You are on page 1of 46

1

Pleasure to be here — Thanks to the team at the Mather Museum for the
invitation. Thanks for the introduction.

About the title: it’s scary. I’m not sure who came up with it… but it’s a
challenge.

Today’s Museum: Innovation, Change, and Challenge

Steven Lubar
Museums at the Crossroads
Mathers Museum, Indiana University
May 2015

2

Let’s take a look at it. For one thing, why is “challenge” at the end? Shouldn’t
the challenge come first? Is innovation the challenge? Or change? And is the
change from yesterday to today, or today to tomorrow? I started to play with
it…

3

What if challenge came first? That way, we could see what museums have a
hard time with - what challenges them - and think about the innovations
necessary, and what change that might lead to.

And then there’s the question of “today’s museum” - I believe that today’s
museums need to innovate and change because of where they’ve come
from. And we can only understand that, I think, with a longer view. So we
could add a historical element…

Today’s Museum: Innovation, Change, and Challenge

Today’s Museum: Challenge, Innovation, and Change

4

This provides us a nice historical perspective. I am increasing fascinated by
museum history, both for its own sake, and as a way of thinking through
future possibilities. Museum history is remarkably rich, almost to the point
where there seems very little that museums haven’t already tried. There are
new technologies, new possibilities, and new demands; but they build on
both a long culture of museum thinking, and also a culture of change.

5

I want to suggest, in this talk, that museums struggle with change in part
because they have adopted a set of rules, a set of ideas about how things
are supposed to be done. They have internalized these rules so that they
don’t even think about them. In this talk, I want to ask: what are those rules?
Where do they come from? How do they keep us from doing what we ought
to be doing? How do they keep us from innovating and changing?

Museums Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow:
Challenge, Innovation, and Change


Challenge, Innovation, and Change

We need to know where we’ve come from to understand what keeps us from
changing to be what we want to be, to go where we want to go. SO the
first question is…
6

What are the rules?

What are the rules? What are the unwritten rules of museums? What
rules have museum people internalized? Before you can break the rules,
or change the rules, you must know what they are…
— a quick set - not definitive, but to get you thinking…

— and mostly these are good! Need to know when to break them.

I’ve exaggerated a bit here, for educational purposes!

7

First, though, some actual curator rules. This “Director’s Agreement with
Curators,” from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the earliest list of rules for
curators that I know of.

Curators “have entire charge of their respective Departments and are
independent of each other.” That’s still pretty much the case today at the
Met.

Metropolitan Museum of Art,
“Director’s Agreement with
Curators,” June 10, 1886

8

Curators are “responsible for the safekeeping and preservation of all art
objects.”

9

Curators keep a property book. They’re registrars, not just curators. And
again, by department, not across the museum.

Metropolitan Museum of Art,
“Director’s Agreement with
Curators,” June 10, 1886

Metropolitan Museum of Art,
“Director’s Agreement with
Curators,” June 10, 1886

10

They report once a month to the director about what they’ve done. This is
when the director finds out what’s been collected.

11

There are some practice things here, as well. “No more than one curator at a
time shall be absent a whole day from the Museum.” Worth noting that there
were only two curators at the time!

12

This, by the way, is one of the two men these rules applied to: William H.
Goodyear, first curator at the Met.

Metropolitan Museum of Art,
“Director’s Agreement with
Curators,” June 10, 1886

Metropolitan Museum of Art,
“Director’s Agreement with
Curators,” June 10, 1886

Professor William H. Goodyear,
first curator of The Metropolitan
Museum of Art. Portrait by Wilford S.
Conrow 1916. Brooklyn Museum.

13

A few years later, the Met published an entire book of rules.

14

In these new rules, the director has a bit more say. It seems the curators
decide what to put on display, the director arranges it, and the curators label
it. Must have made for interesting management problems!

15

Later rule books at the Met are mostly about keeping good records:
recording object moves, photography, conservation, using new forms.

Rules and Regulations of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1889

Rules and Regulations of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1889

THE

METROPOLITAN

MUSEUM

OF ART

Circular Letter to Curators
ATTACH
a copy of regulations to be followed in recording the
location and condition of objects of art in all departments except
the Library and the Department of Prints, which have their own
specialized forms of records. I wish you would, as promptly as possible,
take the steps necessary to put them into effect. The following notes
are for your guidance in so doing:

I

z. LOCATION

RECORDS

Cards for use under Rule B are to be obtained from the Storekeeper,
who will have a supply of special guide cards on which to enter case
numbers. Ordinary guide cards should be filled in with the number
of the gallery, number of storeroom, name of shop, etc., to cover the
objects grouped under these heads.

