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Museums should not be empty

Museums are for the people. But they have not always been that way.

Blake Gopnik’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times argues that museums should continue to restrict visitor numbers with timed tickets post-Covid. Gopnik wishes for fewer people in galleries so that he can have “some deep, one-on-one conversations” with the artworks.

He says that museums’ “Covid-troubled present,”—the emptiness of museums caused by the global pandemic— “carries us back to a glorious, more art-friendly past.” Let’s talk about the past of museums.

I could begin by arguing that the history of museums goes back to when early humans started displaying art in caves, but I won’t summarize the entire history of exhibiting art here. Instead, I will refer to the history of the so-called “modern museum”—those museums that emerged in 18th and 19th-century Europe as a result of colonialism and nationalism and, some would argue, as a result of the Enlightenment.

During the 18th century, a series of private collections in Europe began opening to the public. Until then, “great art” was exclusively collected and enjoyed by monarchs and wealthy elites, such as the Medici Family in Italy and the royal family in France. In France, in 1793, the Revolutionary government nationalized royal property and declared The Louvre Palace a public institution. As G. Bataille said almost a century ago, “the origin of the modern museum…is linked to the development of the guillotine” (1). The Louvre’s collections are today the property of the people of France. (But even after 200 years, the Louvre still has inclusivity problems, some of which are discussed in Daniel Larkin’s recent Hyperallergic article.)

Museums in North America imitated their European counterparts in many respects and were also not publicly owned (except for the Smithsonian, founded in 1846). Instead, their collections grew as a result of private citizens collecting artworks, sometimes through legal, sometimes through unethical and even illegal means. Especially in the 19th century, a new class of American elite spent enormous sums to collect art. Some did it out of their appreciation of art, surely. Others did it to establish their social status and increase their influence. It is no coincidence that the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art were mostly businessmen.

In terms of inclusivity and access, museums have never been glorious. Gopnik waxes nostalgic for a time when museums were exclusive spaces for the wealthy and privileged. As a child of two parents with PhDs living in New York City, he may have been able to visit museums regularly as a teenager. But many of his contemporaries were not. According to a study by the American Association of Museums, in 2008, only 34% of museum visitors were from “minority populations.” That number was 20% in the 1980s.

Gopnik’s argument is simple yet undeniably elitist: He might just as well argue that all planes should only have first-class seats. Flights would certainly be more comfortable for the few who can afford to fly first-class.

Scheduled and limited tickets have inevitable consequences. In 2020, a survey projected that the US will lose one-third of its museums due to Covid closures. Many museums, including those with big budgets, depend on revenue from admissions to survive. In the 2018/2019 fiscal year, 18% of the Met’s operating revenue came from admissions. With closures and limited tickets, this dropped to 13% in 2020/2021.

Limited admissions would need to be offset by higher prices. Currently, an adult ticket for MOMA or the Met costs $25. To achieve the emptiness Gopnik prefers, let us imagine that the Met allowed, say, 1/8 its usual number of visitors. Tickets, then, would need to be eight times more expensive in order for the museum to maintain its usual admissions revenue. Gopnik may be able to afford to visit museums even if tickets cost $200 each, but a public school teacher or a freelancer artist would not.

If you live in NY, NJ, or CT you can visit the Met for free. Other museums have discounts for residents, children, and students. Yet, data collected as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicate that most young people have not visited an art museum or exhibit (either with their class or on their own). In 2016, only 14% percent of eighth graders had visited an art museum.

In Gopnik’s post-Covid museum fantasy, every day at the Met looks like it does during the Met Gala: an exclusive party for the few selected rich and famous who can afford a seat. If Gopnik really wanted to, he could in fact have an entire museum just to himself. Just like Beyonce and Jay Z did for their Apesh*t music video in the Louvre after paying, well, we don’t know how much. Gopnik can also book a private Louvre tour for about €30,000. The thing is, members and donors already get exclusive viewings. Any museum, I am sure, would appreciate Gopnik’s generous support, and reward him with the usual perks if Gopnik wanted to become a regular donor.

Museums should be for the people. For all people.

