The Mindful Museum

Museums were once mausoleums of the past, but the museum of the future will help us understand our place in the vast expanse of time. NMA Gold Medal: Arts & Entertainment
For a long time I made a living out of museums, which is not the same thing as living within them. I wrote about what they contained, and when I was clever enough about their contents, I was paid for it. In a career of particularly fatuous prescience about art, the most fatuously prescient essay I ever wrote was one that I published in 1992, called “The Death of an Audience.”

In it, I explained that the museum that we had known — the popular museum of the first three-quarters of the twentieth century — was on its way out, and that the audience for art that had filled museums for so long was being displaced by a coterie of professional observers. This argument was detailed, nuanced, reasonably arresting, and as wrong as any argument has ever been. What we’ve seen in the fifteen years since that essay was written is exactly the opposite: an explosion of the idea of the popular museum, a growth in audiences and attention that stretches from Bilbao in Spain to the new Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

Having given up the role of making a living from museums, I now find myself, ironically, living more than ever in them, as the father of two horribly overcultured children, who are constantly being dragged from theatre to museum, from Shakespeare to Rembrandt. Not long ago, I asked them which they actually enjoyed more — the theatre or the museum? My twelve-year-old son sighed and said, “Well, the theatre — you can sit down.” Then my seven-year-old daughter sighed as well and said, “Well, I prefer the museum — at least they let you talk.” At least they let you talk! Talking in museums is one of the things that makes them matter, and the way in which we talk in museums is one of the things that define for us what they are. Because museums, I think, as much as they are places to go and see things, are also places to go and talk about things, and, through talking, to understand something about the way life takes place in time.

Perhaps the earliest model of the museum is that of the museum as a mausoleum: the museum as a repository, a holding place — a tomb if you like, but a tomb where the past and its taste remain preserved. This idea of the museum as a mausoleum, as a place where you go to see old things, and where you go to find yourself as an aesthete or a scholar, is a very powerful one, and it governed the birth of the museum as we know it in the nineteenth century. We see it in the transformation of the Louvre from a palace into a museum; we see it in the formation of museums like the Metropolitan in New York and the Art Institute in Chicago. Like any mausoleum, it is a place above all connected to the past. It presupposes a certain kind of individual experience of works of art, or of works of nature, but always of things from the past, in which the essential hope was for a silent confrontation between a man or a woman and what we used to call our “heritage.”

One of the startling things you notice when reading about the experience of museums, even as late as the 1940s, is the degree to which they were silent and secluded places. John Updike’s great memoir-story, “Museums and Women,” written in the late 1960s, is based on his first experience of museums as a young boy growing up in semi-rural Pennsylvania in the 1940s, where the museums were provincial, and occasionally coming to New York, where the museums were not. What Updike was intrigued by was the eroticism of museums, their atmosphere of mystery, of silent entry; of pleasure, certainly, but pleasure of an enigmatic and enveloping sort. You went in with one companion — his mother at the beginning and then his wives later on — and the mystery of the museum echoed and predicted the mystery of sex. It held an air of silence and a promise of a kind of secret communion that would take place between the individual observer and the work of art or the object of the past.

In Robert Hughes’s new memoir, Things I Didn’t Know, you read, with less erotic sheen but equally intense significance, that one of the crucial experiences for Hughes as a young man in Europe, discovering art in the 1960s, was also the experience of museum silence. He writes about going to the Prado in Madrid for the first time, how serenely potent it was, without the crowds of mass tourists that would soon descend on it, and how that experience allowed a colonial boy from Australia to feel as though he was in a personal engagement with Goya and Velázquez, to re-enter the past through the portal of the museum.

The model of the museum as mausoleum was already on its way out by the end of the 1950s. In its place came the model of the museum as machine. By “machine” I don’t mean something mechanical, but something productive. I mean simply that a new idea had emerged of the museum as a place where you went to be transformed in another way — not a place where you went to commune with the past, but a place where you went to learn how to be modern.

The first museum I can remember seeing was the New York Guggenheim Museum on the morning it opened in 1959. My parents brought me, along with one of my many sisters, and we walked through it. We did it, I think now, as a form of education; to walk up and down that ramp, looking at Calders and Mirós, was to remake oneself, or try to, whether oneself was four years old or forty years old. That model of the museum as a machine for personal transformation was still in place when I moved to New York from Montreal in 1980. This was true in the modern museum, above all, but it was also true in the museums of older art, where the idea of the special exhibition underscored the museum’s place in the present. You went in, you struggled with the work — whether you were struggling with ancient Near Eastern art or the art of our own time — and you emerged knowing something. You came out changed, newly informed, educated. The museum was no longer a place of nearly religious silence; it was a place of quiet, significant instruction.

The machine museum was a popular museum — not always fashionable, but popular. It is the museum that most of us grew up with and that dominates even now — the museum of education programs and postcard shops and the happy hum of families. Yet as it spread and grew, the demands we made on it and the sheer size of the crowds that began to come to it became so intense that we now find ourselves in its aftermath, and in the presence of a new kind of museum. In the last fifteen years, a new kind of surging mob presence in the museum has changed it again; some people feel that the changes threaten its very life.

If the first museum was a kind of mausoleum, and the second a kind of machine, what is this new museum? One optimistic way of describing it is as a metaphor. Perhaps we want the museum as a metaphor for our larger life; and that’s why we turn to museums that are extravagant, romantic, and rococo, like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, or the new “crystalline” addition to the Royal Ontario Museum. We need museums that can work as metaphors for our entire social life, the argument runs, and we expect those museums to be very different from the museums we’ve known before. If the museum as machine was, to use the terms of Gothic architecture, the church militant, then this new form of museum is the church triumphant — the museum flamboyant. The museum is no longer pursuing an audience. By now, it has won its audience so completely that it has become one of the few social institutions that continues to thrive as a meeting place, a place for commonplace civilization. And if the function of the first museum was to put us in touch with the past, and of the second to educate us about the present, then the function of the museum as metaphor is to provide us with a central arena of sociability — sociability in the deepest sense, sociability as the agora, the common place, with the museum playing much the same role that a cathedral played in the Middle Ages.

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1 comment(s)

AnonymousJuly 09, 2012 12:44 EST

\"The first museum I can remember seeing was the New York Guggenheim Museum on the morning it opened in 1959.......\"
What an amazing child the author is......he remembers opening day at the Guggenheim Museum (10-21-59) at the age of three years and two months (DOB 8-24-56),

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