2. INSPECTIONS
The special guide cards referred to above constitute forms on which
to enter the records of the opening of cases.The records of the annual
checking of each gallery and each storeroom should be entered on the
face of the guide cards for these rooms.
While most of the checking of the contents of rooms and cases
will probably have to be done by each department during the summer

season, the checking of some of the caseswill be spread over the year,
since a case checked in the course of rearrangement, or opening for
some other reason, during the calendar year need not be checked again
that year.

3. OBJECTS OF INTRINSIC

VALUE

Particular attention is directed to these rules. Rules B and C under
this heading are in immediate effect. Therefore, no object of intrinsic
value can be moved out of a department until an extra set of photographs is available. Rule D is not only in effect immediately, but is
retroactive; as soon as possible full setsof photographs and descriptions
of objects of intrinsic value now in possessionof the Registrar are to
be made and turned over to him. The photographing necessary to
carry out Rule A is now under way. You will note that one com-

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 

Circular Letter to Curators, 1935

My talk isn’t really about this kind of rules, though. But it seemed right to
mention the set of rules that guides many curators in the US - the Office of
Personnel Management’s curator rules.

16

Only in Washington… the Office of Personnel Management position
description for curators. These are the 1962 rules, still in use. Museum
curators collect, design exhibits, undertake education programs, and do
research…. and so on, for 16 pages. *

These are the official rules… they give you an overview of curatorial work in
several categories - exhibitions, collecting, objects… Big question, of
course: what are the real rules?

17

Start with exhibitions… What are the assumptions that go into designing
exhibits?

* Another way to think about this: “You know you’re in a traditional exhibition
when…”

18

An exhibition is orderly… It takes objects and puts them in an order, to tell a
story. Early cabinets of curiosity were not orderly - they were about
exceptions, the exotic, the odd, the wonderful. But museums take on their
modern form when they are… orderly. So compare this….

Position Classification Standard for
Museum Curator Series, GS-1015,
Office of Personnel Management, 1962

Exhibition rules
You know you’re in a traditional
exhibition when…

Orderly

19

Worm’s cabinet of curiosities - a premodern museum -Modern museums
display the typical, in an order that tries to make sense of the world;
wunderkammer display the strange and wonderful

20

A symmetrical vision of the world, at the East India Marine Society.

21

At the Smithsonian: a place for everything, and everything in its place. A tidy
vision of the world.

Musei Wormiani, 1655

East India Marine Hall between 1825
and 1867, by James H. Emmerton

United States National Museum,
Smithsonian Institution, 1880

22

The Wagner Free Institute of Science isn’t tidy, but from a distance it
suggests an orderliness to the world that is quite endearing…. Museums
present a view of the world that suggests that orderliness is possible, and
preferable.

23

Even when displaying the most un-museum like artifacts possible orderliness suggest it’s a museum. Cigarettes, on exhibit at the Museum of
Innocence by Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul

24

Orderliness has another meaning - things are arranged in a particular order
— arranged so that they tell a story. According to designer Richard Saul
Wurman, only 5 kinds of order.

*****

Wagner Free Institute of Science,
Philadelphia

Fusun’s cigarettes, Museum of
Innocence, Istanbul

Alphabetic

Geographic

In order

Chronological

Hierarchical

By category

25

Chronology is the easiest kind of order for museums. It’s also one that can
easily oversimplify, over-order. A history museum focused too narrowly on
timelines suggest that history had to happen the way it did, that it follows a
pre-ordained path.

26

Timelines can get complicated in interesting ways. At the turn of the 20th
century, the Smithsonian’s anthropology and technology curators loved to
organize things in synoptic series. This was a more complex chronology - not
about time, but about progress. Order carries with it ideologies, meanings.

27

A map filled the lobby of the Atwater Kent Museum, providing a geographic
order to Philadelphia history.

Timelines

“Synoptic Series of Invention: Knife, saw,
borer, scraper” Smithsonian, about 1890

But there’s more than just orderliness, or putting things in order. Museums
suggest, more profoundly that the world is ordered.

Atwater-Kent Museum,
Philadelphia

28

By ordered, I mean, they instill a sense of order - * of discipline - that they
make an argument about how artifacts relate to each other, and how we
relate to artifacts - * how the world works. * Foucault argued that we should
understand the world by examining the structures of knowledge. Museums
are a good place to do that…

29

This focus on order is clear in the first modern art museums. Lambert Krahe
introduced a completely new and modern system of organizing paintings at
the Dusseldorf palace in 1770s. His aim was to create a pedagogical display
that educated viewers in the art-historical principles of the different schools
of art. The art museum, from this point on, was not about individual works,
but about art history.

30

Not just art museums, of course - in fact, art museums were modeled on
natural history museums. “A picture collection not arranged by school and
artist is “as ridiculous as a natural history cabinet arranged without regard to
genus, class, or family.”

