Opinion
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Break up the major museums to save them

August institutions should build more outposts rather than cloister themselves in big cities

August 31, 2014 6:00AM ET

The Louvre in Paris recently told The Art Newspaper that it expects its visitor numbers to rise by a third over the next decade, putting the world’s busiest art museum on track to welcome 12 million visitors annually by 2025. It’s a staggering figure that points to a growing reality facing art lovers and museumgoers: How can you expect to see and enjoy art through the chaotic crowds that are increasingly defining major museums?

In the last few years, many of the largest and most popular museums, including the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, have been experiencing significant issues with crowding. The head of visitor services at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg recently admitted to The New York Times, “Such a colossal number of simultaneous viewers isn’t good for the art, and it can be uncomfortable and overwhelming for those who come to see the art.” In the same article, an art historian disparaged the situation at the Uffizi Gallery, home to some of the most famous masterpieces of the Renaissance, saying, “It seems like a tropical greenhouse. You can’t breathe.”

Lest you think museum professionals are the only ones concerned, the voices of visitors are starting to echo on social media and websites such as TripAdvisor, where one review of the Vatican Museums encapsulates the anxiety perfectly: “Seriously, it would only take one person to trip or to cause some kind of mild panic or corridor rage … it doesn’t bear thinking of.” Another visitor, this one to the Louvre, wrote, “There was absolutely no way that myself and my family members could enjoy the museum. There are so many people that all you have time to do is make sure you aren’t trampled by the mass coming at you from every direction.”

The tension has been building, and not only among tourists and museum professionals. In 2011 one London critic coined the term “gallery rage” to describe the anger he felt when visiting the Tate Modern’s very popular Paul Gauguin show. It’s a feeling most of us can relate to. If museums in our imaginations are places of contemplation, in real life many are no longer the tranquil havens we wish them to be.

Some museums are responding to gallery rage. In 2011 the National Gallery in London limited the number of visitors to its Leonardo da Vinci exhibition even though it meant the museum would lose $14,850 a day. But few institutions can afford to turn away that kind of money. There must be another solution.

There is. We need to break up the major museums. That may sound radical to some, but it’s an idea whose time has come. I’m suggesting not that museums sell off their collections but that more museums consider aggressively building outposts or prioritizing longer-term partnerships with smaller or newer institutions that could benefit from such relationships. 

Decentralization

It’s not as radical a proposition as you might think. The National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Museums in Washington are perfect examples of national institutions with encyclopedic collections that are well suited for this idea. While the National Gallery of Art regularly lends works to regional museums across the country, maintains an extensive free online archive of 45,000 images and offers free admission to visitors, there’s no reason all of its collection should be in D.C., particularly when the majority of it never leaves the storeroom. The same is true of the British Museum in London and the Uffizi in Florence, which both have large, historic collections of art. Though it should be mentioned that the Smithsonian has two outposts in New York: the Cooper-Hewitt design museum and the National Museum of the American Indian, both of which specialize in one field. The Cooper Hewitt does a particularly good job of curating historic and contemporary design in a city that is a global hub for the field.

Maybe museums should fashion themselves after public libraries rather than sports stadiums.

Roughly 10 years ago, Greece embarked on an ambitious plan to disperse the treasures that were traditionally housed in one museum in Athens to locations across the country. This decentralization — a term they used for the process — of art helped place artifacts in their geographic context while spreading tourist dollars to remote areas. The same process has been undertaken in Cyprus. Even in countries where overcrowding is not a problem, such as Mali, decentralizing the national museum has had benefits, improving local accessibility and encouraging public participation (PDF) in defining the programs and exhibits.

Decentralizing the Smithsonian could allow works to live closer to their native settings, whether that means putting American Indian artifacts closer to their geographic origins or presenting Chicano art in communities with large Mexican-American populations such as San Diego and Chicago. New contexts would help animate objects and art while instilling pride in local communities. It could also expose parts of the country that don’t have the benefit of strong history or art museums to a global heritage and offer them a window to a world they would otherwise have to plan a trip to see.

France has already started to decentralize its museums, realizing the potential benefits of tourists venturing beyond the capital. When the French government opened the Louvre-Lens in 2012, the vision was not to create a branch or an annex of the main museum — even though many of the objects on display are long-term loans from the more famous institution — but to create something new. “It’s a new Louvre with the same collection seen differently,” said its director last year in The New York Times. “With all the encyclopedic museums, you have a tectonic way of looking at art. We insist on what’s common and similar instead of what’s different.”

Ideally the decentralization would be rooted in a community’s needs and ambitions. This type of responsive planning would augment what we already know about the effects of museums on communities. An Australian study (PDF) published in 2003 found that the public perceived museums as making important contributions to communities by building social networks, attracting tourism and contributing to social awareness about the world — all qualities vital to healthy 21st century societies.

Bigger isn't always better

Some museums are trying to remedy the overcrowding issue by building larger buildings. But museums are not factories; we cannot keep making them bigger without losing something.

Recently, The New York Times’ architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, disparaged the Frick Museum’s planned expansion, calling it “the latest front in a larger battle to prevent nonprofit outposts of civilization from falling prey to the bigger-is-better paradigm.”

That is true. We need to fight the idea that museums must keep growing to stay relevant or survive. Museums in D.C., New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles — and say, Kansas City, Missouri, and New Haven, Connecticut — should be able to better share centrally located cultural resources with their far-flung neighborhoods and, in some cases, with the rest of the country. What if, for instance, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which recently announced plans for a vast redesign that would allow more of its collection to be displayed, instead opened an outpost in East L.A.? Los Angeles is a decentralized city and its institutions should reflect its geographic and cultural realities. Maybe museums should fashion themselves after public libraries rather than sports stadiums.

In an era when the wealth gap is growing, museums increasingly reflect that same asymmetry. We must rethink museums so that all can share in their cultural riches, not just an elite few. The rise in attendance and the problems of overcrowding at many museums is a sign that the public is hungry for art. We’re faced with the challenge of how we’re going to respond without sacrificing the qualities that make museums uniquely suited to ignite the public’s imagination and consider the world through a constantly changing lens.

Hrag Vartanian is the editor-in-chief and a co-founder of the arts blog Hyperallergic

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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