The Case for Museums | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

The Case for Museums | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

centuries, we humans have put the stuff we
value into safe houses and locked it away– historical
artifacts, precious metals, biological specimens,
and some art, too. This was mostly done by the
powerful and privileged– those who had or stole stuff
valuable enough to try to save. But they mostly kept
it to themselves, and it was only pretty recently
that such treasures were made available to the likes of us. Now it seems every city must
have one, if not several, of these public
storehouses for allegedly nonfunctional objects. Why do we need these? And why should we visit
them not just once, but again, and again, and again? This is the case for museums. The word comes from
the Greek mouseion, or seat of the muses,
referring to places like the ancient museum at
Alexandria, which housed manuscripts and was more
like a modern-day library and university. The Latin derivation,
museum, described for ancient Romans places
for philosophical discussion. Now, there was certainly
art at the time, but it was paintings
honoring the gods housed in pinacotheca on the
Acropolis or sculpture on public display in Rome. And of course, the wealthy
had art in their homes, just as they do today. But as far back as
we can trace, people have treasured and
hoarded objects. We know that from what early
humans buried with them and wanted to take
into the afterlife. There’s evidence that Babylonian
King Nabonidus collected antiquities, and it seems
that his daughter created a kind of educational museum
where clay cylinders described those antiquities– the very
first wall labels, let’s say. During the Italian
Renaissance, the Medici’s amassed an enormous collection,
which they eventually gave to the state as a public good. National museums sprang to life
in Europe in the 18th century as the wealthy gave
up their collections to be preserved and
shared after their deaths. Revolution forced the opening
of the French Royal Collections to the public. Collecting stuff is and
always has been complicated. Be they trophies of war or
conquest, objects of worship, exotic curiosities, or even
recently completed paintings, the objects that populate
our museums have been removed from their original context– wrested from the
individuals, and communities, and civilizations
that birthed them. Tracing an object’s provenance,
or its history of ownership, is murky business and the
subject of many court cases, necessitating the return
of cultural heritage and private property
decades or even centuries after it was looted. But it’s precisely
these complications that make museums relevant. They may be full of
decontextualized, problematic objects, but museums
uphold the charge of not only keeping
these things safe, but recontextualizing them in
novel and enlightening ways, making them available to
us for enjoyment and study, and returning them to
their rightful owners when called for. Being stewards of
these objects means experimenting with
their classification, their description,
their juxtaposition with things similar
and dissimilar. How we display things has
shifted over the centuries. From the tightly-packed
arrangement of natural specimens
and miscellany in the Wunderkammers, or
cabinets of curiosity, of 16th and 17th century
Europe, to paintings hung salon-style in
the grand galleries of the Louver in the 19th
century, and all the way to now, when the near-ubiquitous
white cube is the display convention of choice. And technology has
transformed how we learn about what we’re seeing. The style of building
we store treasures in has evolved as
well– from pyramids and classical structures,
to neoclassical structures– lots, and lots, and lots of
neoclassical structures– and classical structures
with glowing cubes next to them, and
pyramids next to them. Some of our museums
are circular. Some are whatever
kind of shape this is. Some of them float. But what museums do is bring
us into contact with the things that those before us have
made, and used, and valued. Philosopher Georges
Didi-Huberman wrote in 2003 that, “In each
historical object, all times encounter one
another, bifurcate, or even become entangled
with each other.” Things in museums
can give us clues as to what it was like
to be a particular person in a particular place at the