Ordered
…disciplined
…like objects together
…makes sense of the world

"Those beautiful structures that are so orderly,
intelligible and transparent to analysis." 

—Michel Foucault

Nicolas de Pigage and Christian von
Mechel, La galerie électorale du
Dusseldorff; ou, Catalogue raisonné
et figuré de ses tableaux (Basel,
1778), pl. 19-21

A picture collection not
arranged by school and
artist is “as ridiculous as
a natural history cabinet
arranged without regard
to genus, class, or
family.”
—Jean-Baptiste-Pierre
Lebrun, art historian,
1793

31

You can see this in history museums, too. As Gary Kulik has pointed out,
“Peale’s pedagogy and taxonomy were better suited to birds and mastodons
than to history and human culture…. His gallery of heroes made the
Revolution tamer, more respectable, and more orderly than it ever could have
been.” Peale’s museum offers a combination of orderly display, an ordered
display, and a suggestion that the world is orderly.

32

Ever wonder what was behind the curtain? This picture gives a better sense
of the order of the Peale museum.

33

There was disagreement about how best to organize exhibits, but there was
complete agreement that there had it be organization. Goode, the museum
philosopher of the 19th-century Smithsonian, put it thus: museums should be
“arranged with the strictest attention to system.”

Charles Wilson Peale, “Portrait
of the Artist in his Museum,” 1822

Charles Wilson Peale and Titian Peale, The
Long Room, Interior of Front Room in Peale's
Museum, 1822. Detroit Institute of Art

“The people’s museum should be much more than a house
full of specimens in glass cases. It should be a house full of
ideas, arranged with the strictest attention to system.”
George Brown Goode, Museum-History 

and Museums of History, 1888

34

Archaeology and anthropology exhibitions also found order in the world. At
the Smithsonian, George Brown Goode urged that anthropology exhibits be
classified in a double system: by race, and by “the evolution of culture and
civilization,” across race. (Museums of the Future, p. 259.) - he even
suggested putting cases on wheels so that they could be reorganized easily.

35

Orderliness didn’t mean correct - Malvina Hoffman’s exhibition of the 120
races of the world shows the seductiveness of order -

*

a comic book version of race, perhaps. — order makes things too easy.

Prehistoric Archaeology exhibit in
Upper Main Hall, Smithsonian
Institution, c. 1879-1903

So what happens when we undermine orderliness? When we subvert
categories?

Malvina Hoffman, “Hall of Races,”
Field Museum, 1929

36

Note start of red triangles… exhibitions that break the rules! when you see
these - ask what’s different about these…

Dr. Albert Barnes upset the museum world by breaking the rules… put
furniture and wrought iron on display with his Renoirs… - he saw these as
aesthetic similarities, not as art-historical evidence.

Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania. Renoir
and chest room 18, 1942. Library of Congress

37

Whistler’ Peacock Room was also about personal aesthetic categories…
originally designed to display Leyland’s collection of Chinese blue and white
porcelain, then used by Freer to present ancient biblical manuscripts he had
acquired in Egypt and to organize and display more than 250 ceramics he
had collected from throughout Asia.

38

Chipstone installation at Milwaukee Art Museum — fine American furniture
embedded back into nature… harking back to a pre-museum world of
wonder cabinets - not about order, but about exception, oddities, even
dreams and nightmares.

39

Part of the power of Fred Wilson’s work is the way he plays with categories.
The label says: metalwork, which is a category that seems appropriate for a
museum. But somehow fine silver and slave shackles don’t seem to rest
easily in our categories.

James McNeil Whistler, “Peacock Room”,
1876-77, revised 1908, Freer Gallery of Art

Martha Glowacki, “Rooms of Wonder,”
Chipstone Foundation / Milwaukee Art
Museum, 2008

Fred Wilson, “Mining the Museum,”
Maryland Historical Society, 1991

40

This from a long case of artifacts that survive from the Jenks Museum of
Natural History - arranged, in a new installation by Mark Dion at Brown
University, by degree of decay… not the usual way of thinking about museum
artifacts, but an appropriate for an exhibition on a museum that’s
disappeared. Note the orderliness, even an exhibition about disorder.

41

Mambo Maude, a voudou priestess, mined the collections of the Haffenreffer
Museum for artifacts that spoke to her of the water goddess La Sirena many cultures pulled together because of what she saw as a spiritual
similarity.

“The Lost Museum,”
Brown University, 2014

Some of the most interesting museum exhibitions of recent years are those
that break the rules, bend the categories, move beyond system. These are
exhibits that call attention to the orders and systems that we can too easily
take for granted.

