“The Modern Nature of Museums: A Critical Review”
The book chapter “Commercialism” by Andrew McClellan and the article “Escape from Amnesia: The Museum as Mass Medium” by Andreas Huyssen both address the current commercial nature of museums. Each author serves to inform the reader of this nature, by providing a substantial dose of history, theory and examples of modern exhibitions. They also use this method to support their own personal opinions. In addition, each writer has their own style and audience. While McClellan’s chapter is written for museum administrators, art historians, professors as well as the general public, Huyssen favors the intellectual elite of philosophers, theorists and the like. With this assessment, I recommend both articles, but give particular favor to McClellan’s, simply because it favors a more general audience. However, both articles are highly recommended and provide great food for thought in an ever changing dynamic discourse of modern times and the museum.
McClellan’s chapter discusses the increase of commercialism within modern museums, by the expansion of museums shops, corporate sponsors, blockbuster exhibitions and rise in marketing and fund-raising personnel. McClellan breaks his chapter into the subsections: Utilitarian Commerce, Art and Antimaterialism, Department Stores and Design, The Blockbuster Era, Museum Shops, Weighing the Costs of Commercialism and Corporate Sponsorship and leads the reader on a journey through the evolution of the modern museum.
In his Utilitarian Commerce section, McClellan discusses the historical implications of museums evolving from royal collections to state-run institutions. This movement caused the quality of the art work within collections, to have a direct economic impact in that, the general population could now appreciate the finer pleasures of this high art, and therefore began to demand higher quality and expectation from the various avenues of mass production. This led to a realization that the consumers themselves needed help in order to properly appreciate the work and thus the public exhibition was born. However, the intended effect did not hold and art museums became a type of refuge from shoddy and second rate products that flooded the consumer market.
McClellan cites critic Benjamin Gilman as a strong opponent for art’s break from utility and commerce. Gilman argued that the museum should break away from any association with money. He states,
Money and fine art are like oil and water: differing and mutually repelling in essence. Art is necessarily joined with its ill-assorted companion in origin and generally in fate. Artists must make a living, and collectors inevitably compete for their achievements. A work of art is rescued from this companionship with money when it reaches the museum. Yet the divorce is not complete while money is demanded as the price of its contemplation[i]
It is ignorant to assume that the museum can simply disassociate itself with money in a society that does not adequately support art organizations. McClellan offers that the museum can have middle ground when it comes to utility and commerce. The museum must have a means of supporting itself as well as retaining its historical place as a house of preservation. This leads McClellan to relate the collaboration of the museum and the department store.
In Department Stores and Design, McClellan discusses the revealing historical relationship between the museums growth in commercialism and its direct link to the modern department store. He states, “What museums and stores had to “sell” might have been different, but the means of engaging their publics could be the same.”[ii] This relates to a rapid rise of consumer culture. Modern times have brought about the wave of one-size-fits-all and museums are not excluded. Consumers want the convenience of a place where they can experience high levels of engagement. Museums have answered this call by expanding there venues to include shops, cafes and other forms of entertainment. This is in effort to appeal to mass audiences and keep museums appeal at the top. McClellan gives Philip Youtz as an example of studying and learning from department stores in order to appeal to this modern audience. Youtz consulted with local Philadelphia merchants and studied the areas shopping patterns.[iii] He utilized what he learned and adjusted museum hours and temporary exhibitions accordingly.
McClellan gives other examples of this joint collaboration by museums joining forces with major department stores for special temporary exhibits. This not only promoted the marriage of the wares of the store with product design but also created a unique type of mass audience appeal through temporary blockbuster exhibitions. The average consumer could easily relate to this type of show and thus it proved immediately successful. But this success was fleeting and the direction of the modern museum would change in the 1950s, from exhibitions of department store collaboration, to dedicating itself to the more historical qualities of acquisition and preservation.[iv] However, the museum would still retain many of the commercial lessons it learned from department store collaborations and use them to help find needed revenues.
