This is a brief but vigorous defense of museums in the grand manner. Begun as the 2009 Campbell Lectures at Rice University, Museums Matter emerged as an opportunity for Cuno, president and CEO of the Getty Trust, to explore the origins and future of the modern museum: Where does the encyclopedic museum fit in today’s narrowcast culture? How do traditional museums—quiet, static, and qualitative—fit in a fast-paced culture entranced with digital bling?
Cuno begins his exploration with the founding of the British Museum in 1753, an institution born of the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment. Its collections showcased natural history curiosities—skeletons of armadillos and porcupines, an Egyptian mummy, West Indian boats, Roman antiquities, the head of a whale—with the intention of exhibiting how “all Arts and Sciences have a Connexion with each other.” Established by act of Parliament, the museum was formed for the advancement and improvement of the nation—a lofty, purposeful, and optimistic beginning.
The Enlightenment embrace of encyclopedic completeness soon crossed the Atlantic. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries in America, Charles Willson Peale organized a museum in Philadelphia that displayed natural history specimens, art, and technology. His museum aimed to show the “world in miniature,” harmoniously connecting the “assemblage of nature” in all its ordered variety. By the 1840s, the Patent Office Building (now the site of the National Portrait Gallery) was being used in part as a federal museum. In 1842, Charles Dickens wrote about visiting the building to view an exhibition of artifacts collected by an American exploratory expedition to the Pacific.
American innovation put a special stamp on the idea of the encyclopedic museum. By 1851, P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York transformed Peale’s Enlightened sanctum sanctorum into a democratic amusement park—a site displaying “industrious fleas, automatons, jugglers, ventriloquists, living statuary, tableaux, gypsies, albinos, fat boys, giants . . . rope-dancers, dioramas, panoramas.” Barnum’s museum raised the curtain on entertainment for the masses. “It was my monomania,” he trumpeted, “to make the Museum the town wonder and town talk.”
Rather than such American examples, however, Cuno prefers to focus on the legacy of empire, particularly the wide diversity of world cultures linked to the history of imperial trade and travel. In a chapter on “The Cosmopolitan Museum,” he explores how the encyclopedic museum is “akin to travel,” quoting Edward Said on why travelers must exhibit “a willingness to go into different worlds” and “suspend the claim of customary routine in order to live in new rhythms.” Just as travel can make the exotic familiar, so can the cosmopolitan museum inspire “unity imagined” among different peoples and cultures. Cuno’s own interests in Indian religious, political, and cultural influences dominate his chapter on “the imperial museum.”
Whether discussing the rule of Genghis Khan or the geopolitics of today, he argues that the ramifications of empire and cultural interdependence are inescapable. And he forcefully describes how cultural misperception fuels the dark side of the human condition, using the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan as a prime modern example. He makes the case that the continuing importance of the encyclopedic museum in preventing such acts is clear: Its cosmopolitan worldview provides diverse peoples with information that “can serve to dissipate ignorance and promote understanding of difference itself.”
Historically, encyclopedic museums have served as significant expressions of national purpose. Their continuing importance today will depend on whether their encyclopedic scope can be reimagined in more “inclusive” terms, encompassing increasingly diverse populations. One current hot topic in the American museum world is whether an encyclopedic museum devoted to “the American People” is needed to bolster the perspectives of various museums now devoted specifically to race, ethnicity, and gender. Another issue is how museums will incorporate contemporary technologies that appeal to modern visitors. Such encyclopedic role models as the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago have all launched major social media and “virtual” initiatives that aim at broadening their outreach.
For Cuno, encyclopedic museums remain vital to contemporary civilization because they offer both an antidote to cultural fragmentation and an authoritative answer to the essential question of national purpose: Who are we? His informed and impassioned reasoning is difficult to dismiss.
Amy Henderson is a museum curator and cultural historian in Washington.