Haitian vodou altar by Mambo Maude,
Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, 2012

42

Cooper Hewitt Design Museum
website, 2015

Digital allows many ways into the collection. Seb Chan at the Cooper Hewitt
argues that we need to consider the user’s wants and abilities in designing
interfaces to online collections. Tagging was fashionable a decade ago as a
way of allowing non-museum categories and terms. Chan suggests that
faceted searches across a wide range of categories - color, location, donor,
etc., serves users better - it lets users play with the categories. * here’s what
you get… — Note - color turns out to be the most popular way of browsing
collections.

43

The next set of rules: exhibits are designed for looking. I’ll come back to the
fellow peering at museum exhibits with a skiascope in a moment.

44

Exhibits are designed for looking. Artist Karin Jurick captures the essence of
museums in her series on Museum Patrons: people looking.

45

There’s a long history of paintings and photographs of people in museums,
looking.

Designed for looking

Karin Jurick, from the
“Museum Patrons” series, 2010s

Frank Waller, “Interior View of the Metropolitan
Museum of Art on Fourteenth Street,” 1881

46

Looking closely.

47

Looking very closely.

Adolphe Vasseur, “Palace
of Fine Arts,” Lille France. 1883

This fascination with close looking reaches its ultimate state in Google
Cultural Project: a system designed to turn art into brushstrokes…

Alécio de Andrade,
Louvre Museum, 1993

48

Visitors viewing Brontosaurus skeleton,
American Museum of Natural History, 1937

Looking and pointing.

49

Looking and pointing, virtually

50

Staring.

51

There’s a good literature on the particular kind of looking that museums
encourage. Here, a fine illustration of the male gaze.

Epcot, Disney World, 2003

Henri Cartier-Bresson,
Leningrad, 1973

Thomas Hoepker, “Picasso's Les
Demoiselles d’Avignon,” The
Museum of Modern Art, 2005.

52

Even when art and artifacts are replaced by screens, it’s about looking.
Maybe even more so. We know so well how to look at screens.

53

How might we encourage visitors to move beyond just looking. Here, first
close looking, and then drawing. Museum educators are doing wonderful
work in this area.

54

Occasionally, museums are designed for other senses, but not very often. or
very well. Hearing - but only as an adjunct to looking. Almost never touching.

“Sherlock Holmes,” Museum
of the City of London, 2014

Saturday Morning Class in the Print
Room, Art Gallery of Toronto, circa 1931

“Return to the Sea,” National
Museum of Natural History, 1964

55

There are new possibilities for moving beyond looking with new kinds of
screen. A new kind of attentiveness, of interaction, is possible.

56

There are new possibilities for moving beyond looking with new kinds of
screen. A new kind of attentiveness, of interaction, is possible.

“American Enterprise,” National Museum
of American History, opening soon!

Next: another category of rules… how museums put objects in context.

“Strike a Pose,” Gallery One, Cleveland
Museum of Art, 2014

57

Contextual?

The past century has seen a tug of war over what kind of context to provide
objects. Just a few examples.

58

Many art museums have gone almost entirely to art without context. Brian
O’Doherty explains this in his famous “Inside the White Cube.” How we look
at art — how we look in museums — changes over time, from many things to
look at, to intensive looking at one thing.

59

The best expression of this framing is Benjamin Ives Gilman’s skiascope outlined in his Museum Ideals of Purpose and Method (1918). He presents
the skiascope as a device to limit glare, but metaphorically, it does much
more than that: it isolates each piece of art.

60

And so we have the white walls of the gallery, each painting given its space,
framed in many ways: it’s literal frame, but also by the edges of the wall, the
rope in front, the lighting, the circulation of visitors.

The ideal gallery subtracts from the artwork all cues that
interfere with the fact that it is “art”. The work is isolated
from everything that would detract from its own evaluation
of itself.”
—Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube, 1976

Benjamin Ives Gilman’s skiascope, from
Museum Ideals of Purpose and Method, 1918

Art Institute Of Chicago, 1990
Photographer: Thomas Struth.

61

Not everyone bought into this - Alexander Dorner at the RISD Museum tried
a range of techniques in his “atmospheric rooms”: colors, environmental
sounds, close listening - about creating an historically resonant emotional
context for the art. And there’s been a revival, in big art museums, of
contextual shows that reconnect the art and decorative arts of a period.

62

A remarkable show that broke museum rules by hanging the quilts high in the
air - not to be looked at closely, but to be appreciated as a collection, as a
set of patterns and colors - as a quilt of quilts!

63

Anthropology have a different way of thinking about context. - here, all pots
toghether.

“Classical Room,” Museum of the
Rhode Island Museum of Art, 1939

“Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White
Quilts,” presented by the American Folk Art Museum at
the Park Avenue Armory, 2011. Photo by Gavin Ashworth.

