Museums and Their Meanings

Neither Peter Conn nor Steven Conn Gr’94 is a stranger to these pages. Peter (the father) has written on many subjects for the magazine over his long career at Penn—he is the former interim provost and currently the Vartan Gregorian Professor of English and a professor of education—and most recently was interviewed here about his book, The American 1930s: A Literary History [“Gazetteer,” Nov|Dec 2009].  Steven (the son) has been featured in a story about Origins, the online history site he co-edits at Ohio State University, where he is a professor of history and director of OSU’s Public History Initiative; an excerpt from his book, Metropolitan Philadelphia: Living with the Presence of the Past, also appeared in the Gazette [“Heaven is a Mixed Neighborhood,” July|Aug 2006].

Both men share an abiding interest in the history and future of cities and, in particular, the roles played by arts and cultural institutions in shaping them. Which is why, when we wanted to do a Q&A on Steven’s new book, Do Museums Still Need Objects? (University of Pennsylvania Press), which traces the significance and shifting meanings of such institutions from the explosion of museum-building that began at the end of the 19th century through our own “second golden age” of museums, it seemed like a good idea to ask Peter to handle the Qs. He agreed, and their conversation appears below.—J.P.

Your new book bears the provocative title, Do Museums Still Need Objects? Can you give us a brief version of the answer?

You mean give away the answer before people buy the book?! OK, I’ll give a quick answer: Yes.

Let me elaborate a little. Over the course of the last 75 years or so, museums of all kinds have displayed fewer and fewer objects. The crowded galleries have been replaced with less busy exhibits, and objects have been supplemented with wall text, acousti-guides, computer terminals, and the like. My sense is that some museums—anthropology museums, museums of technology and of natural science especially—have lost confidence in the ability of their objects to engage visitors.

But at the same time, I really do believe what makes museums appealing to people is the encounter with original, authentic objects—whether it be fossil dinosaurs or Cezannes. I worry that if museums move too far away from their focus on exhibiting objects they will lose their audience and their primary purpose.

You include a chapter on the hotly debated question of cultural ownership. Artistic treasures are scattered across the planet: the Parthenon’s Elgin Marbles reside in the British Museum, hundreds of looted Byzantine icons are housed in Venetian museums, a pair of wonderful bronze Chinese tomb guardians loom over visitors to the Penn Museum. In these and in hundreds of other cases, modern governments are demanding the return of such objects. What are your views on this controversy?

This is a really complicated issue, and I don’t envy the museum staff and the lawyers who have to negotiate these problems. Clearly, we would insist that art plundered by the Nazis be returned to the families from whom they were stolen. On the other hand, at what point do the connections between past and present become so tenuous or indirect that they lose any real meaning? What does cultural “ownership” really mean anyway and how do we establish it?

I don’t have good answers to those questions, but I would make these three observations: First, while we might all agree about the merits of this or that case, I don’t think any set of legal or ethical principles designed to govern repatriation will really prove intellectually sound. Second, repatriation disputes are very rarely about questions of culture. Most often culture serves as a proxy for political fights. Museums make easy targets. And third, while two sides fight over questions of ownership, what is usually lost is any sense of the public value of cultural material for all of us.

You’ve written extensively about the “golden age” of museums in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and about contemporary museums. What are some of the most striking changes you’ve noticed over that century-plus? And what has remained the same?

In that first golden age, museums were built for several reasons but important among them was that they were grand statements of civic pride and urban boosterism: Chicago must have a great natural history museum because New York has a great natural history museum! New York needs a science and technology museum because Chicago has already built one! And on and on, in all of the big industrial cities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

That’s still true today—when a city wants to announce to the nation that it has “arrived,” it builds a high-profile museum. Dallas-Fort Worth in the 1960s; LA more recently. The difference, however, is that while the older museums were great ornaments of booming industrial cities, now museums are being asked to be economic engines and local revenue generators. They are central now to the tourism economy, which in so many ways has replaced the industrial economy.

Are there too many museums?

At one level, the answer would seem to be yes. Look at all those historic house museums which dot the landscape—can they all be supported financially? Do they really attract enough visitors to make them viable? A few years ago, Williamsburg, Virginia, had to sell off one of its prized assets. If Williamsburg is struggling, can the Warren G. Harding birthplace really survive?

Over the last generation we really have witnessed a boom not just in museum-building, but in building libraries, performance halls, and cultural centers of various kinds. Many of them are carrying debt, and/or have seen their endowments shrivel when the economy collapsed, and in some places there simply isn’t enough local support to make them viable.

At the same time, we want to keep building museums, and not just the older kinds either. Now we build museums dedicated to particular groups of people, to historical events, to broad ideas (like the Museum of Tolerance). I exaggerate only slightly when I say that plans for a September 11 museum began to form on September 12. Taking our experiences and turning them into museums seems to be the cultural hallmark of these times.

As a historian, your job is to look back. Are you willing to look forward and predict what’s in store for museums over the next two or three decades?

I do expect that some number of museums will not make it financially. Or they will consolidate with other institutions in order to survive. And this will bring up some interesting legal and ethical issues: We all know how to start a museum—how do you close it? How do you handle collections donated to the institution? We’ve already seen this happen at a few universities that have tried to divest themselves of their museums.

I also think that museums will have to think more—and more creatively—about their financing. Clearly, just increasing the attendance numbers won’t solve the financial challenges many museums face. If museums can do a more effective job convincing the public of their importance, both economically and educationally, it wouldn’t surprise me to see sources of public money develop to foster cultural institutions—a sort of hybrid in the way that many European countries fund their museums.

Finally, I think that museums will develop deeper connections to higher education. Maybe that’s just my wishful thinking—and some museums are already doing this—but I do believe universities have a great deal to teach museums, and museums have a great deal to teach universities.

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