For McClellan, the next phase of museum commercialization was the establishment of the museum Blockbuster Era. The 1960s and 1970s would bring about an era of financial challenges for museums. The blockbuster exhibition was a way in which the museums answered this challenge. Museums quickly found that big name artists brought the big crowds. For example, in 1963 the Mona Lisa was sent to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Its appearance drew a crowd of 2 million people. McClellan cites this type of “magnetic power”[v] in the evolution of the blockbuster exhibition. The press also served to establish this era by creating hype and pre-promoting the big name exhibits. By the time the exhibits actually opened they were already deemed blockbusters. But in order to enjoy the historical and critically acclaimed artists such as Van Gogh, Monet and Cezanne, museums had to develop ways of financing these massive and expensive exhibitions. They turned to charging special admissions and developing corporate sponsors to bring in the needed revenue. The corporate sponsorships created another catch twenty-two for the museums in that they served to help finance the big exhibitions but also made the museum a pawn in the world of ups and downs and corporate finance. Corporations are not exempt from economic trouble and their support does not provide long-term stability.
Museums then began to turn inward to their own museum shops as a way of internal revenue. McClellan discusses this expansion as a partnership to the blockbuster exhibit. The shops became a way to promote the big exhibits and appeal to growing consumer culture. John Fiske states, “Our culture is a commodity culture, and it is fruitless to argue against it on the basis that culture and profit are mutually exclusive.”[vi] The drive to get that ultimate souvenir to say “I was there” is something that museums have capitalized on.
For McClellan there are many pros and cons to this commercialism but he argues, “That the challenge for museums is to be able to take advantage of commercial opportunities without sacrificing their rhetorical withdrawal from the everyday world.”[vii] He discusses the cost of commercialism as a plus and minus system. The plus side shows that with such expansions and commercial alterations museums have become popular destinations. They have helped rejuvenate neighborhoods and helped connect the community to a global understanding of cultures. On the down side, delicate works of priceless art are being shipped across seas for the blockbuster exhibits. There is always a risk of permanently damaging the art work and as mentioned above, the constant search for corporate sponsorship creates other implications regarding revenue and funding. McClellan also discusses ethical and unethical conduct in regard to partnering for blockbuster exhibitions. He uses the Sensation exhibit as an example of conflict of interest between the museums ethical place and the designer or corporation making inappropriate decisions within the exhibition. This type of folly reduces the museum to a marketing tool[viii] thus its very status as a credible institution is compromised.
McClellan argues that these initiatives have made the art museum one of the most popular leisure venues in the world. But it is not without intense criticism from many within the art world. He states, “Though on some level everyone in the art world benefits from the increased popularity of museums, a good number of academics, art critics, and museum professionals fear the erosion of the museum’s integrity and scholarly profile through a “dumbing down” of standards in pursuit of larger audiences and enhanced revenue streams”[ix] However this criticism and its’ constituents do not offer museums any alternative ideas to their revenue problems. Like McClellan, I think that it is possible for museums to strengthen their position by the addition of commercial venues. In order to have and support the traditional galleries of priceless art work, the museum has to find additional avenues of revenue. There are always two sides to every penny. This proverbial penny is the positive and negative of commercialism. It is the blending of the traditional role of the museum and modern commercial expansion that can serve to complete the sides of the penny and help it support the museum for decades to come.
The article “Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia” by Andreas Huyssen also discusses the current commercial nature of the museum. Unlike McClellan, Huyssen does not critique the museum on its capitalist nature but rather Huyssen argues, “In a different register and today more than ever, the museum also seems to fulfill a vital anthropologically rooted need under modern conditions: it enables the moderns to negotiate and to articulate a relationship to the past…”[x] Huyssen shares McClellan’s argument concerning the historical function of the museum, but concludes it does this in order to help modern people understand their relationship to the past as well as the status of memory within consumer culture. For Huyssen, the increased commodification of the museum is undisputable but it does not explain everything. It does not tell how to interpret the specific works, practices or exhibitions.
Huyssen discusses the position of the avant garde versus the museum. He suggests that the fate of the avant garde is tied to the transformation of the museum. Their practices have contributed to the blurring of boundaries between the museum and the exhibition. In this way, it is contributing to the current culture of temporary exhibitions. [xi] Huyssen discusses the idea that museums were historically seen in a different light by the moderns or avant garde. They were in general, anti-museum. This position, Huyssen argues, has ironically, changed the course of museum history and its position. The museum culture has embraced most avant garde art as well as transformed itself into a modernist commercial venue. This unintended and ironic relationship has served to influence and change commercial patterns. For Huyssen, the negative is that the museum is not staying true to its historical nature: a house of preservation and exclusion. He cites the avant garde as helping these traditional walls fall. On the positive side, Huyssen discusses the benefit and improvement of cities and companies through the partnerships and corporate sponsorships that are attained with museums.
