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In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum by James Cuno
by Eric Steiger
26 May 2014
Review of Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum by James Cuno
Written By: Eric Steiger
Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum. James Cuno. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. ISBN 9780226126777
It is impossible to argue with James Cuno’s title premise: Museums Matter. Of course they do. Museums, especially the big landmark cultural and scientific institutions that are the central concern of Cuno’s book, are cultural cornerstones for their metropolises. Three of the world’s great art museums - the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the British Museum in London - together hosted more than twenty million visitors in 2012, according to statistics published in The Art Newspaper. Numbers do not tell the whole story, of course, but numerous studies have demonstrated that museums in general are among the most trusted sources of information about the past – consistently scoring well above books, personal narratives, or web-based sources.
So if museums are generally trusted, enjoy broad visitation, and occupy key places in the cultural geography of their communities and the world, why this book? By and large, Museums Matter is Cuno’s response to a generation of Museum Studies scholars who have identified museums as instruments of nationalistic and imperialistic hegemony. The critics contend that museums have a long history of crafting and reinforcing narratives that support the interests of business and political elites, and that museum visitation is in large part a modern ritual of civic and cultural nationalism. Cuno, whose authority derives in part from his lofty positions in the museum world, first as President and Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, and then subsequently as President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, contends that the critics have it all wrong. He argues that encyclopedic museums are better understood as archives for global culture where visitors’ experience of the breadth of human experience will encourage them to be more accepting of diversity and be more aware of our shared cultural hybridity.
Cuno’s self-positioning as an opponent of Museum Studies iconoclasm leaves much room for debate and argumentation, and his historical narrative of encyclopedic museums’ origin in a cosmopolitan Enlightenment suffers mightily from the book’s brevity. As a result, some of Cuno’s claims can be unsettling. If we read Museums Matter not as a fully developed argument about the history museums and their current function in fact, but rather as an idealistic expression of the potential embedded in the idea of museums as multicultural educational institutions, the book’s strengths are more apparent.
The structure of Museum Matters owes much to its origin as the 2009 Campbell Lectures at Rice University. Cuno explains that the four chapters, “The Enlightenment Museum,” “The Discursive Museum,” “The Cosmopolitan Museum,” and “The Imperial Museum,” largely follow the structure of the three lectures. At the heart of each chapter is an argument with the critics of museums, who Cuno identifies both in the text and in the footnotes. In the first chapter, for example, Cuno takes issue with the notion that contemporary encyclopedic museums are the products of nineteenth-century nation states. It is just not so, he argues, and relates the founding of the British Museum in the mid-eighteenth century as evidence. Encyclopedic museums, like encyclopedias themselves, he maintains, were integral to the celebration of rationality and the acquisition of knowledge in the European Enlightenment. Relocating museums’ temporal and ideological origins is important for Cuno because he desperately wants us to see museums not as prescriptive narrators of certain truths, but rather as archives for the unprejudiced collection of the world’s cultural history.
One problem with the chapter, though, is that for Cuno’s temporal reorientation to matter, we need to believe that Enlightenment thinkers celebrated something that looks like multiculturalism and the unprejudiced accumulation of knowledge. It sometimes feels as though Cuno is falling victim to presentism; he wants us to understand Kant’s eighteenth-century statements about the value of rationality as readily applicable to our present-day values of multicultural understanding. To be fair, Cuno turns to more recent scholars, especially the French philosopher Tzvetan Todorov, to translate Kant’s arguments as imperative for the present day. The key idea that Cuno borrows from Kant, via Todorov, is this: “Enlightenment opens up the promise of cosmopolitanism because it respects difference in the world” (25). While it may be that Kant and Todorov, as philosophers, both respect the inalienable equality of all individuals irrespective of difference, the historical record from the Enlightenment era shows a profound persistence of inequality and prejudice.
The problem perhaps becomes clearer and more problematic in looking at Cuno’s take on the nineteenth-century birth of the Art Institute of Chicago, the institution of which he was Director when he prepared the lectures. Chicago’s elite Merchant Club, he explains, envisioned the Art Institute as a tool for bridging the diverse communities of an immigrant-dominated modern industrial city to create a unified civic culture. Cuno does not engage the vast scholarship that sees paternalism (and egotism) in the wealthy builders of America’s philanthropic institutions around the turn of the twentieth century, instead suggesting that their purpose for collecting and displaying the historic and artistic artifacts of ancient global cultures were somehow value-neutral efforts to establish a space where Chicagoans could come together and create their own civic culture. While such arguments might be usefully provocative in a lecture, they feel less and less tenable with reading and rereading. The virtually impenetrable barriers dividing social classes in eighteenth-century Europe undoubtedly shaped the learned institutions of the Enlightenment, just as the vast inequalities of the Gilded Age influenced the ideals and priorities of Chicago’s Merchant Club Members. Classification in the Enlightenment tradition was as much about defining hierarchies as establishing catalogues of knowledge. But – and perhaps this is Cuno’s unspoken central point – the inventions of those eras can nevertheless be repurposed to meet the needs of the present day.
In the second chapter, “The Discursive Museum,” Cuno takes a different tack. Where the first chapter celebrates the present-day possibilities for the benevolent intentions embedded in the idea and establishment of encyclopedic museums, the second undercuts museums’ narrative power. This argument, coming from the Executive Director of one of the world’s premier cultural institutions, only makes sense as a response to specific critiques emanating from the realm of Museum Studies. In particular, he calls out art historians and museum scholars Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach along with sociologist Tony Bennett, authors of important critiques of the institutional and cultural significance of museums. Cuno argues that those critics, in their effort to define museums as instruments of hegemonic nationalistic power, have denied the agency of museum visitors to experience museum collections on their own terms. He pulls no punches, writing, “I deem their critiques fantasy, projections of their own intellectual predilections for theories and arguments built on rhetoric rather than evidence” (53). For Cuno, it is objects, not exhibits, that possess narrative power, and the best thing that museums can do is to present the artifacts as objectively as possible so that visitors can experience them as they choose. He describes a porcelain ewer in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago that was originally crafted in Ming China, but then modified with silver embellishments in England. The ewer serves as an extraordinary example of the mobility of both objects and people, and the exciting possibilities that exist when cultures overlap and blend.
The third and fourth chapters work together to further develop Cuno’s central premise: that encyclopedic museums are not imperialist or nationalist institutions, but rather open archives for the collection and display of world cultures. Rather than promoting the greatness of a particular nation state or cultural tradition, encyclopedic museums provide the space for the products of many cultures from the breadth of world history to be placed alongside one another so that visitors can appreciate the vastness of the human experience writ large. Cuno argues that these museums were “witnesses to,” rather than “products of” empires. That is to say, the diverse objects collected in encyclopedic museums graphically depict the social and political reorientations inherent in imperialism across the sweep of human history. By their very nature, empires have always broken down and reoriented political and cultural geographies, and the objects in a well-populated encyclopedic museum can provide a catalog of the wealth of cultural hybrids that have across time and space.
Unlike Cuno’s 2008 work, Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage, this book never directly engages the questions of antiquities collecting or repatriation. Collecting is an almost passive act: “Within twenty years of [the Art Institute of Chicaco’s] incorporation, in 1879, its collections included examples of ancient Greek, Etruscan, Egyptian, and Roman art, as well as Japanese ivory sculptures, Asian and Indian woven fabrics, Chinese bronzes, Syrian glass, Native American baskets, and European and American paintings and sculptures” (4). The focus here is on the collection’s coverage, not its acquisition. In Chapter 3, “The Cosmopolitan Museum,” to demonstrate the way that objects in museums embody narratives of movement and cultural hybridity, Cuno discusses a plaque in the Art Institute’s collection that had been “forcibly removed from the West African kingdom of Benin in 1897 by British troops seeking retribution for the deaths of their colleagues. Its irregular shape and rough edges betray the violence of its removal” (63).
