The Case for Museums | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios


NARRATOR: For
centuries, we humans have put the stuff we
value into safe houses and locked it away– historical
artifacts, precious metals, biological specimens,
and some art, too. This was mostly done by the
powerful and privileged– those who had or stole stuff
valuable enough to try to save. But they mostly kept
it to themselves, and it was only pretty recently
that such treasures were made available to the likes of us. Now it seems every city must
have one, if not several, of these public
storehouses for allegedly nonfunctional objects. Why do we need these? And why should we visit
them not just once, but again, and again, and again? This is the case for museums. The word comes from
the Greek mouseion, or seat of the muses,
referring to places like the ancient museum at
Alexandria, which housed manuscripts and was more
like a modern-day library and university. The Latin derivation,
museum, described for ancient Romans places
for philosophical discussion. Now, there was certainly
art at the time, but it was paintings
honoring the gods housed in pinacotheca on the
Acropolis or sculpture on public display in Rome. And of course, the wealthy
had art in their homes, just as they do today. But as far back as
we can trace, people have treasured and
hoarded objects. We know that from what early
humans buried with them and wanted to take
into the afterlife. There’s evidence that Babylonian
King Nabonidus collected antiquities, and it seems
that his daughter created a kind of educational museum
where clay cylinders described those antiquities– the very
first wall labels, let’s say. During the Italian
Renaissance, the Medici’s amassed an enormous collection,
which they eventually gave to the state as a public good. National museums sprang to life
in Europe in the 18th century as the wealthy gave
up their collections to be preserved and
shared after their deaths. Revolution forced the opening
of the French Royal Collections to the public. Collecting stuff is and
always has been complicated. Be they trophies of war or
conquest, objects of worship, exotic curiosities, or even
recently completed paintings, the objects that populate
our museums have been removed from their original context– wrested from the
individuals, and communities, and civilizations
that birthed them. Tracing an object’s provenance,
or its history of ownership, is murky business and the
subject of many court cases, necessitating the return
of cultural heritage and private property
decades or even centuries after it was looted. But it’s precisely
these complications that make museums relevant. They may be full of
decontextualized, problematic objects, but museums
uphold the charge of not only keeping
these things safe, but recontextualizing them in
novel and enlightening ways, making them available to
us for enjoyment and study, and returning them to
their rightful owners when called for. Being stewards of
these objects means experimenting with
their classification, their description,
their juxtaposition with things similar
and dissimilar. How we display things has
shifted over the centuries. From the tightly-packed
arrangement of natural specimens
and miscellany in the Wunderkammers, or
cabinets of curiosity, of 16th and 17th century
Europe, to paintings hung salon-style in
the grand galleries of the Louver in the 19th
century, and all the way to now, when the near-ubiquitous
white cube is the display convention of choice. And technology has
transformed how we learn about what we’re seeing. The style of building
we store treasures in has evolved as
well– from pyramids and classical structures,
to neoclassical structures– lots, and lots, and lots of
neoclassical structures– and classical structures
with glowing cubes next to them, and
pyramids next to them. Some of our museums
are circular. Some are whatever
kind of shape this is. Some of them float. But what museums do is bring
us into contact with the things that those before us have
made, and used, and valued. Philosopher Georges
Didi-Huberman wrote in 2003 that, “In each
historical object, all times encounter one
another, bifurcate, or even become entangled
with each other.” Things in museums
can give us clues as to what it was like
to be a particular person in a particular place at the
particular time they were made. But they can also provide us
access to other temporalities– to each moment since the
object’s creation when it was altered, sold, changed hands– when it entered the collection,
and when it has and has not been on display. Museums are sites
where we can visibly see the negotiation of values– what they are now, what they
used to be, and what we hope they’ll be in the future. It’s in these places that we can
revisit and revise histories, give platforms to
marginalized voices, and resurrect narratives
of the oppressed. That its contents can
be shuffled around in endless combinations
or stay the same for years and years makes
tangible that history isn’t a cold, dead thing, but is
always contested and in flux– not a singular line
running backward, but a dense and
multi-dimensional tangle. Governed by mission statements
that vary in specificity and scope, fueled by coffers
that range from obscene to non-existent, museums
are vulnerable to a host of influences and threats– the fluctuating interests
of leadership and boards of directors, the vicissitudes
of public funding, the unpredictable allotment
of private funding, grants, and sponsorships. Tasked with making
their collections available to the public, museums
make tough, sometimes reckless decisions to keep the lights on,
salaries paid, and attendance flowing, but they must
always be held to task. Who are the publics
being served? And can a place be
counted as public when it costs that
much to get in? What museums do for us
that non-collecting for- and not-for-profit institutions
don’t is make a commitment that they will take
care of these objects for pretty much ever. When sea levels rise
and forest fires loom, it’s teams of museum
nerds like these that put disaster plans into action. Less dramatically,
it’s conservators who try to prevent
things from falling apart and restore dingy
works to past glory. Highly trained people guard
the objects, pack the objects, and expertly install
and deinstall them. Careers are spent studying
objects, generating exhibitions around them, and using
them to tell stories about past and present. The research that
comes out of museums benefit society in direct
ways, giving us insight into the past and future
of the world we inhabit. Loads of people, many
of them volunteers, work to share the
collection with you and figure out ways to share
it with you even if you can’t get there yourself. These may be hoards of
goods that once belonged to rich people presented
in flawed ways, but they may be all that’s
left after the asteroid hits and future
intelligent life forms try to piece together
what the heck happened. And let’s be clear, museums are
not lean-back entertainment. Sure, you can sit yourself down
and be bowled over by that epic history painting, letting
its magnificence vibrate out and penetrate your jaded,
image-soaked consciousness. But the real value of museums
lies not in their ability to anesthetize us with
beauty, but in their power to make us active agents in
reconsidering our histories, understanding where we are now,
and what we might be able to do to change what happens next. This work happens not in the art
itself or in the wall labels, but inside our heads. They can’t spoon-feed
you transcendence, but it’s there if you’re
curious, patient, and do the work. A museum turns out to be more
like a university or library after all, and
that’s also why it’s worthwhile to return
again and again. Even if the museum
doesn’t change much, you change, and what
you notice changes. When museums and the
things that contain don’t meet our
expectations, we get angry. We imbue these
places with authority and trust them with
our cultural heritage, and it’s upsetting when they
don’t reflect our histories or experience of the world. But while they might look
like impenetrable fortresses, they are not. You can get the training
to work in these places. You can jockey to
join the board. You can give your
treasured objects to help them tell
better stories. Most importantly, you can
shape the conversation that surrounds museums, make
demands that they be better, and be the vocal and engaged
public these places were founded to support. This episode is supported
in part by viewers like you through Patreon. Special thanks to Indianapolis
Homes Realty and all of our patrons. If you’d like to
support the show, head on over to
Patreon.com/ArtAssignment. [MUSIC PLAYING]

