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The Museum at the Heart of the Academy

The Museum at the Heart of the Academy
October 29, 2009

When I first learned last winter that the Brandeis University trustees had voted to sell the collections of the Rose Art Museum and close the museum, my reactions were many: concern for Brandeis students who were losing an important learning tool; sadness that a great university was breaking trust with many benefactors; annoyance that the museum industry would be yet again living the trauma of defending our collections as other than semi-liquid assets.

To these were added a suspicion that somehow the Rose must have failed in its campus-wide engagement and in its outreach to key campus constituencies (including its trustees), or those very trustees would never have felt they could make that particular decision, no matter how great the budget gap facing them. Even as I recognized the right of any university to shutter any program no longer deemed sufficiently important, I shuddered at such a reactive decision.

Nowhere in my response did I consider the “good for them” proclamation made by Rudolph Weingartner in his Views column of October 23 for Inside Higher Ed, arguing against both the pedagogic value of owning works of art and the effectiveness of university museums generally. Most troublingly, in reading of the view of a panel of experts arguing that university museums should be regarded as “essential to the academic experience," Dean Weingartner observes “by my admittedly not systematic observations, most of those museums do nothing or very little to deserve to be so regarded…. Mostly, the museums don’t even know how to communicate with other than art faculty on campus.”

Drawing such conclusions -- and a kind of pleasure in the demise of a fine museum -- on the basis of random evidence seems not to represent the rigors of academic policy making at its best.

More dangerously, this view fails to note either the sheer range and variety of campus museums in the United States or the extent to which many have worked mightily in recent decades to make themselves central to their parent institutions. Long gone are the days when most university museums could be seen as, at best, the laboratory addendum to a department of art or art history. Seeking not merely (although importantly) to shape future art historians and museum professionals, the nation’s best university museums have long been engaged in the practice of fostering critical thinking and visual literacy, the understanding of times and cultures dramatically distinct from our own, the awareness of a common humanity, and thus, ultimately, the shaping of good citizenship.

Here at Princeton University, we have long crossed boundaries to partner our museum with disciplines and departments from the humanities to creative writing to architecture to civil engineering. The Yale Center for British Art routinely connects with fields ranging from natural history to cultural studies; their exhibition this year on the impact of Darwin’s theory of evolution on subsequent creative practice was a model for cutting-edge investigation of value to us all.

The Wolfsonian Museum at Florida International University offered an almost shockingly timely exhibition looking at the art of propaganda during last year’s presidential campaign. The new wing opened this year at the University of Michigan Museum of Art -- which I led until recently -- was designed to architecturally embody and make possible a commitment to deep campus-wide engagement, providing a second home for programming in performance, creative writing, film, and the humanistic disciplines generally.

And many universities increasingly use their art museums in medical curriculums, having discovered that sustained close looking makes their doctors-in-training better diagnosticians. From Dartmouth, to Emory, to Wisconsin, to UCLA, great university museums have shown themselves deeply capable of being essential to the lives of their universities, even as they also often function as enormously beneficial gateways to those universities for the general public.

The argument that academic museums can do these things is no mere abstraction. They are doing these things, and are increasingly recognized as playing an essential role in a time of bottom-line driven programming at many of even our greatest civic museums. With less at stake in the battle for attendance, the university museum can often take on difficult projects whose popularity cannot be assured, advancing the cause of new knowledge presented in accessible ways that yet seek to avoid pandering or the much dreaded “dumbing down." Many of the first thematic exhibitions -- sometimes operating in the sphere of a social history of art, the so-called “new art history” -- took place in our university museums. Increasingly, and happily, the special role of the university museum is recognized by the media: Writing in The New York Times this year, the art critic Holland Cotter observed “The august public museum gave us fabulousness. The tucked away university gallery gave us life: organic, intimate and as fresh as news.”

And why do we university museums so annoyingly feel the need to collect artworks, creating the inevitable drain on resources caused by those pesky stewardship requirements? I offer in answer a fundamental article of faith, that even in the digital age, the sustained engagement with original works of art necessary for teaching, research, and layered learning would be difficult if not impossible if we ceased to be collecting institutions and instead taught only from objects temporarily made available for exhibition.

In the way that great texts live in our libraries, available for revisiting and sustained scholarly investigation, the works of art in our museums offer the possibility of deep critical engagement, close looking, and technical analysis -- made all the deeper when brought together as collections in which dialogues arise through the conversation of objects with each other and with their scholarly interlocutors. Surely a key role of the academy -- the advancement of new knowledge and the challenging of past knowledge -- is that fruit of curatorial, faculty, and student research made possible by the sustained presence of great works of art, whose survival for the future is also thus (and not incidentally) guaranteed.

Like libraries that often also find themselves embattled in times of budget cuts (since typically neither museums nor libraries directly generate tuition streams), great university art museums are a “public good," offering value and possibility to the whole of our university communities as well as to users from outside the walls of the ivory tower. That all university museums do not achieve this centrality of purpose -- often, I suspect, for lack of adequate resourcing by their parent institutions in the perpetual fight against the perception that art represents a “luxury” in the logo-and data-centric university -- is to be regretted. Without question much work remains to be done to make our museums central to the academic experience.

But just as any academic department desires a certain autonomy to define its foci and particular strengths within the university curriculum, no academic museum should be “bludgeoned” into showing the work of particular artists or serving as the handmaiden of narrow administrative modishness. The academic model has never, thank heavens, been one of pure utility, even as we seek to be responsible, effective, and impactful.

For me, the lesson of the Brandeis debacle is the reminder that the fight for the central role of our museums is not won. Contrary to Dean Weingartner’s views, however, that fight has long and often successfully been underway.

Bio

James Christen Steward is director of the Princeton University Art Museum.

 

 

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