Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Museum's Continued Service to the Public in the 21st Century

With the recent rally to reduce carbon emissions and reduce global warming, few have been willing to give it to the public straight. The only real solution is for all of us to eat less, buy less, produce less, and, for our purposes as museum professions, preserve, conserve, and restore less to combat carbon emissions run amuck. I am greatly concerned with a nonprofit museum culture that is committed to an unerring need to grow, and this includes, on the high end of that growth, the construction and maintenance of grandiose exhibition buildings, travelling mega-shows, and unbridled merchandizing. Much of this need for growth is a product of human ego, for board members and administrators alike see growth as a reflection of their own industry, their ability to accomplish. I am as guilty of this as the next person. I love museums as much or more than the next guy, but I also see that growth may be contributing to eventually making life as we know it a bit more difficult than it already is.
Growth at the museum is also necessitated by the public’s own need to preserve all that they consider of historical or aesthetic value, and there is a certain amount of self aggrandizement with the act of donating an object that is somehow linked to our own history for long-term preservation and public display. Immortality seemingly comes to the donor or benefactor to a collection much like the published story keeps the name of the author within our conscientiousness long after he or she has put down their pen for the last time. Although rarely verbalized, much of the business of museums is simply rooted in a need for us to preserve something of ourselves beyond our own mortality.
It is the ever-growing number of small nonprofit museums more often than not that become repositories for everyone’s treasured “artifacts,” without fully exploring the consequences of taking on that long-term responsibility. With each press release and the inevitable exposure of my own museum’s mission and function to the reading public, that the challenge of numerous offers of objects large and small for donation is met. Many of these objects are of value, and many more are not. The museum professional has a responsibility at this point in time to simply say “no” to these potential bequests. For with each bequest an obligation for further growth is seemingly necessitated. The donated object will need not only a roof over it but often more costly responses in order to preserve and restore it.
The reason my modest history museum says “yes” to such donations is that we are trying to build up a unique collection with a small budget. Many of the donations are all or nothing scenarios; you either take the valuable and rare items along with the more common and less valuable, or, often, donors don’t want to bother with you. An additional motivation for taking the latter road is that by accepting these donations a publically perceived precedence is set whereby objects of superior condition become available somewhere down the road by others which will eventually replace similar objects in the collection of poorer condition. This ongoing process is mistakenly perceived as unfettered growth by some, but it is more accurately a growth process whereby the museum achieves a collection of objects of superior quality through a process of accessioning and de-accessioning, and for the purposes of full disclosure, we haven’t reached the stage of de-accessioning yet.
A recent example of this at my modest living history farm and museum involves what is commonly known as a “dump rake.” This horse drawn implement was used to rake up cut hay in the field. The farmer would gather cut hay in its curved tines as he advanced by horse power. Eventually these tines would become full and a foot and hand pedal would be depressed to release the hay gathered “dumping” it. The resulting pile would then be pitched into a hay wagon. Our organization started out with a rake from our benefactors, but this International Harvester example had sat through many seasons outdoors; some of its tines and the original wooden tongue that was harnessed between a team of work animals were long gone. Another equally weathered rake was donated, but this had been adapted to tractor usage and the wooden tongue had been replaced with a galvanized steel pipe at some point. Recently, we have been offered many high quality objects from eastern Maine family farms in the process of dissolution; this has come with our increased exposure. An International Harvester dump rake with original paint and stenciling from its original journey by Maine Central Rail, probably to the farm of Thomas and Mildred Flagg in Lincolnville Beach from which it was donated, was accepted into our collection. Such an acquisition necessitates the need, for the first time in the history of our 20 year old institution, to de-accession one of these dump rakes from our collection simply because we have an example of superior quality making the others unnecessary and redundant.
On the other hand, growth at many museums goes unchecked, and the decision to shed objects from a collection remain taboo, and this is arguably linked to a general cultural propensity to consume more than we need. The museum is a stage for the drinking, eating, buying, and producing that goes on in our culture, and additionally both art and history in commodified at museums in the US so that it too is responsible for the excess that plagues our times and threatens our future. Collections are housed, kept warm and dry in storage in some cases for perpetuity. Collections are packaged and shipped at great expense by larger museums, and results in the greater expenditure of materials, both renewable and non-renewable. De-accessioning a lot of what we have may be part of trimming the fat that is required in a world of growing populations and decreasing resources; we have to do our part just like everyone else. Before any serious consideration of a large scale cut back in collecting practices can take place those who make museums possible have to be first convinced that less may be more, and that new technologies may offer an alternative to how we experience what we experience in the museum.
At the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts steps have been taken in recent years to re-evaluate the collecting practices of earlier times in life of their institution and measure them against the necessity to meet the present public’s taste and needs. In de-accessioning many objects from its seed collection, some critics have voiced concern for a perceived obligation to preserve the memory of the museum’s original benefactor and namesake DeCordova. The debate on whether to save or de-accession in this case is largely one of propriety, for how long can a public institution honor the last wishes of a long ago deceased benefactor especially when doing so may jeopardize the relevancy of the museum itself to its potential 21st century audience? Most museums have that important decision of how to best use the space that they have to fulfill their mission, and this might mean that some of the collection takes precedence over other parts.