National Museum, about 1890

64

Ethnographic artifacts as pure form.

65

Ethnography as diorama, an attempt at spatial context - Boas’s influence
here.

66

Objects as devices for expert to explain with. Context here is
scholarlyknowledge.

Installation of the Ward Collection in
Paris, about 1911

Zulu diorama,
Smithsonian, about 1915

“Political Authority” in “Cultures of
Africa exhibition, NMNH, about 1969

67

Finally, opening up to many voices, many stories, personal contexts; not just
the expert providing the storyline, but letting the subject speak.

68

Technology museums have played with context in a similarly wide-ranging
way. From all tools for a similar purpose lined up…

69

to period rooms: one place, one moment in time.

“African Voices,” NMNH, about 1999

Synoptic series of knives and saws,
National Museum, about 1890

Enough about exhibits… let’s move on to objects…

Shoe shop, Henry Ford Museum,
about 1990

70

I’ll talk about three kinds of object rules - collecting rules, rules about treating
objects, and the notion that museums keep objects forever

Object Rules

71

Collecting Rules

72

Clara Lieu, The Art Prof blog, 2013

First, what to collect: What is “museum quality?” Prof. Lieu, the Art Prof,
says: “museum quality work is work that talks about contemporary issues,
yet is timeless.”

While I don’t like the notion of museum quality - museums collect should
collect work defined in many ways - this combination is not bad: meaningful
today, and meaningful in the future, maybe in different ways.

73

There’s a long history of rules about what to collect - and what not to collect.
This is Burcaw’s famous listing of what isn’t museum quality - rules that were
designed to professional the museum world - and which are superseded now
that we’re interested in not just history but also the way the public
understands and uses history… Still no two-headed calves, though.

74

We’ve become much more interested in objects as relics, as sites of memory
- the invention of the memorial museum broke Burcaw’s rules.

75

Note Sir Flower’s line about “state of nature” - he wants to collect the pure,
things as they were before commercial, global influences. That’s almost
impossible, of course, and now we are as interested in those influences as
the pure. We’re interested in tourist art, in the impact of the global flow of
materials and ideas, global bricolage.

“Relics, curiosities, personal memorabilia, glorification
of specific individuals or specific families…do not
belong in a public museum…. No two-headed calves.
No bricks from the old school house or mementos of
prominent families.”
—G. Ellis Burcaw, Introduction
to Museum Work, 1975

9/11 Memorial Museum, 2014

“The scope of the museum should be strictly defined
and limited… I think we are all agreed as to the local
character predominating… Everything not occurring in
a state of nature within that boundary should be
rigorously excluded.
—Sir William Flower, “Local Museums,” 1891

76

There’s always been tourist art

77

TOurist art is interesting because it shows not purity but mixture, not single
traditions but cosmopolitanism

— in the faculty essays - Heather Akou mentions that Somali costume has
always been about bricolage - couldn’t find a picture, but bricolage doesn’t
do well in museums… we’ve liked purity.

78

Finally, there’s a new interest in contemporary collecting - breaking old rules
about waiting to see what might be worth saving… Some museums are
setting up new categories of collections - objects easier to deaccession if it
seems collecting them was a mistake.

Loango market stall selling art to
tourists, about 1910

Anthropology Museum, Northern
Illinois University,

Given the uniquely detailed
record of contemporary life
recorded by today's
ubiquitous media – how
best are museums to
record and present
contemporary life in their
collections?
—Owain Rhys

Once we have them… how to deal with objects?

79

The word I’d use to describe it: we must respect the object. This means each
thing seen separately, protected, held for ever.

80

All objects equally precious - the historic house museum world is talk about
the “Rembrandt Rule” - the idea that everything needs to be treated like it’s a
Rembrandt. click once for both images -

Respect the object

The “Rembrandt Rule”

They are starting to ask the question about whether this is true - whether it
would be better to tilt more toward education and less toward preservation a hot topic in the museum world.

81

Bryan Collection, New-York Historical
Society, before 1908

This was not always the case. Note the way these paintings are hung - floor
to ceiling, overlapping - not respectful in the current sense.

82

In the Brooklyn Museum’s 1923 “Primitive Negro Art” exhibition, blankets
were hung on the wall and draped over stools. Perhaps the Brooklyn
Museum thought it OK to break the rules because it was displaying
“primitive” art?

83

The ultimate taboo: Open the case and touch the flowers. Museums are
supposed to keep the cases closed!

84

Benjamin Filene, the curator of “Open House,” broke many rules: Not
“authentic” artifacts from the house; words and artifacts mixed
promiscuously; many of the artifacts not “museum artifacts” - bought for this
exhibit. Many different voices overlapping.

