In one of the essays collected in Making Museums Matter, Stephen E. Weil quotes Alfred H. Barr on the principal task of
These twenty-nine essays appeared in a variety of forms, many of them for small, specialized audiences within the museum community. There is a speech delivered at the International Council of Museums, one from a symposium on museum publishing, an address to the annual meeting of the American Society of Aesthetics. There are three warm-up exercises published in Museum News under the collective title To Help Think About Museums More Intensely. At least one of these short pieces may help museumgoers think more intensely as well.
The first posits a Midwestern museum founded by a retired assistant manager of a grocery store after he won a few million dollars in a magazine subscription contest. The imaginary Ferd Threstle founded the (Famous)
His explorations of these two questions in the context of modern museums make this book provocative reading for museum professionals and for a broader readership as well. In the book’s first section, The Museum in Pursuit of Excellence, Weil suggests a well-organized model for examining museums as rationally organized institutions directed toward articulable purposes. He also writes about how museums changed from institutions organized around what they have into organizations defined by what they can do. His arguments for accountability within such institutions are refreshing, even if the term has been devalued and knocked around in the current business environment.
One group of essays, The Museum as Workplace, includes a precis of several incidents in which curatorial decisions, politics, and the First Amendment intersected. Weil touches on well-known litigation involving the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and the NEA Four. While at the Hirshhorn, Weil had to convince a federal official that selling one Clyfford Still painting and buying another was a sound institutional decision, even though the second painting cost four times as much as the first. Weil explicates the need for museums to establish criteria for artistic excellence and makes a case for why and how such institutions must pursue such qualities in the works they collect.
This is not to suggest that museums should be, or should become, elitist institutions, palaces to enshrine the unique, handmade, utterly useless work of art prized only for its intrinsic value. Weil argues against the piety and reverence that accompany art for arts sake as an exclusive collecting principle, suggesting that this aestheticism has given many of us and can continue to provide experiences that we would be reluctant to part with, moments of extraordinary wonder and the most profound pleasure. Although Weil sees aesthetic experience in such a positive light, he suggests that it is an option and not an imperative, that it is simply one way, but not the only legitimate way, to approach works of visual art.
Mounting exhibitions that emphasize the social, cultural, and historical contexts in which works of art are produced is one alternative that Weil sees. Another is the involvement of artists themselves, by freeing them to create paintings that speak to an entire nation, like Delacroixs Liberty Leading the People, Goyas Third of May, or Picassos
Making Museums Matter is not likely to zoom up the bestseller lists. But it is possible that this book will find readers among those who are interested in the fascinating questions that Weil raises about the meaning and value and mission of present and future museums. The emerging museum that he imagines can use its very special competencies in dealing with objects to improve the quality of individual human lives and to enhance the well-being of human communities which may be what we owe to both the living and the dead.
– Nicole Williams