You’re in a room, surrounded by pots. The walls are off-white grey, the floor a cool putty tile. These pots, or amphorae as they’re described, are old, but their meticulous preservation belies their years. You should look as good at 5,000 years old. Or is it 1,000? You amble over to the nearest display case and count five — no, wait! seven — specimens studiously exhibited. In between the matching jars sit various attractive artefacts whose utility remains obscure to the modern eye. A quick glance at a nearby placard — the same silvery-putty as the display’s base and the floor — reveals that the amphora in the upper left hand corner dates back to 420 B.C. from the Greek colony of Lucania in Southern Italy. And that small, colourful who-knows-what? It’s a carved gem from 350 B.C. Welcome to the museum, home to history, hidden wonder and society’s shifting cultural priorities.
We visit museums to absorb our material past, thereby engaging in a dialogue with humanity’s values. Stroll through the galleries at the Met, British Museum, Hermitage or Rijksmuseum and you see society’s prized possessions: we saved this, this matters to us. These ostensibly immortal relics allow us to believe that we, too, could live forever. Every pot and painting possesses a creator who, like us, once ate, drank and slept and continues to speaks their descendents. Once categorised in a display case, the trajectory toward eternity seems simple; exist, make something, die, exist through object. Yet, as the museum-goer circles in search of the galleries they want to see realises, the linear path from artefact to immortality is a tortuous maze.
Despite the museum’s unique ability to curate a vision of humanity across temporal, spatial and cultural boundaries, they’re battling to stay relevant in a spectacle-obsessed world. New York’s Museum of Modern Art highlights stunt installations to draw drama-ready crowds. The Met creates blockbuster costume exhibits to fashion an Instagram-friendly museum experience. As Jerry Saltz argued in his article on the new Whitney building for New York , modern museums must make sure their galleries and exhibitions are hospitable to social media-minded visitors in order to gain the free publicity necessary to ensure their financial viability. From advance ticketing to comically long queues, the modern museum boasts the crowds of a pre-Christmas shopping trip. On one hand, this could illustrate a broadened appreciation for connecting with history and culture. On the other hand, the hype may hide a superficial interest.
If we visit museums, in part, to increase our social capital and fulfil our duties as good citizens, then we can say that the museum’s space is as important — if not more so — than the works on display in crafting our artistic experience. As the recent debate on the introduction of a Guggenheim in Helsinki reveals, a museum has the potential to change the mental geography of a city’s inhabitant, rendering them variously more open and closed to money, politics, and power in addition to aesthetics. The same tension exists within the galleries, which dictates the flow of people through the space. Walk through the central rooms — well funded with prime real estate and culturally pertinent artefacts — and you battle for floor space. Stroll around the periphery and you commune privately with the lesser-known artists, whom the local economy and political and cultural beat has forgotten. This struggle between excitement and emptiness suffuses today’s discourse on museums; it’s the struggle between maintaining integrity and winning public attention.
Some museums may effortlessly woo crowds with their compelling and popular artefacts, but most — as Helsinki’s Guggenheim debate displays — must rely on something else to generate interest. There’s the thrill of corroborating Munch’s The Scream against the pervasive imitations. There’s the awe at seeing Michelangelo’s David in its towering, marble glory. But most museums can’t boast grand cultural touchstones and no museum packs every room full of stunning, recognizable works. In the absence of in-built awe, the museum attendee must unite their personal interests, the museum’s collection and what history has to present through whatever means are at their disposal.
Take a spectacular Bucchero drinking-cup on view at the British Museum. To a modern mind, this Etruscan bowl-like mug looks relatively ordinary, apart from its large handles and odd etchings scrawled on the smooth black surface. Nothing about the mug immediately belies its 2,600 years nor suggests the importance of its written engraving for Etruscan scholarship (the Etruscans are notoriously mysterious in part because they left behind no written record apart from what’s found on artefacts). Stop, read and contemplate: there are cultural marvels hidden in the mug’s form. The online description says the etching reads, ‘mi repesunas aviles’ or ‘I belong to Avile Repesuna’. Although it might be useful to know that Avile was a common name for the Etruscans and that Repesuna was a family name, these facts seem secondary to the object’s underlying truth: 2,600 years ago this cup was an important object for someone as alive as you and I are right now. It belonged to someone who felt it important enough to write out the name of their father/master/husband/other relation on their drinking cup. More than a purely aesthetic representation of past cultures, the British Museum’s Etruscan Bucchero drinking cup incites us to reflect on our humanity and our relationship with posterity.
Yet our sparse knowledge of the works on display prevents us from engaging in personal reflection in museum galleries. In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton argues that the ability to ask questions about our surroundings enables us to bridge spatial, temporal and physical barriers. Unfortunately, short token descriptions of amazing objects detract from the visitor’s ability to ask questions and relate a foreign object’s historical context to their contemporary web of meaning. A black handled chalice might inspire perfunctory awe, but understanding how the Etruscan’s favourite mug developed into your extra-large Cath Kidston-flower bedecked drinking vessel requires complex consideration. Perhaps increasingly entertainment packed exhibitions and emphasis on social media prevent the individual from seeing the wondrous division between their current existence and the human history of the objects on display.
The tension between knowledge, interest and relevance characterises the pressures on today’s museums, which must find new ways to engage those accustomed to spectacle while celebrating the artefacts on display. Whether we’re asked to take selfies or analyse thought-provoking exhibitions, today’s museums ask the visitor to for a new sort of participation in forming their art experience. Given this interaction between individual, space and object, the museum teaches us not only about humanity’s history, but also about our current social climate. It is the museum’s ability to display a spectrum of history that demands they participate in current viewing trends. As art’s social role shifts, the museum must react to the shifting viewpoints of its patrons.