I recently had occasion to speak with the curator of an art museum at a university, who told me that her job has become a good deal more complicated by fundamental questions about the nature and function of museums in our world. Should museums exist any longer? By what right do museums continue to hold the artifacts that they do, seeing as many now argue that they hoard ill-gotten gains–the products of unjust exchanges, exploitative deals, or worse. Should museums divest themselves of their collections and send their inventory back to the rightful possessors. But who are the rightful possessors? How does one distinguish between situations like the Elgin Marbles, which many say should be returned to Greece, and other art that is now housed at The British Museum, most of which has no connection at all with Great Britain? Selling off these holdings won’t help, since the art will then sit in a private collector’s property. Don’t the people have a right to see and enjoy the great glories of civilization? But why the people of privileged nations that had the political and power and wherewithal to create institutions for that purpose, and the military and cultural power to take what they wanted? Would it solve things to turn museums into centers for perpetual temporary displays, as artwork moves nomadically here and there, from place to place, so that more of humanity can see it than now does?

There is an obvious relationship with the various problems of the legitimacy of property more generally, but I was thinking about the institution of the museum as a metaphor for the new questions that now confront other institutions. Institutions like museums are custodians of traditions of excellence, beauty, knowledge, and truth. Other institutions (including the institutions of law) have a similar custodial role. What happens when the fundamental premises of those institutions comes into question–when their very existence is attacked as illegitimate? How should they respond–and in particular, what should they aim to be the steward of (i.e., what should they want to conserve for posterity), and for whom? For what sort of shared culture do they continue to be institutions?

Here is a new book making what looks like an elegant pitch for the continuing relevance of the museum as institutional marker of a shared culture: Why the Museum Matters (Yale University Press) by Daniel H. Weiss, the President and CEO of the Met.

A powerful reflection on the universal art museum, considering the values critical to its history and anticipating its evolving place in our cultural future

Art museums have played a vital role in our culture, drawing on Enlightenment ideals in shaping ideas, advancing learning, fostering community, and providing spaces of beauty and permanence. In this thoughtful and often personal volume, Daniel H. Weiss contemplates the idea of the universal art museum alongside broad considerations about the role of art in society and what defines a cultural experience. The future of art museums is far from secure, and Weiss reflects on many of the difficulties these institutions face, from their financial health to their collecting practices to the audiences they engage to ensuring freedom of expression on the part of artists and curators.

In grappling with these challenges, Weiss sees a solution in shared governance. His tone is one of optimism as he looks to a future where the museum will serve a greater public while continuing to be a steward of culture and a place of discovery, discourse, inspiration, and pleasure. This poignant questioning and affirmation of the museum explores our enduring values while embracing the need for change in a rapidly evolving world.

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