Our fearless leader, Erik Greenberg, has tackled this number’s question from a very practical standpoint, one reflective of concerns in the news. My approach will be, if you will, more philosophical. To wit, “What is the purpose of a museum collection?” or, more cheekily, “Who cares?”
Erik engaged the topic in the very real context of institutions in dire situations, ones that force the consideration of collections as assets. I am fortunate enough to work at an institution that is in far from dire circumstances. The Huntington’s collections in Library, Art, and Botanical Gardens are well established and well supported by the community. For the moment, at least, we are safe from the kinds of decisions faced by the Delaware Art Museum and others. But our comfortable position does not let us off the hook—rather, we must grapple with the same issues, albeit in different ways.
The short answer to the question posed by Erik is that the purpose of a museum collection is to live. That is, all the wonderful things that make up a collection are for nothing if they are not expressed by and for human beings. On the face of it, this statement seems like heresy in the context of that compulsive collector, Henry Huntington. And to be sure, we at The Huntington continue the collecting tradition. (As an example, when HH died, he left about 2 million rare books and manuscripts; now the number is closer to 9 million. On the Art side, well, our latest exhibition is called “More American Art.” Enough said.)
But all of us, even the Directors of Collection Divisions, know that these objects and plants are only of value when they are living and giving. The scholars mine the books and manuscripts in order to advance knowledge, the botanists and scientists use the past to ensure the future, preserving species and forging new conservation practices, and the art on the walls and on the grounds inspires and uplifts us all.
The questions that drive the humanities center around what it means to be human. What do we all have in common? What gives life meaning? What is life’s purpose?
Our collections don’t necessarily supply answers, but they point to ways to engage these questions on a profound level. When you read a letter from a grieving, 18th century mother, you understand that it is emotion—the joy of love, the devastation of loss—that binds us together. Walking through a gallery of YWCA girls clustered around the massive sculpture, Zenobia in Chains, created by Harriet Hosmer during a time when no one could believe a woman could create such a piece, you see young faces transformed (watch with them here). As families and children pour into the Chinese Garden on a warm summer day, it is so clear that we humans are tied to the natural world in ways that we still don’t fully understand.
Make no mistake—we are not complacent at The Huntington. All of us in the museum world read about the troubles at our sister institutions with sympathy and shivers. “There but for the grace of God . . ..” And, of course, we all felt that shadow during the 2008-and-beyond downturn. But I hope, should trouble come our way at some future time, that we will be able to stand up and defend what we do, what we have. We collect and exhibit things because when you add the people, there is life.
Catherine Allgor, theNadine and Robert A. Skotheim Director of Education at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, is also a Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside and a UC Presidential Chair. She attended Mount Holyoke College and received her Ph.D. with distinction from Yale University. Her first book, Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government (University Press of Virginia, 2000), won the James H. Broussard First Book Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. Her political biography, A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation (Henry Holt, 2006), was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize. The year 2012 saw the publication of Dolley Madison: The Problem of National Unity (Westview Press) and The Queen of America: Mary Cutts’s Life of Dolley Madison (University of Virginia Press). President Obama has appointed Allgor to a presidential commission, The James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation.