What does a Museum do?

contemplating a modern painting at NYC's MoMA

contemplating a modern painting at NYC's MoMA

I firmly believe that you never know a place until you’ve eaten its food and visited its museum (thank you museum cafes!). Museums are not simply temples in which we worship great art. Museums educate visitors about the society that built them. They are storehouses of cultural “treasures” and thus venues that tell us about a society’s enduring or changing values.

Last summer the US Treasury granted me permission to travel to Cuba. Flying into Havana, I bought with me a vision of Cuban culture shaped around images of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, 1950s automobiles and Ernest Hemingway sipping a mojito. Touring the galleries of the Museo de Bellas Artes, I learned that Havana had been a cosmopolitan city with a sophisticated elite. I learned that Cuban painters followed the same path as their American contemporaries — sojourning abroad to visit the great depositories of Western art and to study at the famous ateliers of Paris. They participated in the art movements of their day and developed their own avant-garde. In the years following the revolution, art and museums became vehicles of propaganda as pop-art paintings of Che and Castro glorified the men and their revolutionary actions. As I walked through Havana’s museums, filling in the gaps of my knowledge and making connections to cultures I knew better, the disparities I saw between American culture and Cuban culture suddenly seemed less disparate.

What I learned in Cuba was not only that museums can have a point of view, but that museums can help balance point of views. They put history into perspective by granting us access to material evidence from eras past and present. Artists like Marcel Broodthaers and philosophers like Michel Foucault challenged the role museums have played as institutions of power that classify objects within hierarchies. Indeed, museums are the institutions that build canons, but they are also the venues in which these canons are challenged. Museums are as much catalysts of dialogs as they are homes to fine art.

a painting in the museo de la revolucion

a painting in the museo de la revolucion

As our world rapidly digitizes, globalizes and hybridizes, museums face the challenge of keeping pace while continuing to attract visitors. How can museums employ their permanent collection in new ways to educate people through art? How can museums compete in a global market for ideas and information? How can museums stay relevant? In order to engage a broader audience through new technologies, institutions like MoMA have already begun to make their collection digital, added computer terminals to exhibition galleries and designed exclusive online exhibits. Website features like the interactive “What is a Print?” or the video introduction to the exhibition “Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective” engage a broad audience and prepare museum-goers for their visit.

While museums must engage with the new technologies to grant the public access to their collection, museums must also remain what they have always been – venues of learning and questioning. Through the presentation of artworks, museums and their curatorial staff grant us the intellectual freedom to critically evaluate a society and its power structure. Whether or not curators Twitter or Facebook, MoMA’s Mission Statement remains the same.

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