My intention for my next post was to write about why the arts and their repositories are worth defending. However, I believe my audience largely lies outside of the museum field and that some folks might want a crash course in why people want to burn museums down in the first place. I think we should get why we would burn them down out of the way, and then in the future I can tell you why to not burn them down. It’s possible that in 2020 people who are interested enough in social justice and equity and tearing down systems do not need this primer even if you are outside of the realm of the museum field. Lmk in the comments. This blog is still a little fledgling beb and feedback about what would be useful for you all to read is much appreciated!
Museums’ Origins are Messed Up
In my first post, I wrote that “the history of museums is rooted in the history of colonialism”, but you might ask, “how?” Or perhaps you’ve noticed calls for boycotting museums due to inequity across the hierarchical strata of museum workers and asked, “why?” Or perhaps you’ve never stepped foot in a museum before and are asking, “what?” (JK)
At their inception, museums represented the political and pedagogical agenda of their nation. Predating museums were public squares in which conquerors in empires dragged back literal pieces of fallen civilizations.. Medieval churches were replete with splendor honoring the glory of god and using visuals to impart the teachings of the Bible on illiterate congregations. Later, when most of the conquering was sort of over, men of distinction were able to freely swoop in and out of fascinating places, and able to gather treasures to bring home for public display. Wunderkammern, or cabinets of wonders, arose as a conventional opportunity for “explorers” (read: wealthy dudes) to display objects they removed from other places.
Do you sense the theme? The modern museum actually grew out of a concerted effort to liberate riches from the ruling class, which I will explain a bit more in a moment. But because the modern museum is of Western European (monarchies) origins, it sprouted from seeds planted by powerful agents that wished to display their might and bend the people to their will. Additionally, this post hasn’t even gone into salvage ethnography and the collecting of non-“dominant” cultures to reaffirm the status of the “dominant” culture. Patience, young padawans, there is so much to learn.
Historians point to the Louvre as the model for the modern art museum. The Louvre originally operated as a seat of the monarchy, and did so for centuries. After the French Revolution, one of the demands of the revolutionaries was that the palace full of treasures be remade as a public museum. Previously, the state controlled the production and display of art. Afterward, “any citizen with time and interest could visit and the message was powerful: the monarchy is dead, its fortress breached, and its material possessions are the property of the people.” Of course, this didn’t work out super great right away, as Napoleon Bonaparte failed to emulate George Washington and decided to declare himself emperor following the fall of the monarchy, much like Kuvira from season 4 of The Legend of Korra. You can read a long-form history of museums & the Louvre at the Khan Academy.
Hopefully you are beginning to recognize the pattern of how easy it is to see museums as a convenient place to store your power-grabbed luxuries. (Cause listen y’all don’t want to read 8,500 words on the topic, much as I’d enjoy writing them.) This is how even in America, where there is “democracy” (sorry it just feels disingenuous not to write that in scare quotes in the late months of 2020) museums could follow the Enlightment, post-revolutionary ideals of being a place of the people, but still fall into the trap of being very much for the elites. As America developed its own ruling class of sorts, the uber-wealthy of the 19th century, those folks began building museums. To be fair this was nice for us people but also, us people had no say in what we saw when we entered. The initial set up was chill; when taxes work the way they are supposed to, we get American museums, for better or worse. In order to avoid paying 50% of their income to taxes (I fully made that number up don’t @ me), the wealthy embarked on such projects to lessen their taxable income and put their name on stuff. Shout out J.P. Morgan. What would have been great would have been to then regulate some sort of community leadership to take the reins from the wealthy.
There’s an interesting full-circle thing happening here in America where because museums are essentially owned by the wealthy individuals who finance them, and receive very little funding from the government, they’re kind of set up now like as though Louis XVI were running them again. Museum finances deserve a full post but the sparknotes is that museums are rather beholden to their donors with varying levels of success at diversifying who and where their money comes from. As such, modern museums continue to affirm the power and social authority of the patron class. Even or maybe even especially museums who are afforded the luxury of not needing to charge admission reinforce the presence of the patron class, rather than freeing the museum to subsist without monetary concerns.
Because of These Messed Up Origins the Art World Became Equated with Wealth
Ok, are you still with me? Did you take a break and leave this tab open for three days refusing to close it because you WERE going to come back and finish it? Good for you, baby. So as you might imagine, having wealthy individuals bankroll what is seen as important for the masses to see in a museum has had a few consequences. You know, because women and any person of color were unable to own property for what is still the majority of the time we’ve been a country, and that type of thing.
Partially because of the potential to donate art to museums and write it off as a donation for a tax break, and partially because of the potential for prices to skyrocket from hundreds to millions of dollars over a period of years, purchasing artwork is a billionaire investment hobby. Why is art so expensive? If you want to geek out about it like I do, I recommend the book The 12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark: the Curious Economics of Contemporary Art. The sparknotes is the supply and demand and the clout that having “taste” brings. Even the most prolific artists can produce only a finite amount of works in their lifetime. If an artist becomes popular, which can be unpredictable depending on the zeitgeist, the demand for their limited supply of works becomes insatiable and prices go through the roof. The clout piece is all about that old adage – something is worth what someone is willing to pay for it, and money talks, turning what might look to the naked eye like a hunk of junk into a 100-million dollar item of luxury. Looking at you, Jeff Koons.
“Collectors” are a thing to be contended with for museum professionals. They believe themselves not only to have purchased the artwork they own with money they earned, but they also believe themselves to be experts because they bought the artwork with money that was theirs. We engage in a fun mating ritual in which we must flatter the collector and pad their ego whilst ensuring that they understand that we are still in fact the experts and they are not allowed to write all of the wall labels. Some collectors are lovely, passionate and generous. But mostly, we engage in this dance. Entertaining said collectors and donors. And you might be really surprised to hear this but – people with a lot of money have expensive tastes. As such, museums become entangled (feel like I needa cite Jada for that word now) in a cycle of expensive line items just to keep the money or exhibitions from collectors coming in. As with everything, museums handle this with varying degrees of prudence and autonomy and some are quite good at ensuring that the donor knows the museum is in charge while still throwing a lovely party. Others have a hard time finding the balance.
The Guerilla Girls Explain How the Contemporary Art World is Perceived as a Meritocracy
Fast forward to the mid-twentieth century. Civil Rights and the Women’s Movement have leveled out the pie pieces the teensiest, tiniest bit to look like from the outside, people have the same opportunities. Now walk into an art museum in the mid-to-late twentieth century. What, no women or people of color? But we all have the same opportunities! It must be because ONLY WHITE MEN can be geniuses! That’s the only logical explanation!
Again, I could write many many words but I have the Guerrilla Girls to sum it up for us! Honestly, would I even be anything without the Guerrilla Girls as my patron saints? Fortunately for all of us I do not have to wonder. I love the way that they point out that what we have been left with is this perception that the art world is a meritocracy, or that only the best of the best are displayed in an art museum. This is a concept to return to in future posts, but something that non-museum people often have never thought about.
So, in less than 2,000 words, these are some of the origin stories as to how museums got super messed up. As the Guerrilla Girls so brilliantly state, artists (and historical objects) are awesome, but the art world sucks. Over the last 30 years or so, the field has really started to break out of some of the oppressive structure and work towards a community-centric, education-centric paradigm shift. But largely this work is done by educators or other front-facing museum professionals and often misses a connection to the top of the food chain. Systems run real deep. And things are expensive…even when the salaries are terrible.