I am not sure whether I agree with the idea that a curiosity cabinet belonging to DeCordova himself, containing what some may more irreverently call Victorian-era junk, is irrelevant to 21st century museum goers, or that de-accessioning all this stuff is a prudent course of action. I do agree that some museums need to prioritize what is essential to their missions, and consider de-accessioning some objects that may be better utilized by other institutions and also allow these institutions breathing room for future acquisitions. It is obvious that many things in museum collections lose their appeal to many, but it can be argued that these objects embody the particular collecting habits of a time and place offering a valuable narrative worth preserving and sharing to an audience both now and in the future. If, at least, some objects must be de-accessioned, fully documenting an account of DeCordova’s original collection through new digital media is essential and without this there would be great loss to our social and intellectual history.
Any museum which started out with one man’s aesthetic at its heart will inevitably change as aesthetic taste itself has changed. It is simply unrealistic that museums will continue to collect without ever shedding earlier and less valuable objects for new acquisitions. Nonprofit, and consequently museums with tax-exempt status have, at least, an unofficial obligation to satisfy public taste and needs rather than that of their original benefactors. The survival of these museums depends on not only the attendance of the public but on public funding via grants and allowances made to institutions with a non-profit status.
Although nonprofit institutions seemingly have an obligation to satisfy public interest, it is the duly appointed stewards, board members, directors, and the like, that make the decisions about how the institution can best serve the public. These decisions often affect a change in the status of specific art or artifacts once valued for private reasons rather than public. The stewards of any collection have to first take into account the survival of the institution over the wishes of an original benefactor. Survival of the institution ultimately insures the survival of their memory. In order for the DeCordova to survive it had to become more than a mere repository of one man’s bibelot and kitsch by the late 20th century.
In regard to more recent realizations regarding the understanding that society itself must trim back, change age-old behaviors towards consumption in order that future generations may survive, museums too may have to consider more than merely what specifically fits into its walls to satisfy the public but how a consideration and realization of less may effectively serve similar purposes. Certainly the increased use of new digital media to disseminate the knowledge that up until recently was the exclusive domain of the tangible object in the physical museum will play a major role in transforming how a museum does what it does.
In the case of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the needs of our own times can similarly affect changes to long established guidelines to the physicality of a particular museum structure. A recently proposed addition to the Gardner Museum that was once a private residence as well as a museum open to the public has been necessitated out of the need to accommodate an ever greater number of visitors. Such a alteration conflicts with Gardner’s own stipulation that her home and museum remain as it was during her lifetime. Unlike the original DeCordova collection, this museum was from its inception a collection of unique quality and size making further additions to it, in the opinion of many to this date, unnecessary. Change, in this case, has been affected by the often welcome and rare occasion for many museums of ever increasing popularity.
Instead of the 2000 annual visitors of Gardner’s own time, there are 175,000 annual visitors and more anticipated for the future. The structure simply can’t handle this many people for another one hundred years, so its stewards have to act accordingly. Public access to the structure is being scaled back. New additions will simply help to relieve the demands on the overtaxed structure, so that those who wish to see its treasures can.
The response to the similar circumstances of increased demand for access to the Albert Barnes’ Collection in Marion, PA perpetuated a similar remedy whereby the benefactor’s original demands could no longer be met. Given that this once private institution chose to stand under the aegis of non-profit and tax exempt status it had to shed its long standing elitist pre-requisites, including a onsite tutorial on how to view art on view before getting access to the galleries. Characterized as both products of “aesthetic fanaticism’ and “egomania” these very specific rules kept much of the public out. The Barnes Foundation’s location in a quiet suburban neighborhood contributed further to its exclusivity.
Public criticism of the museum’s location more than anything else threatened its survival, so in complete defiance of Barnes’ will his collection went on tour. The unmatched Picassos, Modiglianis, Cezannes, Soutines, Matisses, and others came down from the benefactor’s own bizarre displays that included examples of hand forged door hardware and other oddities. Regarding much art criticism as “philistine aestheticism,” Barnes had published his own aesthetic ideas regarding how art should be displayed and used for educational purposes. Unlike DeCordova, Barnes had a collecting frenzy informed by an eye that was in every sense avant garde, collecting Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Modernist paintings before all others thought to do so. He purchased few fakes because he met the artists in their studios. No one wants to de-accession his collection but they do want it temporarily out of the suburbs and into the National Gallery and other world class exhibition venues so that ever greater numbers can appreciate it (Higonnet, 1994). Defying Barnes was necessitated by the need to preserve the collection as a collection, as well as make it available to the entirety of the public once and for all. Barnes himself like it or not is even more securely immortalized as a result of this decision, and his museum become a more efficient entity for educating the public.
There is a distinction between unfettered museum growth and the natural progression of a museum whereby donations are sought and received to secure a collection that is both unique and important. De-accessioning may be a necessary stage of that growth whereby a museum ultimately chooses over time, and given the opportunity, the best examples for its collection to preserve long term. It may be just as important to provide greater accessibility to a finite collection as it is to scale back an institution’s unfettered collecting habits in the interest of public good. Providing greater accessibility to a collection maximizes its educational impact on ever greater numbers. It provides more efficient use of a commodity that would otherwise be seen by few yet incur great cost for continued preservation. We not only have to insist on more fuel efficient cars in the wake of the challenges surrounding the availability of energy and resources in the 21st century but also more efficient collecting and display methods at our public museums to insure the survival of these institutions that serve to disseminate both our history and culture.

Higonnet, Anne, “Whither the Barnes?— Controversy Surrounding the Barnes Foundation’s Touring Exhibition of French Paintings,” Art in America, March, 1994 Accessed 10.3.08

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