The Modern Museum: Between Preservation and Action | Director's Letter Winter 2019

Although I occasionally feel its impact on my calendar, this fall I am delightedly engaging with a group of fourteen students in the course I am teaching, “The Modern Museum: Between Preservation and Action” (ART 488). As we explore the ways in which the modern museum’s origins in the European Enlightenment continue to inform the core missions and strategies of most museums today, and the potential for museums to act as change agents that might foster critical dialogue and shape future discourse, I am struck by the acuity of my students in engaging with questions that are, for the most part, new to them. Whether we are considering the roots of the museum in princely collecting, historical examples of the museum as a tool for reform or social change, or the ways in which museums manipulate visitor experience through myriad curatorial and design choices, I can reliably count on my students to take nothing for granted.

The timing of this dialogue seems nearly perfect. Although I had intended the course to draw on our current exhibition Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment, which indeed will act as our final case study, I had not foreseen that it would come just as we are completing the programming phase and beginning the design work for a new home for this Museum. The discussions my students and I are having could not, then, fail to impact my own thinking about what a museum of the twenty-first century ought to be and do. I’d like to share a couple of examples.

First, in examining the origins of the modern museum in the eighteenth century, it is clear that our curatorial practices continue to be shaped by Enlightenment ideas about how knowledge should be structured and how a museum should organize itself and its displays. The tradition of exhibiting work by national schools and geographies is based in these Enlightenment practices—but is it still an ideal approach in our own time? What would happen if we found ways to combine the useful armature of time and place with approaches that might also be thematic, driven by ideas and issues? What if we moved away from national borders and crossed boundaries to consider encounters or shared investigations? Certainly, structures are needed lest chaos rule and visitors of diverse experience levels and approaches to learning find the museum-going experience befuddling. But what might an ideal balance look like?

Second, ethical considerations remain powerful elements of how we build collections and make them available to the public. The question of who owns the past—whether the archaeological material of the ancient world, the art of the first peoples of North America, or cultural artifacts looted in the Nazi era (primarily art taken from Jewish families)—is one that has caught my students’ attention. But we also immediately come up against the complexities of the matter: even if we agree about the rights to cultural property, what are we to do in the face of collections shaped over hundreds of years? Of the black market in art works? Of art that comes to us from peoples or families now vanished?

For me, one of the course’s most productive reminders is that the fundamental tension we are exploring is one that has long existed. Today’s Victoria and Albert Museum in London, for example, was founded in the nineteenth century on a set of reforming principles, aimed at elevating craftsmanship and industrial skills through exposure to exceptional objects. It also hoped to quell the possible unrest of the laboring masses at a time when traditional power hierarchies feared a rise of populism that might overturn the established order. What was then known as the South Kensington Museum was not alone: from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to world’s expositions in London, Saint Louis, and San Francisco, encounters with objects were intended to shape and reshape not just public learning but also public behavior.

All of this provides a powerful set of backdrops for considering what a museum might try to accomplish in the future. The goals outlined in the nineteenth century seem shockingly ambitious (quick insight: they largely failed), but the core questions remain germane. As my course unfolds, I look forward to exploring past failures and successes with my students and to engaging with Princeton students and faculty, alumni around the world, and members of our local and regional communities in considering how to embrace the best of the past while making new choices that will help to ensure that a museum might still matter to future generations.

James Christen Steward
Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director