Welcome to the inaugural posting of the Plinth Forum. The forum is a site of discourse on issues involving museum practice and museum professionals. Our goal is to survey a wide range of opinions from people working in a variety of museum occupations. Initially we see this work as written essays (with hyperlinks to relevant materials). Over time, however, we hope to expand our range of discursive practices, to take advantage of our digital platform and to make use of tools like YouTube, Pinterest, and other forms of web-based social media. For now, please enjoy the essays below.
Erik Greenberg, Ph.D., Forum Manager
This quarter’s topic: “What is the purpose of a museum collection?”
This past summer has been witness to a surprising amount of press on the collections management practices of museums. Beginning in June of this year, several newspapers wrote pieces on the American Association of Art Museum Directors’ sanction of the Delaware Art Museum for its practice of deaccessioning works of art that it then sold to help close a significant budget deficit. In August, the Boston Globe wrote a lengthy piece on the rental practices of the Museum of Fine Art (MFA). According to the story, the MFA has rented several of its most important pieces to for-profit exhibition companies, and in so doing, raised some $5 million in revenue.
The sale of museum collections for any purpose other than the purchase of additional collections pieces is, by industry standards, a serious breach of ethics. Still, as more and more museums are forced to make difficult and painful financial decisions, the ethics of deaccessioning prove more complex and nuanced. Since the economic collapse of 2008, most museums have been under considerable financial stress. Too many of us have witnessed reductions in staff, pay cuts, or even the closing of longstanding institutions. Faced with these challenges, it is not beyond reason for some powerfully burdened institutions to think about their collections as financial assets capable of keeping the museum afloat.
And yet, in many ways, a museum is its collection. The collection is the heart of a museum’s identity, what it’s known for, and, above all, museum staff and trustees have an ethical obligation to protect, conserve, and exhibit their collections. To sell off, or in some way remove for profit, this critical element of an institution can feel very much like a betrayal of the museum and its public. Indeed, as Graham Beal (director of the Detroit Institute of Arts–DIA) has observed, a museum’s choice to sell off some portion of its collection demonstrates a lack of foresight that can threaten an institution’s legacy for years to come. Beal notes that during the Great Depression of the 1930s, had the DIA decided to sell off some of its collection to make ends meet, museum staff might have chosen to sell off its then recently acquired Van Gogh, thus depriving today’s museum-goers the privilege and pleasure of seeing that important work (click here to see images of five Van Goghs in the DIA collection).
Nevertheless, the challenges facing museums today are powerful and, in some cases, threaten the very existence of certain institutions. And so, while museum ethics forbid (as in the case of the Delaware Museum of Art) or frown upon (as in the case of the MFA) the sale or rental of a museum’s collection, one must wonder if there isn’t a greater ethical peril in a distressed museum not looking for some way to capitalize on their collections in an effort to support its operations.
Beyond ethical and economic considerations, other factors, notably changing museological practice, may suggest that museums should rethink their relationship with their collections. Numerous museum professionals (including me) have written about the need to find new approaches to visitor engagement. In many instances, these approaches are less dependent upon, or completely eschew, the exhibition of collection pieces, relying instead on public programs, web-based exhibitions, and thoughtfully designed, interactive installations. Science museums have been doing this for years, but other institutions—typically encyclopedic art museums, history museums, and others—have been less willing to jettison their use of collections to educate their public and stimulate visitor engagement. Professional inertia aside, we know from countless studies that museum audiences are aging, and if we do not develop new interpretive approaches, our institutions will fail to court and cultivate the next generation of museum goers. A careful consideration of the scope and purpose of museum collections, then, must be a part of our discussions in reimagining the twenty-first (and twenty-second) century museum.
With the above thoughts as backdrop, we ask our Forum contributors to tell us, “What is the purpose of a museum collection?” Is it the heart and soul of a museum? Can it be thought of as a financial asset to support the institution in difficult times? Do museums even need collections, as recent shifts in museology require alternative models for museums that focus more on design and programming and less on art and artifacts, or is there a role for collections in new models? We look forward to learning from you.
This quarter’s participants are Laura Mitchell, Patrick Fredrickson, Jaime Ursic and Catherine Allgor
|Laura Mitchell||Patrick Fredrickson||Jaime Ursic||Catherine Allgor|
Erik Greenberg is the Director of Education and Visitor Engagement at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. He holds a Ph.D. and MA in American history and is particularly interested in the ways in which historians attempt to engage the broader public.