Why Museums?

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The Museum Studies Advisory Collective blog aims to provide a deeper understanding of museum practices while examining the process and methods of a diverse range of artists. For our first entry, we wanted to share the reasons why museums are important to us. Enjoy and welcome.

Whose interpretation matters?

Bruce Maggi: One of my earliest memories in my own college education was being assigned to visit the Museum of Modern Art, for an art history class. I remember roaming the galleries and looking at the artwork and wondering why so many pieces were considered to be art. After visiting the Met the semester before, and now viewing large canvases of flung paint or some with no paint on the canvas at all, I was perplexed on how this could be called art. The people all around me were using words like “Avant Garde” or “so insightful”, and all I could see was what I thought was “crap”. That feeling of not understanding the art, has been a driving force in my own educational career and continues as a professor of art history. A goal of mine is to instill in my students that it is okay not to understand a piece of art or to not like a piece of art. I also convey the importance of understanding where art came from and how contemporary artists have built upon past art movements. 

One of my goals upon beginning the Museum Studies certificate was to have a deeper understanding of not only how to explain art to my students, but also explain the background of how museums and galleries go about exhibiting art. The classes I completed as part of this certificate allowed me to better understand all aspects of the art world, and the internship I  completed solidified the information that I learned. I have a better understanding of the process from the artist who creates the art, to collectors who buy the art, through the gallery directors and curators who exhibit the art. Taking this certificate at Union added the importance of social justice to my education. As an educator who focuses on the importance of American Indian cultures upon the art created in North America, the need to understand the challenges marginalized groups had and have suffered allows me to better educate my students about the history of art.

Lives Matter

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Anu Mitra: James Baldwin, the famous African American writer, commented that “...a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under the heavens.”

In art, these cracks in the system come into immediate focus for the viewer. In Museum Studies, these instabilities come into yet greater focus for those who want to study the nature of museums.  Through a systematic study of how an object came to be and how it is preserved for the future, we examine why art matters (in the case of art museums), how it speaks to us, and why the expert knowledge framing our understanding matters. Vast constellations of sacred wisdom help us acknowledge the relevance of the shrines of Khirbet el Tannur in ancient Nabatea or the acts of resistance of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the sculptural tarot markings of Betye Saar or the gravity-defying paintings of Van Gogh.

Why does Museum Studies matter? Museum Studies matter because it is a study of Life, in all caps. Museum Studies provide openings through which we understand difference and by so doing, we transgress time and space. We enter the particular culture at its moment of artistic conception and we get to see it through our eyes. Museum Studies contextualizes who we are, why our lives matter, and how we are important in the broad continuum of time.

Museum Studies does all this by providing the architectural armature of a culture. How have these bodies of knowledge added to thoughtful conversations of the visual arts? What are the legacies that they ask us to be mindful of? What are the sets of concerns and approaches that connect an individual story to a larger story? Through an object, we dive deep into a study of ourselves, and we come to understand how the entire ecosystem works.

Museum Studies is ultimately a petri-dish holding timeless social injustices and visions of course corrections. In this container, we are able to locate how others found hope. This active microorganism allows us to renew faith in the living, to bring truth and honesty to our social relationships, and to do the honest work that we are called to do in our everyday, practical life.

An Archive of Power

AC Panella: Everyone is a curator and archivist these days. Museums as a concept are broader and more abstract than the concreteness of physical buildings associated with them. A museum may be street art, historic sites, or instagram feeds documenting a protest. ICOM (The International Council of Museums) defines museums as:  a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

What isn’t a museum is an institution that serves for-profit agendas. This might mean that public schools, government offices, and social justice organizations may be types of museums. Public schools are a museum of social norms and knowledge. Government institutions are museums for public policy and planning. Social justice organizations are museums of the future. These are places that house not just the memories of the past but work to shape the present and future.

In the wake of a global pandemic, economic instability, and a reckoning around institutional racism, a discussion of museums may feel a bit removed from the on-the-ground action needed today. However, to preserve, present, and communicate “the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity” is vital. To see a world that values humanity, it will be through the public study of art, science, history, etc. that intergenerational dialogue and transformative action take place. In the 21st century, museums are more than tangible places, they are the public stage where we collectively make meaning and memories. 

Exigence, Empathy, and Equity

Kathryn Turley-Sonne: Growing up in a rural location that did not feel very cosmopolitan, I always dreamed of bolting. So, I escaped through books and traveled the world through the eyes of the characters. As I neared college age, I wanted to go far away. When it came time to decide, my parents made an offer I could not resist. They said that if I would stay at a local school, they would pay for a study abroad program in London, England.  Decision made – I attended locally for one semester and then took off for an adventure in England.  I experienced many amazing events but the first time I stepped into a museum changed my life. Museums revealed, unveiled, and inspired my future choices.

