What’s in a Museum?

Museums. We’ve already been to a few of them, and we’ll keep going for the next two weeks. While clearly the goal in a museum is to see the art and/or history, I’ve found myself thinking about what else a museum means—what is its purpose? I’ve also discussed this with colleagues lately—how does a museum capture not only art but also the memory and history of people, places, eras? Why do people insist on taking photographs in museums to capture their memories? (Strange questions to ask when I’m writing and posting photos as part of an “arts” trip.)

Still, if I return to Auden and my earlier questions about a moral and modern American society, how do museums function in this society? Are they useful because they offer the public a way-in to “high” art? Is spending two-four hours on a whirlwind tour of a 6 -floor museum really a “way-in”? Are we just consuming art to say we did so—that we had that experience? And, anyway, as Auden and the others at February House were asking, what is the function of art?

I’m sure I can’t answer these questions, but I do know that there is something artificial about the museum experience. For a minute or two—as throngs of camera-snapping visitors scuttle by and around me—I almost forget that I’m viewing something incredible. I’m certainly in favor of bringing art to the people because I detest most high/low cultural divides (except maybe in literature and food, and even then I want all folks to experience all the stuff I know is better); generally these divides are created to shut people out—maybe even shut people out of a means to power. While I want art brought to the masses, I also don’t want it to become meaningless like the mass-produced prints and posters I see in the shops and on the street fronts. Just because we’re selling something, does it have to be meaningless?

But maybe here’s the American moral clause: any little anything can be art here in America, even if it’s for sale, even if it’s not in a museum. As an individual, I get to choose what I view as art. So, if a mass-produced poster of a masterpiece bought at an overcrowded museum makes me happy, so be it. I’m sure I’ve created a unique meaning from that poster and that experience. Right?

Will sitting on that clam shell really increase your experience?

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Filed under History, Photography, Popular Culture, Visual Arts

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