The Return of Curiosity
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The Return of Curiosity

What Museums are Good For in the 21st Century

Nicholas Thomas

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eBook - ePub

The Return of Curiosity

What Museums are Good For in the 21st Century

Nicholas Thomas

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The Spy Museum, the Vacuum Cleaner Museum, the National Mustard Museum—not to mention the Art Institute, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Getty Center: museums have never been more robust, curating just about everything there is and assuming a new prominence in public life. The Return of Curiosity explores museums in the modern age, offering a fresh perspective on some of our most important cultural institutions and the vital function they serve as stewards of human and natural history.
Reflecting on art galleries, science and history institutions, and collections all around the world, Nicholas Thomas argues that, in times marked by incredible insecurity and turbulence, museums help us sustain and enrich society. Moreover, they stimulate us to think in new ways about our world, compelling our curiosity and showing us the importance of understanding one another. Thomas looks at museums not simply as storehouses of old things but as the products of meaningful relationships between curators, the public, history, and culture. These relationships, he shows, don't always go smoothly, but they do always offer new insights into the many ways we value—and try to preserve—the world we live in.
The result is a refreshing and hopeful look at museums as a cultural force, one that, by gathering together paintings, tropical birds, antiques, or even our own bodies, offers an illuminating reflection of who we are.

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Reaktion Books
Art General



Museums make grand claims: to represent the natural world, to narrate civilization, to survey the arts. Even on a more local scale, there may be much at stake in a promise to tell the story of a district or a town. So it is not surprising that, for as long as they have been around, museums have been controversial and have had both advocates and detractors. Over the last decades of the twentieth century, the detractors were most vocal. It was a period marked by mounting criticism of museums by commentators and scholars from many disciplines, as well as by a succession of often damaging public controversies. Museums were lambasted variously as temples of elite culture, warehouses of colonial loot and hegemonic institutions – instruments of the state created to inculcate ideologies and hierarchies. This was part and parcel of the late twentieth-century sea change in the humanities, marked by political and philosophical challenges to traditional methods, disciplines and the cultural canon. But there were also broader shifts that eroded the status of the museum: in the field of art, for example, the vital new practices from the 1970s onwards had been site-specific, on the body, performative and public. If art museums have since found ways of representing and canonizing the corporeal and ephemeral, it seemed for a time that these practices neither needed nor wanted the traditional institutions.1 And as digital and online media emerged in the 1990s, museums appeared just too static, just too physical, to be vital presences within the emerging environment.
Many people had, in any case, long thought of museums as places for dead things. In the 1960s, the Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno referred to the ‘unpleasant overtones’ of the German adjective museal (museum-like) that referred to objects ‘in the process of dying’. Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’ film essay Les Statues meurent aussi (1953), about African works in Western museums, had already rendered the proposition anti-colonial.2 From an opposed political position, Margaret Thatcher said much the same thing in the 1980s, by which time museums were thought to be dying themselves.3 Books with titles such as On the Museum’s Ruins appeared.4 When the historian and theorist Gyan Prakash wrote in 1996 that ‘A sense prevails today that museums have become history – finished, exhausted, lifeless,’ this was surely correct as an evocation of the commentary of the period.5 The museum might be where you took your child to see a dinosaur, but at worst it seemed a dinosaur itself, a bulky and cumbersome creature, devoid of vitality, if not actually extinct. And indeed, in the 1980s, if museums of natural history and anthropology were often dusty, art museums tended to be staid; what they had in common was that they were uninviting.
