Collections have long been the lifeblood of museums, and rightly so. It is often through the collection itself that the mission of a museum is realized. However, the current model of museum collections, which includes the ethical limitations placed upon the use of these collections, was born from practices that are rapidly changing. Philanthropic models, approaches to visitor engagement, methods of information sharing—even museums’ philosophy towards artifacts—are impacted by technological innovations. The singular act of bringing objects into a collection both changes an object’s purpose and places a financial burden on an institution. Just as the first of these issues was rethought, at least partially, through the process of repatriation in a postcolonial context, we are now at a time in which the latter needs also to be reassessed.
The continued collecting of artifacts requires continued growth. At minimum, this means continually improving personnel, collections space, and conservation resources to preserve the collection. However, a collection of artifacts does not make a museum: museums exist when collections are made accessible to the public. Given the modes of access to knowledge that are now widely available, we have to question the relevance and sustainability of a business model based on collecting artifacts or, at least, the role of a brick-and-mortar museum in this context.
If the role of museums is to work in the public trust, how is this role fulfilled to reach those without access to a museum? Or a particular museum, or a particular collection, or a particular artifact? After all, doesn’t access to collections play some role in the code of ethics that states that museums shouldn’t sell their collection to raise funds, regardless of how necessary such funds are? We need only read Detroit Institute of Arts director Graham Beal’s justification for not selling artwork in financially difficult times. He argues that if DIA had sold a Van Gogh, the institution “would have been diminished by the loss of masterpieces we could never hope to retrieve!”
His statement is true for a particular time. Until the 1980s, if an artifact re-entered the private market, public knowledge of and access to it could be severely limited. Now, however, I can find information on such an object at my leisure. Online, sitting at home in Los Angeles, I have access to Vincent Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Postman Roulin”, owned by the Detroit Institute of Arts. At least, I have access to the image of this work, along with minimal information about it. I see Van Gogh was Dutch, lived from 1853–1890, and painted this work in 1888, with oil on canvas. I see the dimensions of the canvas and the frame in which it is housed, and that I can, presumably, contact the Department of European Painting. It was gifted to the museum by Mr. and Mrs. Walter Buhl Ford II, perhaps as the 25th acquisition in 1996 (if I’m reading the accession number correctly.) And, finally, I see the provenance of the painting.
Granted, I don’t have access to the texture of the brushstrokes, or the exactness of color. If I were studying the technology of the time or techniques employed by the artist, such information would be impossible to see online. However, I’m not entirely certain the information shared by DIA online extends the museum’s mission and allows me to find “personal meaning in art.” The bare-bones information available online advances my knowledge of the piece very little. Presumably, I’ll need to visit Detroit and hope that some wall text or docent tour will extend my knowledge and create personal meaning. If not, perhaps I’ll be so moved as to purchase a book about Van Gogh to learn even more.
Or, I can visit the Museum of Modern Art online to read about a 1989 exhibition they organized about “The Postman”. At withart.visitphilly.com, I find general information about Van Gogh’s relationship with the Postman and his family (evidently, he painted this subject and his family often during his lifetime). I raise these points not to challenge the lack of information provided by DIA (though seriously, not even a bit of text?). Rather, it is to point out the nature of access we now have to information. Through a quick search, I can travel across time and space to find information collected by a variety of sources on a single object.
Granted, the experience of seeing a physical artifact is quite different from a picture. The scale of a telegraph key is difficult to imagine online, as is the playfulness of an Alexander Calder mobile, or the cracks that now disrupt the flat planes of a Mondrian painting. But when the Boston Globe claims the Museum of Fine Arts’ rental practice treats masterpieces as cash cows, do we ignore the amount of cash involved in traveling to see the real thing? By renting a painting to other institutions, not only does the object reach a broader public, but cash that would be distributed across airlines, hotels, cafes, and transportation (corporations that are likely national in operation, not local) is instead going directly to the museum. The object acts as a “cash cow” either way.
As technology expands access to information, our approach to sharing information needs to change. Better yet, our fear of losing an object, either through sale, repatriation, or end of life, needs to change. If an object is returned to its place or culture of origin, not only does it once again become a living artifact, it can still be studied and new scholarship can still be shared with the public. Videos and interviews of the object in use can be shared, whether this means an interview with a Hopi Katsina maker or with an Upper East Side New York art collector. Through continuing advances of three-dimensional scanning and printing, reproductions can be made for study and public interaction in numerous locations worldwide. A museum can build its public trust without the need to increase its collections holdings. If we are willing to shift the role of museums away from ownership, we can address current financial struggles, broaden our public reach, and build unknown philanthropic and financial opportunities.
Patrick Fredrickson oversees the design and implementation of narrative experiences at the Autry National Center. His team of designers provide support and direction for development of the Autry’s identity and the value of the visitors experience. This work includes the development of furniture, interactive experiences, graphic design, and digital storytelling for exhibitions, galleries, marketing materials, and public spaces. Working with UCLA Extension and Woodbury University, Patrick teaches courses as a Lecturer on topics of Advertising and Experience Design. Prior to working at the Autry, Patrick worked in the Exhibition Design Department at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He holds a bachelors degree in Fine Arts from the University of New Mexico.