What’s A Museum For?

Sir John Soane's Museum
Sir John Soanes Museum in London. Treasure trove!!! Go! Image by Mal Booth via Flickr

Do museums still matter?

In an era where we can now (which is fantastically democratic) access almost any image at our fingertips on-line, is it worth the time, energy and money to actually enter a building and spend a few hours looking at the real things?

I think so. Some of my happiest and most powerful memories are of museums in which I’ve whiled away hours. I inevitably come away awed and humbled, refreshed and inspired by the collective creativity of the millennia, all those ideas and fantasies and skill and global commerce — 16th. century porcelain! 12th. century jewelry! shields and armor and paintings and chairs used by those now long-gone….who were they?

Mine include:

— the amazing pietra dura (inlaid stonework) tables at The Prado in Madrid

— a room swathed in olive green raw silk, filled with exquisite Art Nouveau jewelry at the Gulbenkian in Lisbon

— Odilon Redon’s paintings at the Met

— the Venetian palazzo that is Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (and the subject of the largest unsolved art theft in history, covered in this terrific book)

— the impossibly fast Blackbird SR-71 jet, (Mach 3.5!) at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson

— a gorgeous room-sized painting of Joan of Arc at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

— the funky leather chair that was Sigmund Freud’s at the museum that is his former home in London

— the small, perfect Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art in Toronto (my hometown)

Here’s an interesting recent interview in The Wall Street Journal with Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum:

In any case, Mr. Lehman has moved on to his next idea, which involves something many museums should be doing: focusing more on their permanent collections. “I have spent a lot of time,” he says, “looking at how this collection should be seen in the 21st century by 21st-century visitors, all of whom have a lot more access to information than even the most respected curators did 75 years ago.”

In part, this is pragmatic: With money tight, museums have had to cut back on expensive loan exhibitions. But in part, this is visionary. For decades, museums trained visitors to come for their changing exhibitions, all but ignoring the treasures they actually own. Frequently, permanent-collection galleries are virtually empty, left to the dwindling pool of committed art-lovers. “We will make the permanent collection the primary attraction of the Brooklyn Museum,” Mr. Lehman promises. “I don’t want to see our visitation going up and down because of exhibitions.”

And a profile of another one of my favorites, Sir John Soane’s Museum, in London by FT columnist Harry Eyres:

The Sir John Soane’s Museum is a museum like no other. I remember going to see it when I was still at school and immediately liking it, though I would not have been able to say quite why, or to pin my enthusiasm on any particular object. According to the dapper and smart new director, Tim Knox, the museum has a strong appeal for the elusive 16-30-year-old bracket, the kind of young people you imagine would rather be on Facebook than going to some fusty old house in a lawyers’ district of London.

Now I’m a bit older I still like the Soane, and can come up with a theory about why it might appeal to the young. It is a place liberatingly free of cant: the educational cant that tells you that you should be learning about the history of western painting; the scientific cant that will fill you with facts and explanations; above all, the cant of good taste…Soane committed a terrible sin by being eclectic; by filling his house with an unclassifiable collection of occasional masterpieces – paintings by Hogarth, Watteau and Canaletto – and odd plaster casts, a huge model of Pompeii, the tomb of his dog and, in the basement, the magnificent alabaster sarcophagus of the Egyptian pharaoh Seti I.

What are some of your favorite museums?

Can you tip us off to an object or work of art in one that you especially love?

22 thoughts on “What’s A Museum For?

  1. Museums do matter to me the most because I love history despite being in my twenties. My favourite museum is the Auckland War Memorial Museum. However, I would to visit other museums around the world like the ones in London(UK) and a few in Singapore and the States.

  2. Farin

    I love love love the Metropolitan Museum, particularly the European painting section on the second floor. In the very first room you enter, there’s a painting of a woman drawing by Marie-Denise Villers that I have to stop and examine every time. It’s the combination of the light, the details, and the way the artist captured an interrupted moment that draws me to the painting.

    I also love the Uffizi and the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. I feel like I can visit both museums a hundred times and still not see everything! The Uffizi’s collection of Boticelli is incredible, and the costume collection at the Palazzo Pitti is fascinating and more than a little eerie, because they have the fully preserved burial garments of the Medicis on hand.

  3. Monet’s Waterlillies at the Orangerie in Paris. Youy have to see them in life, to be able to get close and then stand back for the full effect. To see the brush strokes and imagine the vision of working so close yet produce art on a grand scale like that. Fantastic.

    The Louve, The National Gallery, London. Both to good to seperate as being the best. But there are many I haven’t tried yet.


    1. Dare I admit publicly to having lived in Paris and visited many times — and never having gone to the Louvre? I have discovered smaller museums there I love, like the Rodin and the Cluny and the Guimet (Asian art.)

  4. I love the Louvre. I could live at the Louvre. One of my most memorable museum experiences was being introduced to Miro at the Joan Miro foundation in Barcelona. And I’m sure I will fall in love with the Uffizi, Bargello, Capitoline, Borghese etc, when I visit Italy this summer.

    A computer screen cannot match the experience of seeing and appreciating art in person.

    1. LOVED the Uffizi and the Accademia. One of my favorite experiences, ever, if you have the time or interest while in Venice is the studio of Mariano Fortuny, who invented lighting and extraordinary textiles; his dresses were THE thing for wealthty women of his era to wear.

  5. Oh! I love this question so much. You’ve inspired me to tell the story of how I found the Friederichswerdersche Kirche in my own blog. That is one of my favorite accidental finds.

    Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon made my head spin…as did the Pergamon Altar.

    And nothing on a 2-D screen could impact me as profoundly as hearing, touching, smelling, and walking upon Fallen Leaves by Menashe Kadishman at the Jewish Museum.

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  7. I think museums still matter because even though I can seek out information on anything that I want now, in a museum I will almost certainly come across something that I haven’t seen or didn’t know existed. The “browsing” mentality — whether at a museum, or even a local bookstore” — is something lost a bit on this search-and-click culture.

    I think my favorite museum visit was the Musee l’Ongangerie in Paris.

  8. This is exactly what I love most about them…you can wander across centuries and styles within a few feet (and start to see relationships and patterns.) As some people know, some of the Impressionists’ look and feel came from Japanese woodcuts and the whole Japonisme movement, one of my favorites.

    I do love the Sackler and Freer…I really enjoy Asian art, whether Japanese, Indian, Islamic…(including S. Asian.)

  9. Well for me its the Victoria & Albert Museum in London – gives me the shivers even thinking about it. It’s the layers of inspiration that get me- from the building itself to the textiles, glass, even the smells, temperature and acoustics but also the people watching and seeing what draws their attention and how they behave (so ordered and respectful). On the art gallery front though, Dia:Beacon is my fav – stunning space with absolutely magical light.

  10. Niki, I also love the V & A. Love decorative arts and the inspiration they give us year after year, century after century. Thanks!

    I live near Dia Beacon and confess I’ve never been. You’ve intrigued me.

  11. Hope you had time to see the National Gallery in D.C. The Italians, Dutch and Impressionists are fantastic, to name a few. I love that place along with the Met in New York and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

    Hey, great job on Diane Rehm this morning! You were articulate and interesting and made me want to read your book.

    1. Thanks…so glad you got a chance to hear the show!

      I had NO time to see anything….I spent two days relaxing at my friend’s home in Maryland and Monday and Tuesday were really hectic. I had so hoped to do some gallery-hopping. Next time!

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