"Primitive Negro Art,”
Brooklyn Museum, 1923

Forestry Hall, American
Museum of Natural History, 1911

“Open House,” Minnesota Historical Society, 2006

85

Artist Mark Dion’s imagined reconstruction of the office of John Whipple
Potter Jenks. A biographical sketch in objects - even though none of these
artifacts have any actual connection with Mr. Jenks.

86

One of the most shocking exhibitions ever at the Met. Not shocking because
of the sex… but costumes from the collection shown in a lively way and
placed into period rooms. And broken objects!

87

Yinka Shinobara re-imagines a period room as a dreamscape - breaking all of
the rules! A wild party in a Victorian dining room! Headless manikins with
their feet on the table!

“The Lost Museum,”
Brown University, 2014

“Dangerous Liasons,”
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004

“Party Time,” by Yinka
Shinobara, OBE, Newark Museum, 2009

88

Maira Kalman not only cuts open the back of the chair to install a screen…
she has handwritten labels!

Artists bring a refreshing willingness to break the museum rules.

“Maira Kalman Selects,”
Cooper Hewitt Museum, 2015

89

Conservation philosophies and guidelines change over time. Alexander
Dorner, director of the RISD Museum of Art in the 1940s, had strong feelings
about what it meant to do a “truthful” restoration - what we would call a
reconstruction.

90

Or, as Walter Benjamin said, authentic objects have an aura. Reproductions
don’t have an aura - they are not embedded in the fabric of tradition.
Museums have brought into this - not always but certainly over the past
century.

“The wistful, sentimental
appearance of this head
made it a favorite of
romantically inclined
visitors until Dorner
corrected the false
impression by as truthful
a restoration as possible.”
—Samuel Cauman,
The Living Museum, 1958

Objects are authentic,
unique and precious

91

Our model for art: a single precious original thing.

92

Early museums were much less concerned with authentic, and more with
teaching. And so cast museums were common.

Mona Lisa at the Louvre

This is Brown’s museum of casts - * and other casts, now in the basement of
the economics department, for some reason

Gallery of Classical Antiquity, Brown
University, 1893

93

Claude Monet Studio, Giverny

All of the paintings here are copies.

94

Some interesting new possibilities if we let go of the idea of the original being
the only thing the museum is about. This is not a visitor feeling an original At
the Van Gogh Museum, visually impaired visitors can feel a 3-D printed
version of Sunflowers, as well as explore a model of his “The Bedroom” and
smell lavender. s

95

3-D printed sword that looks and feels like original, so that visitor can touch
it. More or less authentic than the original in a case?

96

Museums like to think they keep objects for ever. I want to ask two
questions. Do they, and should they?

“Feeling Van Gogh,” Van Gogh
Museum, Amsterdam, 2015

3-D printed 6th century sword,
Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo, Norway

Keep objects safe, forever

97

Answer to the first: they don’t really. (Of the 174 paintings that were part of
the Metropolitan Museum's first purchase in 1871, only 60 are in the
collection now. Only 19 are on view today.)

98

Of the first collection at the Smithsonian – the George Perkins Marsh
collection of 1335 European engravings and 300 art books, purchased 1849 perhaps 400 left at SI. Some sent to Corcoran, some to Library of Congress –
some destroyed in 1865 fire

99

US Exploring Expedition - 1838 -1842 - collected some 40 tons of
specimens - 4000 ethnographic, 2000 birds, 50,000 plants… Came to
Smithsonian in 1858 — Jane Walsh, at NMNH, devoted years to tracking
down the ethnographic collections - about two-thirds still there - the rest
distributed 800 of 2400 artifacts were missing - distributed to individuals, but
mostly to museums as “starter kits” — much lost to fire, etc., at these other
museums — need to do more of this museum taphonomy

“The Metropolitan Museum of Art in
New York,” 1880

George Perkins Marsh collection,
Smithsonian Institution, 1849

United States Exploring Expedition,
Smithsonian Institution

100

And to the second question I asked before - should they?? : It seems to me
that there’s an ethical issue here: museum objects aren’t useful if they are
never used. Behind the scenes of every museum are storage rooms - usually
with more than 90 percent of the museum’s collection hidden away, most of
it never to be displayed.

When I’ve taken students to visit museums, this is always what they like best
- what they remember most. But they’re also horrified by the notion that no
one gets to see them…

Storage, Old Sturbridge Village

101

Collections are essential for research, especially in natural history

102

And to a lesser extent, in anthropology

Bird Storage, National
Museum of Natural History,
Smithsonian Institution

Anthropology Storage, Museum
Support Center, Smithsonian Institution

103

But perhaps less so in history. In fact, the history of collections in history
museums is a discourse of constant worry about what to do with collections?
How do we use them? How do we prove that they are valuable, useful, worth
the high price it costs to store them?