Ironically, while he bemoaned the crowds of selfie-seekers, Gopnik asked someone to take a picture of him looking at the van Gogh Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat (67.187.70a). Taking pictures is one of the many ways to enjoy art and museums. We can take selfies to share with friends on social media, or we can take multiple photos of a painting to share with relatives who may never see that exhibit (we may even use the photos to accompany an article!). We can read the labels or skip them all. We can spend three seconds looking at a sculpture or an entire hour sketching. That’s what museums are for, they’re for us to enjoy as we wish.

Museums are for musing and inspiration, after all. In its Greek form, mouseion, means “seat of the Muses.” Museums are places of contemplation, but they are also public spaces that we share with others. Most importantly, they are places of learning. Places where we can learn to appreciate the creative genius of humans across time and culture. Places where we can collectively learn from artworks, but also from each other.

Objects, as Gopnik says, “are machines for thinking.” Encouraging visitors to think and talk through art is one of the core ideas behind museum education programs. Research in museum education shows how essential conversation is in our learning. Looking at objects in a museum with other people stimulates thoughts. These may be different than the thoughts we have during solitary viewing.

Even crowds teach us something. When there is a crowd in front of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (333.1939), and not in front of some other paintings in the same gallery, we can question what our society considers “great art.” We can re-evaluate our values and priorities, as artist Barbara Kruger did with her work: Untitled (You Invest in the Divinity of the Masterpiece) (266.1983) juxtaposes Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam with a statement directed at the viewer, written in a style that reminds us of an advertisement. Thus, all of us are implicated in this Western narrative of what a “masterpiece” is. We are consumers of what we have been told is “great art.”

Every museum visitor has different values, priorities, attention spans, prior knowledge, patience, and interests. Museums strive to serve us all. It is not our job as visitors, as museum staff, or as celebrities (see Bette Midler’s Tweet discussed here) to judge people’s motivations for visiting a museum, how they enjoy art, or for how long.

Gopnik suggests (I hope, naively) that fewer visitors in the galleries would allow us to “achieve…real understanding.” He wants to get closer to the paintings, to stare at them long enough without the “crowds of admirers.” Perhaps Gopnik can look to the world of digital museums to discover new ways to engage with artworks through 3D images, virtual tours, and online exhibits. All without any crowds and from the comfort of his own sofa! He can zoom into high-resolution images of artworks, even closer than he can in a physical gallery standing behind a rope or looking through a pane of glass. Distance will always exist between us and the artworks. Whether it is physical, virtual, cultural, or temporal.

Maybe what Gopnik is asking for is better crowd control, which would be reasonable. But museums already do this. For instance, for the Yayoi Kusama exhibit Everyday I Pray for Love, the David Zwirner Gallery had a space set aside solely for the Instagram-famous Infinity Room. The gallery anticipated a big selfie-taking crowd and created a separate line for it. On a cold November Saturday morning, this line was longer than two city blocks, so I didn’t get to see the Infinity Room when I went. But, I did enjoy seeing so many young people waiting in line to see art.

I encourage Gopnik to visit the Met on a Friday evening during “Teens Take the Met!” The energy of excited young people might make him less critical of programs and more appreciative of crowds in museums. Or, on a weekday, Gopnik could go to the Dendur Temple early in the morning to overhear the happy bustle of an elementary school group visiting from the Bronx. He could even do some thoughtful listening and learn from the third graders. School children’s questions are often humbling and eye-opening when it comes to moving “beyond the preconceptions and clichés that all of us arrive with.”

Unlike Gopnik, I hope that even more people visit museums, more than before Covid. I hope that as museum professionals, we can make museums more inviting, inclusive, and accessible so that more people feel welcomed. I hope we can make museums less elitist, colonialist, and racist. I hope more voices are heard, respected, and represented, especially the voices of those who have been excluded from museums for so long.

In a world without a pandemic, a museum is only empty when it has failed its communities. When it no longer serves us all.

Museums are for the people, and they should stay gloriously so.

——

Notes:

(1): Georges Bataille, “Museum,” 1930, published in October 36, 1986, p. 26.

Series of numbers after the artwork titles are museum accession numbers that can be used in searching online museum collections databases.

I would like to thank Dr. Jen Thum, Dr. Christian Casey, and Erhan Tamur for their comments, edits, and suggestions. I owe a special thank you to Dr. Oya Topçuoğlu for encouraging me to write this response.

About the author – Dr. Pınar Durgun

Dr. Pınar Durgun is an archaeologist and educator, currently a curator at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin.

 

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