particular time they were made. But they can also provide us
access to other temporalities– to each moment since the
object’s creation when it was altered, sold, changed hands– when it entered the collection,
and when it has and has not been on display. Museums are sites
where we can visibly see the negotiation of values– what they are now, what they
used to be, and what we hope they’ll be in the future. It’s in these places that we can
revisit and revise histories, give platforms to
marginalized voices, and resurrect narratives
of the oppressed. That its contents can
be shuffled around in endless combinations
or stay the same for years and years makes
tangible that history isn’t a cold, dead thing, but is
always contested and in flux– not a singular line
running backward, but a dense and
multi-dimensional tangle. Governed by mission statements
that vary in specificity and scope, fueled by coffers
that range from obscene to non-existent, museums
are vulnerable to a host of influences and threats– the fluctuating interests
of leadership and boards of directors, the vicissitudes
of public funding, the unpredictable allotment
of private funding, grants, and sponsorships. Tasked with making
their collections available to the public, museums
make tough, sometimes reckless decisions to keep the lights on,
salaries paid, and attendance flowing, but they must
always be held to task. Who are the publics
being served? And can a place be
counted as public when it costs that
much to get in? What museums do for us
that non-collecting for- and not-for-profit institutions
don’t is make a commitment that they will take
care of these objects for pretty much ever. When sea levels rise
and forest fires loom, it’s teams of museum
nerds like these that put disaster plans into action. Less dramatically,
it’s conservators who try to prevent
things from falling apart and restore dingy
works to past glory. Highly trained people guard
the objects, pack the objects, and expertly install
and deinstall them. Careers are spent studying
objects, generating exhibitions around them, and using
them to tell stories about past and present. The research that
comes out of museums benefit society in direct
ways, giving us insight into the past and future
of the world we inhabit. Loads of people, many
of them volunteers, work to share the
collection with you and figure out ways to share
it with you even if you can’t get there yourself. These may be hoards of
goods that once belonged to rich people presented
in flawed ways, but they may be all that’s
left after the asteroid hits and future
intelligent life forms try to piece together
what the heck happened. And let’s be clear, museums are
not lean-back entertainment. Sure, you can sit yourself down
and be bowled over by that epic history painting, letting
its magnificence vibrate out and penetrate your jaded,
image-soaked consciousness. But the real value of museums
lies not in their ability to anesthetize us with
beauty, but in their power to make us active agents in
reconsidering our histories, understanding where we are now,
and what we might be able to do to change what happens next. This work happens not in the art
itself or in the wall labels, but inside our heads. They can’t spoon-feed
you transcendence, but it’s there if you’re
curious, patient, and do the work. A museum turns out to be more
like a university or library after all, and
that’s also why it’s worthwhile to return
again and again. Even if the museum
doesn’t change much, you change, and what
you notice changes. When museums and the
things that contain don’t meet our
expectations, we get angry. We imbue these
places with authority and trust them with
our cultural heritage, and it’s upsetting when they
don’t reflect our histories or experience of the world. But while they might look
like impenetrable fortresses, they are not. You can get the training
to work in these places. You can jockey to
join the board. You can give your
treasured objects to help them tell
better stories. Most importantly, you can
shape the conversation that surrounds museums, make
demands that they be better, and be the vocal and engaged
public these places were founded to support. This episode is supported
in part by viewers like you through Patreon. Special thanks to Indianapolis
Homes Realty and all of our patrons. If you’d like to
support the show, head on over to [MUSIC PLAYING]

86 thoughts on “The Case for Museums | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

  1. This channel inspired me to go to a museum in the first place and the reason for me to go again and again a third time with friends without they changing the expositions it's because it made me see works from artistis from Brazil and more importantly from the region where i live. And made in America content being so much of i watch ,see and listen see works of people that are literally closer to my experience in life makes especial.

  2. my local museum is at 2:42! i love to go there to get the full effect of glass stands and a huge room with a continuous view of art through time

  3. This is seriously my favorite newly discovered channel. Any chance we can get a case for photography/x photographer?

  4. This channel and the brainscoop inspired me to pursue a career in museum collections! Thanks for all you do!

  5. I've been frustrated by opinions of museums – particularly those of the natural history persuasion – and how unethical the collection of the…collection is more than once. So far, I've done only an okay job of defending them. But now I've got help: this video.
    Thanks, Art Assignment, for making the thing I forgot I needed!

  6. Awesome video as always!! I love how friendly your videos are!
    I've always been drawn to museums, and it is one of my dreams to work on a art museum someday… Do you have any recomendations?

  7. Once went to a modern art museum on a 2nd or 3rd date in Glasgow. I didnt think to check which special exhibitions were on on this day, I just assumed it’d be fine- how wrong I was. 20ft projections of about 5 or 6 women in all black leather gimp suits around a man….. Extremely awkward, which you can view and hear the audio from multiple sections of the museum. Needless to say, my date never wants to go back to a modern art museum!

  8. Museums are the mainstay of any visit I make to any city in the world. I became nostalgic for the museums you featured where I had been before, and I was filled with longing for the museums featured that I had not yet seen. Hopefully I will get to all of them!

  9. The Musée de l’Orangerie, in Paris, tops my list. So impactful.

    Everything is great there, but it’s top floor is wonderful, just with how they not only present Monet’s paintings in oval shaped rooms, but in how they make sure you can’t see the art until you are in the room itself.

    A proper emotional experience. One which brought my wife to tears. Highly recommended.

  10. I like the idea of decontextualizing and recontextualizing the pieces in a museum. That was a really interesting point. Thanks for the video.

  11. Detroit Industry by Diego Rivera! I’m going to see it in the flesh at the Detroit Institute of Art soon! and other stuff too of course! yay

  12. I have been loving the videos lately! Though I have a question/criticism. I, being a photo major, would love to see more photography in the art assignment! People like Jacques henri lartigue or Keith carter or William eggleston! I'm a photo major and photo nerd so I am biased. But I would love some "case for" of photographers not well received. Just my 2 cents though. I'm a photo history nerd and would love other people to realize how exciting it can be!

  13. What a fantastic episode. I'll always love museums and in this way the case will never be closed. Thanks, for bringing me closer to knowing why I love them. 😉👌

  14. Hey Sarah! I just wanted to point out that while some museums may have returned colonial loot to its rightful owners the majority hasn't. It's a part of the 'collection craze' of the 19th and early 20th century where the colonising powers would try to accumulate as many 'exotic curiosities' as possible. Often through stealing or manipulating their rightful owners to surrender them. Take the case of the Benin bronzes. The British burned the city of Benin down after the King of Benin had refused to trade with them. They took everything, including the bronzes which to the people of Benin are a way, in fact THE way of documenting their history and culture. Often these bronzes were highly personal because whenever someone died they'd put their likeness on a bronze plate to remember and celebrate them. The British took these and sold them to all the colonial loot crazy museums and individuals in Europe and overseas where they remain today. The Museum für Völkerkunde in Hamburg (which has a very rich colonial history) still has a lot of them. Western museums then classify their stolen goods as "primitive art" for white people to marvel at and, as I pointed earlier, in most cases refuse to return them. Most of the Benin bronzes are still locked away in Western museums. And sometimes these things aren't even on display but vanished somewhere in the archives and STILL museums refuse to let them go. And as to the question of "safe-keeping" that's also a deeply racist thing, assuming that the countries of origin are less capable of keeping these objects safe and in good shape than Western museums. This mindset is especially ironic since a lot of colonial loot fell victim to the wars that ravaged Europe and/or for instance in the case of the Hamburg collection, a bad case of asbestos in the archives..
    So while I do agree that museums are good and should continue existing, I think that they should also be critical of their collections and return any and all stolen items to their countries of origin.

  15. I LOVE Museums! I visit as many as I can wherever I travel to. ❤️ My favourite so far are the Reina Sofia in Madrid, the British Museum, the museum of modern art in Edinburgh and the portrait gallery there too. Also the Vatican museums, the national gallery and the Tate museums in London… and if it counted as a museum then the Venice biennale, specifically the giardini part. 😀

  16. I loved museums. My dad had made that an important part of growing up. By 6th grade I had been to over 80 different museums. So hooray for museum.

  17. My Master’s is about performance art and museology! Could you recommend some articles/books/videos/etc in the museum’s history and classifications in the description? Thank you!