104

Cary Carson’s 1978 worry is still mostly true.

105

And our storage is in bad shape!

Firearms Storage, United States National
Museum, Smithsonian Institution, about 1920

“No matter what standard measure objective scholars
use they can hardly avoid the conclusion that the study of
artifacts has contributed to developing the main themes
of American history almost not at all.”
—Cary Carson, Colonial Williamsburg, 1978




1 out of 3 museums: it seems unclear who is
responsible for storage
1 in 4 museums: storage areas so overcrowded that it
has become difficult to get from one end to the other.
1 out of 10 museums: the theft of objects from the
collection is considered to be a major problem.
2 in 5 museums: an important lack of management
support for storage-related activities and a lack of
trained staff


—International Centre for the Study of the Preservation
and Restoration of Cultural Property, 2011

106

It is the [museum’s] obligation to remove from the
collection material:
• That does not relate to the museum’s mission
• That the museum does not have the resources to
preserve.


One answer, of course, is to take our deaccessioning responsibilities more
seriously - if not…

we end up with objects that we never use

—American Association of Museum, “Ethics of
Deaccessioning,” 2000

107

I couldn’t resist…

We need to think of storage as more than just - dead storage. And museums
have started to find ways to use their stored collections for their educational
goals, to bring them to life.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” 1981

108

But more immediately - we need to put our museum storage to work

At Brown, we put our museum storage racks inside of glass exhibit cases.
We literally put storage on display!

CultureLab, Haffenreffer Museum of
Anthropology, 2012

109

The Glasgow Museums Resource Centre is open for occasional visits organized mostly for storage, but also for display.

110

Many museums have densely packed open storage rooms - in combination
with access to collections data on screens, a way of letting the public see
collections that would otherwise be hidden.

111

And, of course, visible storage and study rooms are becoming more
common. Here, the Victoria and Albert Museum.

*

Glasgow Museums Resource Centre

Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of
American Art, Metropolitan Museum

Visible storage in the porcelain
galleries, Victoria and Albert Museum

The Clothworkers’ Centre for Textile
and Fashion Study and Conservation,
Victoria and Albert Museum

112

The V&A is asking: How can we reinvent museums - how do we change the
rules - so that the public can make use of our objects?

113

Harvard Art Museums new Art Storage Center - anyone can ask to come and
see any work of art.

114

Some of the most fascinating exhibits mix the storage and the gallery - the
first one was Warhol’s “Raid the Icebox”

“We aim to remove every barrier possible between the
public and the collections…There’s a special intimacy
that comes from encountering an object first hand. I
personally believe we can trust the public more with
things, and perhaps it might even be worth changing our
policies on conservation to enable such access.”
—Kieran Long, Senior Curator of Contemporary
Architecture, Design and Digital, Victoria and
Albert Museum

The expansive Art Study
Center allows visitors to
request objects not
currently on display in the
galleries, facilitating selfdirected teaching and
learning from works in all
media…, the Art Study
Center encourages
extended interactions with
original works of art.
—Harvard Art Museums

Andy Warhol, “Raid the Icebox,”
RISD Museum, 1970

115

The collection of the Jenks Museum at Brown was lost, literally carted off to
the dump - here, its storage recreated as an art project. 80 student artistss
were given lists of collections that did not survive, and summoned forth their
ghosts.

116

Finally, some more general curator rules.* When I gave an earlier version of
this talk, the title was read as “The curator rules!”, with an exclamation mark.
I’m more interested in that phrase, without an exclamation mark.

117

Curators make choices both because they are trained to - they were what
Sachs called the “trained elite.” Paul Sachs was head of the Harvard
Museum program in the 1920s and 30s - trained most of the museum
directors of his day - and this still stands as widely held belief - even if most
museum directors are less likely to be so blunt.

“The Lost Museum,” Brown
University, 2014

Curator Rules
Curators are experts, and
make the choices

The museum must remain
“firmly in the control of a
trained elite [to] maintain
standards of quality
independent of the
contingent values of daily
life.” Museums “must
direct public taste…and
not be dictated [to] by it.”
—Paul J. Sachs, Harvard
Museum Program, 1920s

http://harvardmagazine.com/2002/09/reverence-for-the-object.html

118
“The strong sense of high
purpose and personal
responsibility and the
strict intellectual
integrity…mark the
museum curator.… As a
professional he is a
stronghold of individual
initiative and
responsibility in a world
threatened by the ant
heap of collectivism.”
—Remington Kellogg,
Director, USNM, 1952

Remington Kellogg at the Smithsonian: the curator as “a stronghold of
individual initiative and responsibility in a world threatened by the ant heap of
collectivism.”

A fine example of Cold War rhetoric! Curator as John Galt!