My love for literature became clear in England. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Lessing, Emecheta, and Plath surrounded me. While studying there I changed my major from Political Science to English.  But the experience also introduced me to interdisciplinary approaches to learning. I will never forget my first visit to the Tate Gallery and viewing Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais.  I was overwhelmed by the emotion the painting evoked and how it enriched my understanding of Hamlet – the two texts must be taught together! And the Pre-Raphaelite’s came alive in a very intimate way – more profoundly connecting art and literature.  Although the art critic John Berger makes some compelling arguments that question the museum as an institution, I was completely enthralled by them. “The uniqueness of every painting was once part of the uniqueness of the place where it resided. Sometimes the painting was transportable. But it could never be seen in two places at the same time” (Berger 19).  Berger continues to argue the politicization of museums and their conflicting efforts to both honor and replicate the art therein. But, to this day, museums are a spiritual experience for me.  I enter them always with a sense of the sacred. They are a refuge.

Throughout my life museums played the role of a “safe space”. I sought them out whenever I needed to think through a problem or make a major decision. I had the opportunity as a professor to teach in Florence, Italy in a study abroad program. I again had a life changing experience in a museum. This time I was at the Uffizi Gallery and unexpectedly came across Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi. I had been reading The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga and relishing the story of the “mud angels” that had come to Florence in 1966 to try and save the artwork in the Uffizi and many other museums and churches in Florence after the Arno River flooded. I was imagining all the people trying to carry these amazing works of art to safety in an emergency. And I came around a corner and was assaulted by Gentileschi’s painting. I felt the emotion of the canvas enter my body in a powerful wave. It compelled me to search out and study the topic and the artist.  Also, during the time that I was living in Florence with my children I had the chance to take advantage of the “locals” special museum access. After 7:00 pm on Tuesday nights locals could go to museums for free. So, I would head every Tuesday night to the Accademia with my five-year-old daughter. She had an artist’s pad and would lie on the floor and draw her rendition of Michelangelo’s David and his Prisoners or Slaves. Every week she would pick out a new angle and I would have the pleasure of watching her watch the art and interpret it on paper. Again, it was a spiritual experience to sit there in the absolute silence of the gallery with only one or two other patrons and soak in the history and the beauty with my daughter. This unveiling of my passion for museums was becoming more evident and important.

However, my in-person experiences are privileged and beg the question of “why museums”? Berger struggles with this problem in his discussion of art reproduction. He suggests that the notion that art must be seen in person is elitist as his studies in Ways of Seeing demonstrate that availability of art primarily advantages the upper economic classes, while reproductions are available to all. Current study in the field of museology has centered on the community role of museums and galleries. This theory requires museums specially to respond to community needs rather than exhibit random collections or the “disconnected museum of old” (Crooke).  Dr. Elizabeth Crooke at University of Ulster emphasizes the importance of “the role of museums as a symbol of community; the connections between museums and community policy; and the use of museums for community action” (Crooke).  I am engaged in museum studies because I am interested in dissecting the development of the idea of a museum and its evolving nature as a mostly elite concept. And, looking at the development of museums outside of traditional walls and how that will proceed in the future. This requires a demystification of a museum as an intimidating structure. Looking at the canon of “best museums” and breaking down their collections and goals and the development of “border museums” that have invited artists outside of the canon as legitimate and not as objects of interest. How can museum practitioners alter the status quo? Can museum management serve as equity monitors? The combination of forces that encouraged my enquiry into museum studies and social justice has begun and I hope to continue this discussion in future blog posts.


Tamara White: I grew up in a small town in Northern California that was void of arts and culture. The only museum I was familiar with until I was in my twenties was the local historical museum that shared a space with the small and sparsely stocked library. Furthermore, I attended the same high school where my parents attended, with many of the same teachers still employed by the time I made my way to the 7th – 12th grade establishment.

photo by Mickey Welsh for the Montgomery Advisor.

As I walked through the doors of The Legacy Museum during a visit to Montgomery, Alabama, the topic came to me almost immediately. When I least expected it, my research came into view. The museum provides a multi-sensory experience through images, sounds, videos and holographic interactions. I experienced a visceral reaction to the mixed media exhibition that presented incarceration through an artistic lens. This experience led me to create a dissertation that followed the traditional guidelines while also bringing forth the visual elements of a creative dissertation.

No two of us are the same. We think differently. We see differently. We learn differently. Museums have the potential to provide this inclusivity. By combining art, education, and the examination of society through a modern day and historical lens, museums provide a landscape for community engagement and interaction while allowing history to not only be told, but also researched, archived and preserved.

“A visit to the museum is a search for beauty, truth, and meaning in our lives. Go to museums as often as you can.” – Maira Kalman

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