Books: March-April 2007

April 1, 2007

Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries

Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries By David Carrier. Duke University Press, 2006, 328 pages. $22.95, paper.

In this intriguing study, David Carrier brings a philosophical viewpoint to bear on the institution of the art museum, from its Enlightenment-era founding in Western Europe to the present day. Grounded in a Hegelian point of view, Carrier’s analysis also owes much to Arthur Danto, the great contemporary philosopher of art, and employs a recurring theme of constant change, inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a text that has provided a wealth of subject matter for visual artists through the ages.

Carrier attempts to chart a course between what he calls the “museum skepticism” of such academic scholars as Donald Preziosi, Carol Duncan, Susan Pearce, and Douglas Crimp (whose book title On the Museum’s Ruins sums up what many of these scholars think of the continuing viability of this institution) and the positivist defense of traditional museum values put forward in Whose Muse edited by James Cuno, head of the Art Institute of Chicago, and several other leaders of the world’s premier museums. This is a task well worth undertaking, but one that Carrier does not quite negotiate successfully. His argument is engaging, but his knowledge of museums is ultimately insufficient.

In the first half of the book, Carrier undertakes a brief history of the display of art in museums. Emphasizing the Ovidian theme of constant change, he argues that art changes repeatedly over time, as it is displayed in different places to different viewers. Here he also defines and examines “museum skepticism,” whose proponents argue, in different ways, that museums are deeply flawed institutions. In the view of the skeptics, museums cannot truly preserve art because they remove it from its original context and insert it in a master narrative that is intimately allied with conservative capitalist power structures and is implicated in the histories of colonialist and imperialist Western regimes.

The second half of the book, while interesting, is less satisfying, in that it fails to advance Carrier’s main argument. It focuses on four case studies—close examinations of Isabella Stewart Gardner and her eponymous museum in Boston, Ernest Fenellosa and his promotion of Asian art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Albert Barnes as a pioneer in the collecting and appreciation of modern art, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, itself a key work of contemporary art in Carrier’s view. His discussion of the Gardner museum dwells on familiar facts, emphasizing the personal nature of the collection and the way it is displayed and the key role of Gardner’s adviser, Bernard Berenson.

As the author explains, Fenellosa was a key figure in the early appreciation of East Asian art in America, building the first significant museum collection in Boston. But Carrier’s conclusions about the difficulties of engaging a Western audience with this material (derived at least in part from the observation that the Asian galleries at major American museums are not as crowded as galleries containing art from the Western tradition) are unconvincing.

He is too uncritical of Barnes, a fascinating figure to be sure, but one whose sanity must be questioned and whose exceedingly quirky ideas about art education (even if endorsed by John Dewey) are viewed with extreme skepticism by virtually all serious art scholars and museum professionals.

Carrier’s assessment of the Getty as, architecturally and experientially speaking, a work of contemporary art that frames and affects our view of the city of Los Angeles and thus much of our own culture and history, while interesting, seems beside the point. As Carrier acknowledges, the Getty is a manifestation of extreme wealth, amassed by one individual but now administered by others with more divergent aims. Serious visitors cannot but ask themselves whether that wealth has been well used and to what purpose.

Toward the end of the book, Carrier discusses the Cleveland Museum of Art and its great director Sherman Lee as the archetype of the conservative, hierarchical, encyclopedic art museum, existing to serve the moneyed interests of those who support it and producing education of the masses as a self-justifying but almost incidental byproduct. Here he plays the role of museum skeptic himself, until pulling back to proclaim his love of this (and indeed all) museums and concluding that all would be well if museums could become more genuinely democratic public spaces where real debate could occur and where high art would be as accessible as mass forms of culture. But, he also acknowledges, “If history is any guide, most probably we get better art when it is administered from above.”

One of Carrier’s key points is that museums have stopped growing because there are no new kinds of art to collect (now that non-Western art has been assimilated, however imperfectly) and because the Western museum model has been embraced and emulated in the East. But, in reality, museums are continuing to expand as never before. Much of this growth is planned to showcase burgeoning collections of contemporary art, multifarious in form, function, and material and part of a dizzying expansion of the global postmodern canon.

Finally, although it would seem to be germane to his arguments, Carrier has little to say about the other cataclysmic development for twenty-first-century museums: the threat of losing collections carefully amassed over more than 100 years to claims from those representing countries, cultures, and individuals who once owned them and from whom they were “collected” under circumstances that many today find problematic. Although it contains much thought-provoking material, Carrier’s study would benefit from greater familiarity with the institution of the museum and more attention to the key issues facing it today.