Yet, in hindsight, it is hard to think of another context in which scholars and cultural critics have been so badly wrong-footed. The last twenty to thirty years have not witnessed the obsolescence, the redundancy or the decline of the museum. To the contrary, the period has been remarkable for renewal, and the process was already well and truly under way when Prakash diagnosed exhaustion. It is unhelpful to argue that there was any single moment or turning point when museums came to be seen, or seen again, as vital and fertile places – the history has been too uneven to be narrated in these terms. Yet among landmark events must be counted the inauguration of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1977. The combination of the building’s radicalism and the simplicity of its architectural concept – its instantly famous revelation of pipework, of services and infrastructure – exemplified the claim of democratization. The pitch for a new audience was moreover facilitated by the openness of the Place Beaubourg, the museum’s situation in the midst of a cafĂ© quartier. An eighteen-year-old Australian in Paris for the first time, I happened to visit the Pompidou within a year of its opening, in the spring of 1978. Some combination of Henri Michaux’s esoteric inscriptions (one of the centre’s first temporary shows), a light-headed mood the morning after a long party, my impressionable nature at the time, made the place seem not just cool, but a point of entry into a new world. I was certainly unsophisticated, but I suspect far from alone among young people at that time, who found the Pompidou far more enticing than the aloof facades we associated with the standard art gallery. The ‘new museum’ was an architectural event, an architectural movement, to which museology itself would in fits and starts play catch-up.6
Over the period since, governments, foundations and sponsors of all kinds have spent an unprecedented amount of time, money and energy on museums. The closing decades of the nineteenth century and those of the early twentieth saw the establishment of many great city, university and state collections in Europe, North America and elsewhere, but the proliferation of new, extended, renovated and rehoused institutions over the last twenty or so years has amounted to something else again. The sheer number of art galleries, science, history, archaeology and world cultures museums has increased dramatically, as has that of local heritage, single-artist, special interest and other often quirky smaller museums.7 So, moreover, has the scale of activity – blockbusters, biennales and busy events programmes are business as usual, and even smaller institutions mount changing displays, offer concerts and talks in galleries, run programmes for schools and friends’ evenings, make collections accessible online and try to build constituencies through social media. The phenomenon of museum growth has been energized from the bottom up as well as from the top down.8
Among instances of this wave of development that might be cited: Canada, New Zealand and Australia are some of the countries in which new museums of the nation have been created, opening in 1989, 1998 and 2001 respectively. Each of these societies had been (as they still are) engaged in a protracted and painful reassessment of dealings between settlers and indigenous peoples, and the new museums’ many tasks included the reimagining of national histories.9 All have had moments of controversy but proved considerably more popular than forecast. In Paris, new art museums with specific remits such as the MusĂ©e d’Orsay (primarily nineteenth-century French art) and the MusĂ©e du quai Branly (world art) have been successfully established in Paris, bringing the number of museums in the city to around 150. Seven hundred journalists attended the press preview of the reopening in 2013, following a decade of reconstruction, of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.10 During his visit in March 2014, Barack Obama was photographed contemplating Rembrandt’s Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul of 1661, as if carefully advertising the precious moment of reflection that the art museum offers those leading the most demanding of possible lives. In Berlin, a series of relocations and renovations have reconstituted the Museumsinsel in the Spree; one of Europe’s largest current museum development projects involves the creation of the Humboldt-Forum, a world cultures institution, in the reconstructed palace, the Stadtschloss, on an adjacent site.11 The foundation of a ‘museum island’ on the Berlin model has become an aspiration of city leaders, even where they do not have a literal island for the purpose. In London, the Tate evolved from a single-site institution to a consortium in which Tate Modern looms largest. So vital has this vibrant institution become to the cultural life of the capital that it is hard to believe that the Herzog & de Meuron conversion of the Bankside power station opened to the public just fifteen years ago. It is now one of the three most visited tourist attractions in the country and has recently undergone substantial expansion.
