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  • Museums in Transition:Thoughts from an Empiricist
  • Sean Ulmer

In March 2005 Daniel Siedell, curator of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, approached me with an invitation to participate in a symposium for the Journal of Aesthetic Education that he was guest editing. He said that the symposium would be dedicated to curatorial and educational issues and suggested that each of the contributors could use David Carrier's forthcoming book as a starting point for their essays. At that time, I did not know of Carrier's thoughts but had a number of thoughts myself on issues related to curatorial and educational strategies within the museum setting. My experience in a variety of positions in three—now four—institutions had provided me with a number of perspectives about different facets of the museum and its curatorial and educational missions.

In Carrier's book, Museum Skepticism, released in May 2006, the author posits a number of thought-provoking observations regarding the birth, evolution, and decline of the museum. Tracing this development from the French Revolution and the opening of the Louvre, through the Isabel Stewart Gardner Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Albert Barnes's collection and foundation/museum, and finally the J. Paul Getty Museum, Carrier looks at specific examples to support claims he makes in his intriguing opening and concluding chapters. While there are too many worthwhile observations to explore in great detail here, I will address some of the issues that piqued my interest, coming at the question from a different point of view, that of a working museum professional.

Let me begin by stating that I am no theorist. Instead, I am an unapologetic pragmatist.1 My entire career has been shaped by actual work within a museum, seeing the institution—or "organism" as I usually refer to it—from a number of different vantage points.2 These varied experiences have given me the opportunity to see the museum—at least a Kunsthalle, two university museums, and a public museum—from several different vantage points. [End Page 4]

In his introductory chapter, Carrier asks his primary question: "What is it like to lead the life of a work of art?"3 This is a very interesting question, and one with which many of us rarely consider in our day-to-day work within the museum's walls. In order to answer the question fully, Carrier suggests that "we need to understand museums."4 Indeed. In actuality, museums (and there are many different types) are just one component that must be considered. For a full consideration of the life of the work of art, one must start with the artist. What were his or her motivations? What was he or she trying to accomplish with the work? How was it first shown? In a gallery? In a museum show? How did the artist intend the work to be shown? What was the role of the patron or commissioner, if there was one? We know that the Catholic Church was an important originator of a number of great works of art and many were destined for church interiors, and some still are in situ. One cannot deny, however, that many of the world's great works of art ("great" simply deemed so by consensus) have found their way into museums. Museums are much more complex beasts than Carrier—or anyone for that matter—can cover within the confines of a single, publishable book. So many factors must be considered, especially when considering today's museums, as they continue to evolve and grow: the role of the collector, the patron, the board, the director, the curator, the education staff, the guards, and the public, to name just a few individuals who require consideration when analyzing museums. Such an interesting mixture of different individuals, each with a unique perspective (and agenda), coming together in one place makes for this complexity. And while the author uses this question of the life of a work of art as a starting point, he finds in the progress of the text a number of other stimulating and thoughtful observations. There is much more contained within...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1543-7809
Print ISSN
0021-8510
Pages
pp. 4-11
Launched on MUSE
2007-06-02
Open Access
No
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