To his credit, Cuno does suggest that to fully understand this object, we have to account for “a particular imbalance of power at the end of the nineteenth century,” i.e., European imperial dominance of Africa. But the in the narrative he provides – the object was the product of technical skills acquired in the Benin kingdom, which was “a warfaring power” (65), only to be seized when that kingdom lost its confrontation with another empire – he seems more apologist than instructor: if world history is the history of inter-imperial violence, the best we can do is appreciate the way the world’s artistic treasures reflect broken cultural boundaries.
Museums Matter is, despite several important limitations, a useful book. Cuno makes an interesting, if not altogether convincing, argument that we risk undermining the profound good that encyclopedic museums can do in our rush to right the wrongs of European colonialism.
In the end, though, Museums Matter cannot be read uncritically. In a classroom setting it would be ideally paired with some of the critics that Cuno cites, or perhaps others who see ongoing threats to the cultural life of formerly colonized places. As the world continues to deal with the often-tragic legacies of European imperialism, it is important that we identify and hold onto institutions able to offer us better models for relating to those whose views differ from our own. So perhaps Cuno is right. Maybe if we had more encyclopedic museums in cities like Shanghai, Lagos, Nairobi, and Phnom Penh displaying priceless treasures of our shared global heritage, encyclopedic museums’ potential as seedbeds of a global cultural consciousness could be more fully realized. But how would those museums build their collections of the word’s cultural treasures in postcolonial metropolises to demonstrate the power of cultural cosmopolitanism to their booming populations?
This work is in the public domain
Re: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum by James Cuno
by Nancy Hanover
(No verified email address)
26 May 2014
James Cuno’s Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum
By Nancy Hanover
12 February 2014
The financial industry is demanding the “monetization” of the world-renowned Detroit Institute of Arts, forcing the hard-pressed museum to relinquish public ownership and ante up $100 million to the bankers in the hope of keeping its collection intact. The government of Portugal is auctioning 85 paintings by Joan Miró to help balance the state budget in the aftermath of the 2008 crash.
In this context, the slim volume Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum makes a number of important points.
Author James Cuno is a noted American art historian, the former director of the Harvard Art Museums (1991-2002), the Courtauld Institute (2003-04) and the Art Institute of Chicago (2004-2011), and is now the CEO and president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. The book is based on lectures given at Rice University in Houston in 2009.
Museums Matter speaks to the claim that museums are superfluous to daily life or the rightful sphere only of the upper classes. It makes a passionate case for their essential aesthetic, educational and cultural role in a mass, global society.
Cuno takes special aim, however, at the “left” academic opponents of encyclopedic museums, polemicizing against the postmodern view that museums are nothing more than institutions of ideological control imposing Western and state supremacy.
He argues, instead, that they provide a means to achieve an international, dynamic and cosmopolitan perspective. Further, he reasons, the encyclopedic museum reveals humanity’s collective and universal ability to develop its culture and the fundamentally interconnected character of that culture.
In light of the confluence of financial and ideological attacks on museums, the book is a worthwhile look at history and attitudes.
The huge popularity of major museums is a fact of modern life. Cuno notes that 42 million visitors were recorded in 2009 at the top 100 US museums, two million alone at the Art Institute of Chicago. In fiscal year 2011-12 the Metropolitan Museum of Art shattered its historical attendance record, receiving 6.28 million visits. The Louvre in Paris received 8.9 million. Clearly, museums matter to people in growing numbers and they feel, not coerced, but inspired to visit again and again.
Cuno’s argument bases itself, even more fundamentally, on the essential liberating and democratic idea of museums. Like travel, travel literature and translation, Cuno argues, museums allow visitors to identify with others around the world and evoke a shared sense of being human, having a common history and common future.
Strongly endorsing the Enlightenment approach to inquiry, Cuno sees museums as the repository of a scientific approach to cataloging, classifying and scientifically analyzing the world and human culture. Encyclopedic museums, he affirms, “scrutinize unverified truths and oppose prejudice and superstition, maintain belief in individual agency; hold that all the arts and sciences are connected; and [are] confident in the promise of rigorous, intellectual inquiry to lead to truths about the world for the benefit of human progress.”