In the nineteenth century, the business of museum-making was largely the province of the West and its settler colonies, though the establishment of national art and natural history museums from 1818 onwards in (what were at the time) the prosperous creole nations of Argentina, Brazil and Chile should not be overlooked. The Indian Museum in Kolkata recently celebrated its bicentenary; institutions were established in Egypt from 1835 on, and in Japan in the 1870s. Today the geographic distribution of projects of museum-making is very uneven, but there are hotspots scattered around the globe. In the Emirates, collaborations with the Louvre and the British Museum promise the creation of museums of art and civilization on the grandest scale. These partnerships have proved lucrative for the European partners: Abu Dhabi paid U.S.$520 million merely for the association with the Louvre brand, while fees for curatorial advice and loans bring the overall value of the deal to around a billion euros. The British Museum’s collaboration with the Zayed National Museum is more limited in scope, but is believed nevertheless to be worth some U.S.$10 million a year.12 The conditions of employment of the primarily South Asian labour force have made these projects controversial; they have also attracted the scrutiny of the Lebanese artist Walid Raad, whose playful but serious works around the theme include evocations of strangely vacant, hyper-monumental spaces and prints of superimposed artefacts (see frontispiece), such that their qualities are confused and their captions illegible.13
A recent five-year plan by the Chinese government sought to bring the number of museums in the country to 3,500, a target said to have been achieved several years ahead of schedule; a further 451 museums were opened in 2012.14 As astonishing as the capital commitment is the implication that a vastly expanded cohort of curators, conservators, museum educators and administrators have been trained, in turn implying an efflorescence of museum studies programmes in the country’s universities – though it is also reported that many of the new institutions have struggled both to recruit staff and to assemble collections. But if there is something unrealistic about the pace of this museum-making campaign, it is fully consistent with the Chinese state’s longstanding effort to present itself as the inheritor of a four-thousand-year-old civilization and its engagement with UNESCO’s World Heritage project. China has some 45 designated sites, more than any country other than Italy.
While hybrid war memorials and museums have existed for many years, a new form of memorial museum, most influentially conceived by Daniel Libeskind, commemorates and interprets historic atrocities, the approach to the Holocaust being adapted to deal with other histories of genocide, slavery, repression and political violence. While museums have represented history in various ways for as long as they have existed, they have increasingly become places in which difficult histories are revealed and reassessed – they are, or are in part, ‘sites of conscience’.15 The tasks that museums are asked to perform have become larger and more consequential as well as merely more diverse.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi: the architect’s visualization.
In and around major institutions in many countries, ambitious extensions and renovations, often involving new civic spaces, have almost become the norm. Regional and local museums are similarly being refurbished on relatively smaller but still significant scales. Given widespread antipathy toward most kinds of major public investment, it is surprising that so few of these developments have been dismissed as white elephants. Few indeed have failed to substantially increase visitor numbers. The British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have in recent years received 6.7 and 6.8 million visitors per annum, while the Louvre brings in more than 10 million, of whom about two-thirds are international tourists.16 Even a university collection such as that of the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, which was once quiet and quaint, has been transformed into a vigorous public museum with hundreds of thousands of visitors annually and busy outreach and education programmes.
New museums, grand developments and more visitors are not aspects of a single trend, but of related trends, manifested differently and unevenly in different countries and in different museum environments. Nor does success, however judged, necessarily indicate that all the varied critiques of museums were simply ‘wrong’ or unjustified. To be sure, some claims were overstated, even absurd. Douglas Crimp proposed in 1980 that alongside the asylum, clinic and prison, the museum was an ‘institution of confinement’ awaiting Foucault-inspired analysis. Whether the public, the curators or the artworks themselves were considered its unhappy inmates remained unspecified.17
