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The cabinets of curiosities created under the old regime were the precursors of our art and natural history museums. These private, princely collections displayed densely packed presentations of rare and precious objects: fossils, stuffed animals, shells, animal skeletons, coins, ivory sculptures, gems, clocks, rock crystal, swords, scientific instruments; and also works of art. With no labels, these displays offered plenitude with a vengeance.
Gathering together luxuries, many of them exceedingly frail, from everywhere, the cabinets embodied in microcosm Europe’s expansive power. To represent the world in its entirety, so these collectors believed, was to control it. Our distinctive category of fine art had not yet emerged.
Cabinet of Curiosities (Taschen, 2020), a gorgeous, heavy book with photographs by Massimo Listri and texts by Giulia Carciotto and Antonio Paolucci, is perfectly suited to its subject. It has large color close-ups of the contents and displays of 20 Western European cabinets of curiosities, along with some good, brief historical commentary.
Caravaggio’s “Head of the Medusa” (1597-78), now seen as a startling work of art, was in the Uffizi originally displayed alongside “the beautiful but terrifying suit of horse armor given to the Grand Duke by the Persian Shah,” another rare and wondrous artifact.
Nowadays Benvenuto Cellini’s “Saliera” (“Saltcellar,” 1540-43), which today is in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, is a marvelous sculpture. But when it was displayed in the cabinet of curiosities of the Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf II in the Prague Castle, alongside “automata [. . .] rock crystal [. . .] cups made from rhinoceros horn or ostrich eggs,” as the authors write, it too must have been understood very differently.
Modernism separated works of art from natural wonders and placed them in public museums, where curators and art historians classified and interpreted them. Like the cabinets of curiosities, these art museums often displayed plunder. The conquering Napoleonic armies dispatched art from Spain, Italy, the Low Countries, and Germany to the Louvre, where its public display impressed the French populace with the fruits of their conquests.
Later, thanks to colonialism, works from China, Africa, Oceania and India were gathered in European museums. And art museums then came to serve a variety of functions. They educated, imparting knowledge about “exotic” cultures. As manifestations of the stability, power, and wealth of the community, they became sources of civic pride. (By the late 19th or early 20th century, almost every large American city had created its own museum.) Museums also provided the opportunity for privileged collectors to share their artworks with ordinary folks, and thereby engage in public relations coups demonstrating their generosity and civic spirit.
In his book, The Personalization of the Museum Visit. Art Museums, Discourse, and Visitors (Routledge, 2019), Seph Rodney, a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic, takes up an important recent part of the art museum’s history. He describes the ways in which art museums have endeavored to replace top-down thinking, which treats visitors as students seeking instruction, with the means of affording them a more active role.
Two generations ago, museums often made a priority of providing visual scholarly resources. The Cleveland Museum under Sherman Lee, who was its director from 1958 until 83, would gather Asian art, his scholarly interest, without any particular regard for the concerns of the local community. Now, however, a museum’s collection and staff are expected to bear some relationship to the composition of its community.
Many museum visitors come to see work by people like themselves, whose experiences in some way mirror their own. And so, given the long, unavoidable link of these institutions with white privilege, it’s important now that previously marginalized, disregarded, or even disdained artworks receive sustained attention. Nowadays public art museums are supported not only by privileged donors, but also, to a greater or lesser degree, by local and national governments.
And so, as Rodney writes, a member of the public is “a shareholder in the nation’s legacy” and “takes possession [. . .] in the visit, by being conceived as a kind of consumer with particular serviceable needs” [italics in original]. To prosper, the museum needs to satisfy these visitors. Needless to say, satisfying all of these conflicting demands is not easy. “Museums are troubling and contradictory,” he rightly states, “because they are produced by and reflect a divided, contradictory, and even antagonistic culture.”
The Personalization of the Museum Visit, an accurate, clear summary of the recent literature, plausibly indicates how museums seek to negotiate this complex situation. After noting his own working-class roots, Rodney describes his vivid first response to the offerings of New York’s Museum of Modern Art: “I felt that I had opened a living book and walked into the shockingly new, imagined spaces that lay within its pages.”
In a museum, he says, “the visitor is imagined to simultaneously be self-directed an autonomous, and also manipulable and suggestible, ” which nicely identifies the essential tension built into our museum life. When he first saw the Tate Modern’s thematic, rather than chronological, displays of its permanent collection, and remakes that he “was struck by how much work the arrangements gave me to do,” you become aware that he is an ideal visitor. However, while we know what a few articulate reviewers like Rodney think of museum exhibitions, it’s harder to imagine how most people respond. His concern, then, is to present a moral ideal. To treat the viewer “as a fully autonomous, self-directed adult” is, as he rightly notes, an extension of “the museum’s Enlightenment origins [. . .].”
Rereading his book, I found myself pondering these words: “Technological innovation is widely regarded as the key to turning engagement into participation, and thus ultimately democratizing the museum [. . . ]“ That judgment has turned out to be remarkably prescient, in ways that he could not have anticipated before the globe was gripped by a pandemic. But now, of course, everything has changed. When the social conditions of our life in the art world have been at least momentarily suspended, what is to be done?
One possibility is presented by an unlikely source. Edward Hopper (1882–1967) is an important American painter, but reviewing a Swiss show at the Beyeler Foundation of his much exhibited landscapes and cityscapes, would not be my first priority right now. The digital display put together by the Foundation, however, deserves attention because it is the most effective online presentation of an art exhibition that I have yet to find.
On the website there are presentations of videos taking you through the exhibition, with and without visitors, and a marvelous one by a Swiss rapper, Laurin Buser, who, relating the often depopulated artworks to social life as it has been decimated by the coronavirus, argues that Hopper is a painter attuned to the present moment.
And yet, as much as I admired this show, I would happily trade my prolonged experience of this website for an hour looking at Hopper’s paintings. Online, your looking is governed by the camera and the web designer; you lack the everyday freedom of a visitor, which is to say that the balance between instruction and autonomy has been radically undercut.
Rodney writes: “The museum space brings visitors in close proximity to art and to each other, and most crucially, with public critique.” That is exactly what I miss online. The art museum has prospered and expanded because it has proven to be an extremely supple institution. Right now, however, it faces great, absolutely unprecedented challenges.
The Personalization of the Museum Visit. Art Museums, Discourse, and Visitors (2019) by Seph Rodney is published by Routledge.
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