What is a museum supposed to be?

Apologies to David
My apologies to Jean-Jacques David's "Le Serment du Jeu de paume" (1791)

As the New Museum controversy rages on, people are finally asking questions that we should periodically be asking of our arts institutions. The reason they haven’t come up before was probably because for the last six years we were all too busy watching the art market swallow the art world.

Well, now is as good a time as any to republish this inspiring paragraph from the new third edition of Karsten Schubert book titled The Curator’s Egg: The evolution of the museum concept from the French Revolution to the present day (emphasis mine):

The museum [aka Louvre] was to play a central role in the formation and development of the new society; yet when it opened to the public on August 10, 1793, the first anniversary of the Republic, none of this was obvious from the displays. They looked suspiciously pre-Revolutionary and resembled, in the words of the playwright Gabriel Bouquier, ‘the luxurious apartments of satraps and the great, the voluptuous boudoirs of courtesans, the cabinets of the self-styled amateurs’. A few months later Jacques-Jacques David elaborated the point: ‘The museum is not supposed to be a vain assemblage of frivolous luxury objects that serve only to satisfy idle curiosity. What it must be is an imposing school.’ It seems that from the outset the museum and its critique went hand in hand.

More thoughts to follow.

6 responses to “What is a museum supposed to be?”

  1. I know I have not said much lately but this post makes me realize how much I appreciate reading your blogs, tweets and Hyperallergic! There’s no other place that I can get such current art information with insight into what art is now and how it relates to everything! I know that is a broad statement but that is how it feels! BTW, I love the graphic of this post!!! It’s the perfect example of delivering a message that is current with so much history juxtaposed!!! Thank you!!!! Also, if you don’t mind me suggesting, you should write an in depth chronological essay about the New Museum for New York Magazine! There are so many reasons why I think this is a perfect match but I won’t go into it here. Keep up the great work!!

  2. Schubert’s book is a reasonably thorough overview of the history of display practices, however, I feel I must point out that it isn’t quite new — it was first published in 2000.

    I agree with the quote that you’ve emphasized. It’s curious to read about how museums were in the 18th and 19th centuries, and note how strikingly similar today’s museums are to the old aristocratic paradigms of object display.

    • Thanks Marissa, I should have clarified that I was referring to the third edition that was published this year. Actually, I’ll fix that in the post. Thanks again.

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