  18. as long as the art being demanded was stolen and the country is going to be returned is safe and will be safe for the foreseeable future then I have no problem.

  19. "Art without context is trash the way food becomes trash when you put it in the sink." -Bennett Foddy
    It is the job of the museum curator to preserve as much context as possible in the space available.
    For me, the most enjoyable part of a museum is talking about the objects with other patrons.

  20. Great video. I've been thinking a lot about this myself and how the story of how the artifacts came to a certain location is a part of the artifact's story. Consequently, you can learn a lot about the history of the world and interactions between geographic areas just by looking at those horses in St. Mark's square you showed.

  21. Especially considering the interesting point made about the changes in contextualization museums give these objects, I'm curious how people think the City Museum in St. Louis fits into this. It's not a conventional museum, by any means, I'm not even sure if really counts as a museum, but the way it revitalizes what would otherwise be trash and waste into not only art but art the public can scramble in and hang upside-down on might be worth bringing up.

    At the very least, all my art teachers didn't have to try very hard to explain to administration why a field trip there was relevant to whatever art class they wanted to get out of the building (not as easy as taking everyone to the SLAM though, since that's free and right by the zoo).

  22. I wish more people understood that museums aren't just storage facilities that you can visit. Museums (most of us anyway) are very ACTIVE in our communities. We work with our local schools, libraries, and other organizations to create/host educational programs. We help people do research (whether it's genealogical research or research for a book or just curiosity). We're very involved, there's always an upcoming event to work on.
    This is true even for museums in small towns and rural areas (like the one I work at). I always encourage people to look up your local museum. Even if it's small and doesn't seem like much on the outside, there's surely a wealth of information in there. We have a sort of unofficial motto at the museum I work for. "Every place has a story. We aim to preserve it and share it."

  23. currently studying Fine Art in Norwich, UK and writing an essay titled "Boring Art, Art That Is Boring and Art Birthed From Boredom"- would love to hear opinions on these topics!

  24. I was unaware we needed to make a case for museums? I guess it was dumb of me to assume that everyone values the public dissemination of awesome stuff.

  25. Your lectures, videos, presentation, information and care for art speak through your videos. It's not that you aren't making fantastic, mind altertering videos, it's that Youtube is inundated with videos upwards of millions and millions more on the way that take people time to sift, scrub, digest and admire and hate, through. You have to go to major networks to sell your ideas. Youtube is a space for experimental artwork, confessions and projects. You projects are much too great for youtube. They're scholarly and educational… and ain't nobody getting an education from youtube.

  26. There is no ownership. It's just stuff. There are more important things. Beings. All of them. Everything else is residual.

  27. "Lots… and lots… and lots… of neoclassical museums." 😉 A nice exploration! I especially love the emphasis on how museums can allow us to reconsider our past to gain perspectives on what it means to be a human being… that's a really provocative thought. It is making me wonder how museums might better facilitate such reflections, as I'm guessing many do not have that in mind when they visit. I also like the notion that re-visiting a museum can lead us to see new art, even if there is no new art there — seeing something newly is like seeing something new. We read/watch stories multiple times and get new things out of it each time, why should this type of art be any different? I've never heavily considered visiting museums multiple times, but now I will. 🙂 Thank you for another great episode!

  28. Yesss I do really want to second your point at 7:43 – museums are definitely not impenetrable fortresses. Many of the gallery guides at our museum do not have art or museum backgrounds – yet many have been volunteering and shaping visitors experiences for decades. They have directly sat in meeting with curators and directors, become a part of museum boards, sat on endowment committees and influenced new collection purchases.

  29. I'm in school for archives and records management, and nearly all of these points are applicable for archives as well! Great video!

  30. The case for museums is particularly interesting considering you're in Indianapolis, home of Newfields, where they're looking at the role of a museum in a broader way. Thanks for making this!

