Making Museums Matter – Stephen E. Weil

Written by:
Nicole Williams
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In one of the essays collected in Making Museums Matter, Stephen E. Weil quotes Alfred H. Barr on the principal task of New York’s Museum of Modern Art: “the conscientious, continuous, resolute distinction of quality from mediocrity.” Reading Weil’s erudite, often witty, essays about the past, present, and future of museums, it’s evident that he has spent much of his career applying the same distinction to institutions as well as to the collections they house. An attorney and museum executive, Weil was the deputy director of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum for twenty-one years. He is now the Scholar Emeritus in the Smithsonian’s Center for Education and Museum Studies.

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) Ferd Threstle Museum – the (F)FeTMu – to achieve fame. Weil neatly and wittily describes how the museum’s endowment has been thriving and the primary institutional goal, name recognition, has been pursued via outreach initiatives in both old and new media. But there’s a problem with a city council member who wants to repeal the museum’s real-estate tax exemption. The museum has never received a single municipal, state, or federal grant and Ferd Threstle’s descendant wants to withdraw the majority of the museum’s endowment to fund a new organization that assists abused children. In a few neat paragraphs, Weil sketches a funny, complex, familiar picture of the internal and external pressures brought to bear on contemporary museums. But he stops the reader cold when he asks two crucial questions: “What do you think we owe the dead? What do you think we owe the living?”

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 art’s 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 Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Goya’s Third of May, or Picasso’s Guernica. Historical contexts for collecting and institutional policy are also carefully examined in Weil’s essay on the American legal response to the thorny questions of provenance and reparation raised by cases involving art appropriated during the Holocaust.

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

Liberty Leading People

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