Keith Wilson introducing the panel at the Next Generation: Museums talk

An increasingly frequent topic of discussion among museum scholars, workers, and visitors centers around questions of what museums can be and what they should be. Last week, the CUNY Graduate Center hosted a discussion on the Next Generation of Museums. Its four, panelists Ken Arnold, Svetlana Alpers, Jeff Levine, and D. Graham Burnett, each of whom represent different aspects of museum practice and operations, all approached the question from distinct, and sometimes opposed, vantage points.

Ken Arnold at the Next Generation: Museums talk

Ken Arnold, both the director of the Medical Museion in Coopenhagen and creative director at the Wellcome Trust in London, made his presentation through the lens of this experience, with a diagnostic focus on how universities and museums might form mutually beneficial partnerships. According to Arnold, his task is to take the former, which is a public institution and drive it in a research direction, while in Copenhagen, he means to take an institution of research and drive it towards public engagement. Likely because of this position moving between these two poles, Arnold had gained clarity on the how organizations of higher learning academy and associations established to research and displays objects for the public are different, and how they might benefit each other through working together. He described both kinds of institutions as “two very finely tuned machines for thinking.” In that vein, Arnold acknowledged that both can fall into the trap of producing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and thus merit the description as elitist. But thereafter, he talked about key differences that are also areas of potential complement. He spoke about how difficult it is for museums to be interdisciplinary, how universities can provide some of this wider perspective, thereby giving museums good questions to pose to materials in their collections. He also said that universities gives museums “epistemological legitimacy,” which is to say that the knowledge produced by academic institutions tends to be publicly considered the most reputable forms of knowledge. In terms of the benefits museums lend to universities: museums can provide wider audiences and can mount deeper and more well-researched exhibitions when partnered with a university. More, putting them together can help to ameliorate the charge of elitism.

Svetlana Alpers making her arguments at the Next Generation: Museums discussion

Svetlana Alpers, a professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, has written a good deal on museums. Her contributions to academic museum discourse are known in the field — particularly her work regarding the kinds of transformations museums carry out on objects, placing them in homologies of visual resemblance inside a rarefied and heavily aestheticized context. Alpers was certainly the most (unapologetically) recalcitrant speaker, and the most object oriented. She was also the most aware that her perspective made her, in her words, the “odd woman out.” She said that she wasn’t sure that “the new generation of institutions are indeed museums at all.” Alpers keyed into historical examples such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to talk about how museums were once havens for learning craft (such as weaving) to contrast them with new institutions such as The Shed, which seem structured as platforms for a variety of types of social, intellectual, and playful interactions.

Jeff Levine, the Shed’s Chief Marketing and Communications officer, spent nearly the previous decade working at the Whitney Museum; his perspective contrasted with Alpers’s, since it was more grounded in the language of marketing than museum studies. The contrast between their two viewpoints was most evident when Levine, suggesting that museums, object- based though they may be, must respond to the current culture, said, “if you ask people what they want to do in museums ….” Alpers was adamant in her response: “We are not asking them what they want.” In her view, the museum has lost its way and with the constant picture taking making visitors “frantic,” there was little opportunity to have a moment of reverie, of quiet contemplation, which Alpers seems to think represents an aspect of the best work that museums do.

Jeff Levine making his presentation at the Next Generation: Museums talk

By contrast, Levine’s institution, the Shed (slated to open in the Hudson Yards district of Manhattan in 2019), is by nature and design intended to respond to and leverage the popular appeal of the arts. His position was that he didn’t think that museums could hold back the tide of societal movement. Ironically, because I find myself most in agreement with the final speaker of the evening, D. Graham Burnett, who believes that museums flawed as they are must hold back the tide of the monetization of culture, Levine’s perspective affirms my own opinion about where museums are headed. I argue that they are only becoming more marketized, increasingly taking a view of the visitor as a cultural consumer, and as the museum becomes more oriented to this particular conception of the visitor, visitors hold hands with museum marketers to create a personalized experience that has less to do with objects and more to do with their desires for experience that is meaningful to them.

D. Graham Burnett speaking at the Next Generation: Museums talk

Graham Burnett, a professor in the department of the History of Science at Princeton University, has lately worked with museums in order to provoke new ways of engaging with objects so as to recognize their agency, making the interaction with the object consequential to the participant. (Full disclosure: I have personally worked with Burnett on several projects.) Burnett, although possessing the least professional or research-based knowledge of the museum institution, had the most trenchant charge to give the audience: that “It’s all hands on deck to hold back the tide” of the intrusion of market forces into every nuance of our individual lives. He elaborated, speaking of the “pervasive monetization of every aspect of our subjective living,” which includes our insecurities, our need for human touch and companionship, the needs to feed and clothe ourselves. I agree with his basic premise that museums are public institutions that offer opportunities to recognize value in social interaction, in intellectual challenges, in play, and often (though not often enough) museums offer these opportunities to the public for free. Burnett’s main concern, he said, was to find and support institutions that offer some form of resistance, that “articulate alternative systems of value other than market value.” Burnett is drawn to museums, because art is often displayed in them and he regards art as “the secular dilapidation of a theological category” — in other words, the domain of the mystical. Thus, for Burnett, in seeking out institutions that can offer this kind of resistance, he asserts that flawed as they may be, museums and universities do offer some hope.

I left the discussion, not precisely buoyed, but grateful that there are some members of the culture who still believe in the museum project — that place of civic encounter where private considerations become public action — and believe that we can still make these institutions have a broader and deeper purpose.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...