  31. Hello Mam Sorry for irrelevant question here but can you help me with this error HOST = gethostbyname(gethostname()) is not define error in packet sniffer code python, i'm doing this code from your tutorials on packet sniffer thanks reply as soon as possible

  32. I am a Conservator of Antiquities from Greece and that was a great video! I enjoyed it very much! Well done! 😀

  33. This was beautiful. I feel so privileged to have visited so many of the museums featured in this, and I can't wait to visit so many more.

  34. Another great video! As an Indigenous Studies and Public history double major, I just need videos like these to remind me what all the stress and hard work is for. Bravo!I

  35. Thanks for this thoughtful video. My husband and I visited the Art Institute of Chicago for the first time yesterday. We toured the American and Impressionist sections and were bowled over by many of the works. I was surprised to find that I was more drawn to Renoir than Monet. I felt that "transcendence" you mentioned when I saw the Chagall window. I had thought, from seeing photos, that it might glow and was delighted to see that, even on a cloudy day, it did glow. I am so thankful for museums. My family are members of the IMA (Newfields) and visit it often. Taking a walk on the grounds is a favorite weekend activity for my husband and I. Here is my thumbs up for this video since my like button is not appearing today.

  36. I really liked this video! It makes me want to go check out my local museums again and think about them a bit differently. It's a bit sad that I haven't been to most of these places… but maybe some day!

  37. Museums protect and preserve? How naive are some of you? Here's why museums exist… TO MAKE MONEY! I'll take a graduating university art student's senior exhibit over a pompous, arrogant, self-indulgent, self-centered museum exhibit any day!

  38. Thank you, Sarah! Every video you post speaks to my heart, educates me with awesome interesting things, opens my mind to knew ways of thinking. I'm so grateful for The Art Assignment! Now I'm off to research all the museums in my area, especially those that are toddler friendly (I have a two year old)! Thank you!

  39. Speaking of museums, I’d love to see you do an episode with Emily Graslie! She’s an artist by training and just generally great!

  40. museums are also a part of a billion dollar industry funded by arms and oil money…. the important work that cultural workers do should not be conflated with the work that museums do for their wealthy patrons. the fact is that museums are part of an industry like any other. this is of course not to say don't go to museums, you can't contemplate 'purely' etc but to resist romanticizing and instead insist on complexity and contradictions of our current art industry, i promise you, it keeps you nimble.

  41. This is so good! I recently visited the Guggenheim museum in Venice when I was there on holiday, and it was incredible. I have always found out a lot about myself when going to museums. It's like digging into history books but that history book is you.

  42. Simply. I think you'd be generally shocked if you knew the number of fraudulent artefacts that came from the time of antiquity, especially in the form of bronze bust.

  43. Oh my God these videos are so fast they're unwatchable. I have to keep reminding to examine the pictures and captions. Slow down!

  44. Loved seeing Diego Rivera’s mural at the DIA (my local art institute) included in this! I think they do a wonderful job in how they present their pieces, and they have so many varied collections that span from ancient history to modern day, many touching on social issues and inequality. For example, they have an entire section of their colonial art exhibit that features black painters of the time and their artwork, people who are subject to erasure most of the time.

  45. Museums in NYC

    Moma: at least it has some good art

    Guggenheim: 90% of the stuff is not considered art .

    The natural history Museum: got a movie based off of it that’s pretty cool .

    The Cooper Hewitt: more people talk about those go there it’s free .

    The Met: B I G and it has a good art .

  46. i love this i work as an intern at the folk art museum in manhattan and it’s really given me a deeper understanding of not just art and artists but the staff and people that have to work as one and make sure the museum experience is as perfect as possible

  47. Thank all that was in this art time's..! God'!!!Love's all An I do too !!An I Love TheArt Assignment. This is what I Love. THANK.YOU SoSo. MUCH!..MS..PINOTTI

  48. Can I just say, this video was interesting, but the pace was too fast, with too much being said, too few and unmarked breaks between sentences, and the shots being changed too quickly, so it was difficult to concentrate. I found myself zoning out and having to backtrack multiple times.

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