22 comments

  • holophrasm

    I would love a video on aboriginal art!

    Reply
  • liloddbit

    Thank you, Sarah! Every video you post speaks to my heart, educates me with awesome interesting things, opens my mind to knew ways of thinking. I'm so grateful for The Art Assignment! Now I'm off to research all the museums in my area, especially those that are toddler friendly (I have a two year old)! Thank you!

    Reply
  • Andrew W

    Speaking of museums, I’d love to see you do an episode with Emily Graslie! She’s an artist by training and just generally great!

    Reply
  • HAN2929

    2:57 "Hauuu we display things…" Eduard Hau on the caption I see what you did there.

    Reply
  • Smoke A Shit Cigar

    I bet this channel will never make a case for the art of GG Allin.

    Reply
  • Christopher Jason

    Excellent explanation to modern history and to its public display.

    Reply
  • Rea

    Wow! I can't believe my tiny local museum (the maritime museum) made it here. I audibly gasped.

    Reply
  • Noelle Matteson

    No top comments about Erik Killmonger?!

    Reply
  • Nat

    Bilbao's Guggenheim is ship shaped in reference of the industrial past of Bilbao.

    Reply
  • potbotra

    museums are also a part of a billion dollar industry funded by arms and oil money…. the important work that cultural workers do should not be conflated with the work that museums do for their wealthy patrons. the fact is that museums are part of an industry like any other. this is of course not to say don't go to museums, you can't contemplate 'purely' etc but to resist romanticizing and instead insist on complexity and contradictions of our current art industry, i promise you, it keeps you nimble.

    Reply
  • Margony

    This is so good! I recently visited the Guggenheim museum in Venice when I was there on holiday, and it was incredible. I have always found out a lot about myself when going to museums. It's like digging into history books but that history book is you.

    Reply
  • Maria

    Simply. I think you'd be generally shocked if you knew the number of fraudulent artefacts that came from the time of antiquity, especially in the form of bronze bust.

    Reply
  • the Catholic plague raven

    I work at a living history museum and I would like to say this is head on.

    Reply
  • NikiArrowsmith

    Oh my God these videos are so fast they're unwatchable. I have to keep reminding to examine the pictures and captions. Slow down!

    Reply
  • A CG

    The Case for Peggy Guggenheim?

    Reply
  • BookishLish

    Loved seeing Diego Rivera’s mural at the DIA (my local art institute) included in this! I think they do a wonderful job in how they present their pieces, and they have so many varied collections that span from ancient history to modern day, many touching on social issues and inequality. For example, they have an entire section of their colonial art exhibit that features black painters of the time and their artwork, people who are subject to erasure most of the time.

    Reply
  • Ben Zangri

    Museums in NYC

    Moma: at least it has some good art

    Guggenheim: 90% of the stuff is not considered art .

    The natural history Museum: got a movie based off of it that’s pretty cool .

    The Cooper Hewitt: more people talk about those go there it’s free .

    The Met: B I G and it has a good art .

    Reply
  • J.T.

    Can we get a case for Basquiat?

    Reply
  • Andy Eh

    i love this i work as an intern at the folk art museum in manhattan and it’s really given me a deeper understanding of not just art and artists but the staff and people that have to work as one and make sure the museum experience is as perfect as possible

    Reply
  • Dorothy Pinotti

    Thank all that was in this art time's..! God'!!!Love's all An I do too !!An I Love TheArt Assignment. This is what I Love. THANK.YOU SoSo. MUCH!..MS..PINOTTI

    Reply
  • Tyron Ephyr LaDeian

    Can I just say, this video was interesting, but the pace was too fast, with too much being said, too few and unmarked breaks between sentences, and the shots being changed too quickly, so it was difficult to concentrate. I found myself zoning out and having to backtrack multiple times.

    Reply
  • Rosa maria Rodriguez colon

    Goid nite

    Reply
  • scorpioninpink

    Unfortunately we do not have enough Museums in The Philippines.

    Reply

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