Huyssen points to acceleration in his article by discussing the implications of its effect on people viewing an exhibit and the effect it has had on marketing. In his opinion, acceleration causes negative effects in the process of true art appreciation. This hurried and overcrowded experience translates to making the artwork that is meant to be appreciated, invisible to the viewer, as they try to manage their way through overcrowded museums.[xii] In regards to marketing, he finds the increase of artwork reproductions for expanded museums shops a negative one. Huyssen does acknowledge that this shift in business is irreversible; but unlike McClellan he does not see it as a product of consumer culture shift.
Huyssen moves to discuss three explanatory models that he feels make sense of the modern museum and state of current exhibitions. He explains the hermeneutically-oriented culture-as-compensation theory, the poststructuralist apocalyptic theory and the critical-theory model. The hermeneutically-oriented model was developed by philosophers who shared the idea that erosion of tradition helps support the generation of preservation institutions[xiii] The poststructuralist apocalyptic theory views the commercialization of museums as a terminal cancer. Finally, the critical-theory model that argues this is a result from a new era of consumers and consumption. Huyssen does not think that any of these models are totally true but he discusses, at length, the compensation thesis and its two major supporters: Hermann Lube and Odo Marquard as well as the poststructuralist apocalyptic theory of Baudrillard and Jeudy.[xiv] By this time, the reader is drowning in heavily laden philosophy and theory. Thankfully, Huyssen changes course by discussing the more understandable critical theory oriented model or Kulturgesellschaft and its link between the museum as a mass medium in contrast to television and what the museum gives that television does not.
This comparison is an interesting and extremely relevant one, not only to the position and definition of museums, but also in the modern study of new media itself. The effects new media has on society are just beginning to be studied. It is a worthy discussion to critique the relationship of objects portrayed on television and objects on display at museums. It is perhaps, the isolation of the object from its historical context and the position of its reestablishment within the museum itself that brings about the attraction to the viewer. Huyssen states, “No matter how fragile or dim the relation between museum object and the reality it documents may be, either in the way it is exhibited or in the mind of the spectator, as object it carries a register of reality which even the live television broadcast cannot match.”[xv] Modern media devices such as television, smart phones and laptops have increased the convenience and access to images. Yet this does not seem to be deterring the visitor from wanting an authentic experience with actual historical objects. This is a very positive reality for the future of the museum.
The modern museum has a unique position to be a cultural mediator. I agree with Huyssen in that the museum must continue to work and change to refine strategies of representing its collections all the while being true to its historical position. It can be the modern institution that commercialism has transformed it to be as long as it stays true to its representation of societies memories. Huyssen and McClellan give a unique look into the modern position of museums. I find their assessments to be extremely relevant and thought provoking. I initially did not approve of the comparison of the museum to the shopping mall. However, when that comparison is taken within the context of historical progression the comparison is dead on. I cannot refute the connection. Thus, I must conclude that the proverbial sides of the penny will come together and provide a positive way for museums to move into the future.
[i] Quoted in Andrew McClellan, “Commerc ialism,” The Art Museum From Boullee to Bilbao (Berkeley: University California Press, 2008), 201.
[ii] Andrew McClellan, “Commerc ialism,” The Art Museum From Boullee to Bilbao (Berkeley: University California Press, 2008), 20.
[iii] Andrew McClellan, 204.
[iv] Andrew McClellan, 210.
[v]Andrew McClellan, 211.
[vi] Andrew McClellan, 219.
[vii] Andrew McClellan, 220.
[viii] Andrew McClellan, 230.
[ix] Andrew McClellan,195.
[x] Andreas Huyssen, “Escape From Amnesia: The Museum as Mass Medium,” Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia (Routledge: NewYork and London, n.d.), 16.
[xi] Andreas Huyssen, 20.
[xii] Andreas Huyssen, 23.
[xiii]Andreas Huyssen, 25.
[xiv] Andreas Huyssen, 25 and 30.
[xv] Andreas Huyssen, 33.
Huyssen, Andreas. “Escape From Amnesia: The Museum as Mass Medium.” Twilight
Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia.New York: Routledge, (n.d.):
McClellan, Andrew. “Commercialism,” The Art Museum From Boullee to Bilbao
Berkeley: University California Press, (2008): 193-232.
My name is Kristin Bradley. I am a photographer, designer, writer, avid reader, mother and constant artistic dabbler. This blog contains samples of my writing.