Why do so many people attend art museums? Precisely for those same Enlightenment goals, he says—to have their world enlarged, to experience new and strange things, to make sense of the world and to view it in historical context. He argues that such a worldview is essential to oppose the growth of nationalisms in a polyglot, multiethnic world.
Characteristic of the academic “left” opposition, Dr. Courtney Rivard attacked Cuno’s book for “allow[ing] liberal conceptions of individuality and equality to propel his argument, ignoring the many ways in which difference is embedded within deeply unequal power structures.” Rivard, a feminist protégé of Stalinist Angela Davis at the University of California-Santa Cruz, indicts Cuno for “failing to thoroughly grapple with the real effects of the structures of power.”
Without being too literal, one could point out that the “real effects of the structures of power” are, above all, the privatization of art, the defunding of museums and other public cultural institutions and the placing of education and artistic training out of financial bounds for growing segments of the world’s population. The call for equality—in the culture and social life of humanity—has not lost its force.
Cuno’s book cites museum studies academics with similar outlooks. Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach, for example, allege that “the museum is the site of a symbolic transaction between the visitor and the state. In exchange for the state’s spiritual wealth, the individual intensifies his attachment to the state.”
Critical theorist Tony Bennett references postmodernist thinker Michael Foucault and claims that museums have replaced prisons as instruments of state power: “Rather than embodying an alien and coercive principle of power which aimed to cow the people into submission, the museum—addressing the people as a public, as citizens—aimed to inveigle the general populace into complicity with power by placing them on this side of a power which it represented to it as its own.”
Claims that museums make individuals complicit with power are ludicrous. In an aside, Cuno says we would dismiss this idea out of hand “were it not so influential in the increasingly popular academic disciplines.”
To answer these positions, Cuno turns to history. He briefly surveys the development of encyclopedic museums arising out of the Enlightenment and its revolutions against the state, as well as its revolutionary demand for reasoned inquiry and skepticism of the unverifiable. He looks at the examples of the Louvre in Paris, a product of the French Revolution, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, an imperial museum developed and expanded through the Russian Revolution, and the British Museum in London.
The British Museum (established in 1753) was assembled by a number of individuals, most especially Sir Hans Sloane, a physician, who upon his death insisted that his collection belonged to the people, not the king, and that it must kept together for study free and open to all “studious and curious persons.”
Cuno emphasizes that the breadth of the museum’s collections was characteristic of the Enlightenment’s view of the world. Collecting was part of scientifically testing one’s hypotheses and learning far-reaching truths. “In every respect the encyclopedic museum—like the encyclopedia itself, dedicated to gathering as many specimens of nature and the world’s cultures as possible, for the curious and scholarly alike—was an Enlightenment institution.”
Out of this Enlightenment practice emerged public intellectuals, the political philosophy of liberalism and the notion of a “commonwealth” where ideas were proposed, debated, refuted or rejected, says Cuno. Immanuel Kant’s “Dare to Know” became the fearless motto of the Enlightenment. Those who go to museums are not “being indoctrinated by hegemonic state ideology” Cuno argues, but attend in order to critically question, assess and learn from the collections.
The belief that all people should have access to knowledge and the public gathering of art and artifacts was inseparably connected to the great ideas of the American and French Revolutions, and their promise of the Rights of Man. These aspirations were precisely the context and motivations for the founding of the encyclopedic museums, notes the author.
Clearly, there is much that is healthy and valuable in Cuno’s positions. And it is shameful that hostility to culture and misanthropic, cynical attitudes toward humanity and its aspirations, which the author opposes, pass for “leftism.”
However, the working class must have its own independent standpoint in the defense of culture. There is a crisis that requires an urgent, revolutionary response. As Leon Trotsky pointed out, the working class is forced to do away with bourgeois society “for the very reason that society does not allow it access to culture.”
This is brutally evident today, as all forms of art are subordinated to the crassest profit concerns--orchestras and opera companies dismantled, performance schedules slashed, theaters closed, budgets for all the arts cut remorselessly.
The ruling elite is hostile to the conception that art should be available to the people. Only the working class can defend all that is progressive in human history by putting an end to the capitalist profit system.