119

Akeley was the mastermind of the natural history dioramas at the AMerican
Museum of Natural History.

120

Robert Multauf, explaining why the Museum of History and Technology today’s National Museum of American History - was divided into exhibits
organized according to the specialized interests of the curators.


"If an exhibition hall is to
approach its ideal, its plan
must be that of a master
mind, while in actuality it is
the product of the
correlation of many minds
and hands.”
—Carl Akeley, In
Brightest Africa,
1923


“Our exhibitions represent
primarily the judgment of
the curator-in-charge as to
the best method of dealing
with his subject.”
—Robert Multauf, Museum
of History and Technology,
1965

121

John Cotton Dana is represents another tradition - museums looking not to
their own interests or expertise but that of the community. This has become
increasingly common in recent years.

122

Mark Dion’s “Sketches for Curator's Office 2011” - an installation at the
Minneapolis Institute of Arts that offers the empty office of the museum’s
mysteriously vanished first director of contemporary art.

The first task of every
museum is “adding to the
happiness, wisdom, and
comfort of members of the
community.”
—John Cotton Dana, 1917

He asks the question: what happens when the curator vanishes?

Mark Dion, sketch for “The Curator Vanishes,”
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2011

123

“Expression,” Kelvingrove Art Gallery
and Museum, 2013

One answer: Ask non-curators what they think. Let them make choices about
art and artifact to display.

124

Write on the outside of cases and give people pens

125

Give artists uncharted spaces to work in, and to present their own work.

“Exquisite Things,” Haffenreffer
Museum of Anthropology, 2012

Photos courtesy S. Hollis Mickey, RISD Museum

“One Room,” RISD Museum, 2013

126

Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and
Laura Koloski Letting Go?: Sharing
Historical Authority in a UserGenerated World, 2011

Or, as an important recent book suggest… let go. Letting go means working
with the community, working with your audiences in new ways.

127

It might mean reorganizing the museum so that curators are part of a team
responsible for visitor experience, not collections.

128

It might mean moving beyond thinking about museums be only about
education - and individual education - and think about what the museum
does for the community.

Alternative Museum
Organizational Chart

To sum up… let’s think about rethinking the rules.

Theory of Change, Santa
Cruz Museum of Art and
History, 2015

129

Rethinking the rules

First, the display rules:

130

Display rules

Designed around looking (not other senses)

Clear lines and divides between exhibit and visitors,
narrator, audience and subject

One story, beginning to end; neutral, unbiased, single
voice, a simple straightforward narrative

Focus on objects, respectfully treated, or a narrow
definition of context

Conveys authority

Some of the rules for exhibition; Model is an old-fashioned university lecture!

What would happen if we broke these rules?

131

Object rules

What counts as an object is narrowly defined:
“museum quality,” old, original condition, of interest to
a curator’s scholarly interest

Display objects in a respectful way

Keep objects safe, forever, even if that means not
using them

To what extent are curators thinking of the big picture of the museum, to
what extent their own work? what structures shape collecting?

132

Curator Rules

The curator is the expert

The curator is an academic subject-matter specialist,
not a generalist

The curator is anonymous, the voice of the museum

The curator is not part of the story

And finally: the curator rules? The traditional rule is that the curator is an
expert, and a specialist - and that expertise is defined as academic, subject
matter expertise. This assumption about the nature of expertise allows the
curator to be not a person, not part of the story, but an anonymous voice of
authority.

This last rule seems so central to museums - but broken now in every other
medium. What would happen if we broke these rules?

133

Some final thoughts on how we might break the rules. What if we put the
audience first? If our collections and exhibits overcame the bureaucratic
structures of the museum? If we first asked, as John Cotton Dana
suggested, how might we be useful?

134

Finally, to return to the question of innovation, change, and challenge in
today’s museum.

135

Today’s museum, I’ve suggested, inherits a great many rules - assumptions,
expectations - from a long history of museums. But it’s also a moment when
we are getting better about acknowledging that we can break some of those
rules. (Though not good enough, I’d say.)

Breaking Rules

Let go. Share authority. “It’s not about you.”

Put the audience first.

Overcome bureaucracy.

Make museums useful.

Today’s Museum: Innovation, Change, and Challenge 


Today’s Museum 


136

What innovations are need? Not technological ones - though it seems that
the digital space opens up new possibilities for story telling and sharing.
Rather, the innovations needed are cultural - new ways of thinking about our
work, the culture of our organizations.

137

Opening up our work - taking a hard look at our culture - will help us change.
And that’s the greatest challenge.

Today’s Museum: Innovation


Today’s Museum: Innovation, Change and Challenge


138

Thank you

George Scharf, Staircase
of the old British Museum
in Montagu House, 1845