we must consider its prior history. Chinese paintings, Islamic decorations, Maori sculpture, and premodern European art were not made to be displayed in public galleries. And so there are legitimate questions about how to set it alongside modernist art, whose natural home is the art museum. Allowing this much, I am not sure why he thinks it impossible to describe museums in a single book. We need to understand how artifacts with such varied origins can be coherently displayed in one building. Here, then, we get to Ulmer's second concern—museum displays. Recently museums have experimented with thematic displays. The Museum of Modern Art in New York did that before its recent reconstruction; the Tate Modern has such a system; and during summer 2006 the Whitney tried such a plan. I understand the need of museums to experiment, to find new ways to attract visitors to the permanent collection. Still, a straight chronological display has the obvious advantage of presenting that history of art in which, for example, Impressionism leads to Cubism, and then on to Abstract Expressionism. The obvious danger of thematic displays is that they bewilder the larger public. [End Page 22]
When I said that museums are top-down institutions, I was thinking of the grander public museums where the function of the trustees is to raise money, either by giving themselves or by networking. These people who provide funding no doubt have their own agendas, but they, in turn, respond to larger economic and political concerns. I would be astonished if the Metropolitan Museum of Art asked Arthur Danto or Leo Steinberg to be a trustee; or, to look closer at hand, if the Carnegie Museum of Art or the Cleveland Museum of Art asked me to play that role. Since we are mere professors, what practical help could we provide? I expect that at smaller museums the situation is different. But here, again, it is important to be realistic. Cleveland's art historians have not had any influence on the rebuilding plan for the Cleveland Museum of Art. Of course I would be flattered if the new director asked for my opinion, but to be honest, I am not sure that I could tell him anything useful. When Ulmer discusses the comparative role of permanent collections and temporary exhibitions, he touches on a very important point. Like him, I...