Yet, among other provocations, Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel’s L’Amour de l’art – an influential earlier account of the propensity of art museums to reinforce the confidence and status of the privileged while conversely disempowering others – was arguably valid at the time the surveys upon which it was based were undertaken, in the early to mid-1960s, and for a good many years afterwards.18 If its thesis is less obviously so today, that is precisely because such arguments motivated change. Many governments have pressed museums to be more inclusive, and gone as far as making some funding dependent on ‘widening participation’, in UK government jargon – that is, increasing engagement on the part of less affluent social groups. At a more individual level, in many museums the person who leads education or public programmes probably read Bourdieu and Darbel while undertaking a museum studies degree, or at any rate is familiar with the issues of exclusion that the book raised. In England, by 2012–13 public participation in the cultural sector passed a symbolic mark in the sense that over half of all adults visited a museum or gallery during the year. Even the figure for lower socio-economic groups increased to just under 40 per cent.19 These, like most statistics, are no more than uncontextualized indicators. (They also reflect the fact that, since 2000, free general admission has become the norm for public institutions in the United Kingdom; this is also the case in Australia and New Zealand, but is relatively uncommon otherwise.) However, the numbers do suggest that the exclusion identified and censured in L’Amour de l’art has been partially ameliorated. While – in societies seemingly marked not merely by persistent, but growing, inequality – there can be no complacency about the challenges of increasing access, we have nevertheless witnessed a sea change.
In a different political domain, contention around the question of repatriation has in no sense diminished. The issues tend to be misconstrued in the media; it is assumed that people in any and every former colony want historic objects brought back, whereas interests in expatriate artefacts are in fact very heterogeneous. Antiquities and artefacts are not invariably or necessarily perceived as cultural property or heritage. Those with fundamentalist Christian or Islamic commitments, for example, often disown images associated with earlier traditions or animist ancestors. Others who seek fervently to participate more fully in modernity and the world of consumption may just be indifferent, while those who do care may be sceptical regarding the commitment and the capacity of weak postcolonial states to look after great and fragile ancestral work, or positively supportive of their arts’ presence in prestigious metropolitan museums. A discourse of the ‘object as ambassador’ has emerged – an argument of some indigenous artists and leaders, notably from the Pacific, that artworks help champion their cultures and causes and may be appropriately and proudly displayed in the Louvre, the Metropolitan or the museums belonging to prestigious universities.20 On the other hand, wherever the issue arises, communities tend to agree that human remains should be repatriated. Notwithstanding the opposition of biological anthropologists, there is increasing preparedness on the part of governments and museums to do so. At the same time, the traffic in looted antiquities – which has escalated in recent years with conflict in Iraq and Syria – has come under sustained scrutiny. Leading museums, ranging from the Getty to the National Gallery of Australia, have been caught out disregarding international protocols, or otherwise woefully failing to exercise due diligence, in establishing that important classical and Asian works were legitimately available to them.21
From the 1980s onwards, heritage and museum studies were increasingly widely taught and a scholarly literature burgeoned, which embraced on the one hand technical guidance in fields such as museum education, cataloguing and conservation, and on the other critical theory focused on issues of representation and politics. Museums were taken to be suffering an ongoing crisis of legitimacy, and their claims to represent cultures and histories were considered questionable. The engagements with cultural critique and the politics of difference were, needless to say, part of the zeitgeist, but ironically the oppositional stance was more or less officially embraced: the two must-read anthologies, Exhibiting Cultures (1991) and Museums and Communities (1992), were published by the Smithsonian ‘in cooperation with’ the American Association of Museums, the main u.s. organization representing the sector, and with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation. ‘The inherent contestability of museum exhibitions is bound to open the choices made in those exhibitions to heated debate,’ the first of these collections announced. ‘Groups attempti...

Table des matiĂšres

  1. Front Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright
  14. INDEX
Normes de citation pour The Return of Curiosity

APA 6 Citation

Thomas, N. (2016). The Return of Curiosity ([edition unavailable]). Reaktion Books. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)

Chicago Citation

Thomas, Nicholas. (2016) 2016. The Return of Curiosity. [Edition unavailable]. Reaktion Books.

Harvard Citation

Thomas, N. (2016) The Return of Curiosity. [edition unavailable]. Reaktion Books. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Thomas, Nicholas. The Return of Curiosity. [edition unavailable]. Reaktion Books, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.