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

by Adam Gopnik

photography by Vid Ingelevics

Published in the June 2007 issue

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 …

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