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What should the role of the public art gallery be?

‘The goal of museum education, is pleasure through enlightenment…’ [1]

The questioning of the role of the public gallery is not a new phenomenon. It is something that has been argued over since its very conception, and the debate is ongoing. Indeed this was the very theme of The Irish Museum of Modern Art’s Biannual International Symposium which took place on the twelfth and thirteenth of November two thousand and eight. Museum 21: Institution Practice Idea, investigated new perspectives on the role and function of public galleries and museums in the twenty-first century by examining their key challenges, frictions and possibilities of development.[2] The overarching theme of the symposium traced the historic function of the museum and questioned how best it can maintain its relevance and legitimacy in the contemporary world.[3]

In this essay, ‘museum’ and ‘gallery’ are interchangeable words to describe any building used to exhibit objects of historic or artistic interest. Museums, in this sense, are a relatively recent phenomenon, going back no more than a couple of hundred years, to the latter part of the eighteenth century.[4] During this period until the mid twentieth century, they were designed to resemble older ceremonial monuments such as palaces and temples which signified their associations with secular, and not religious beliefs.[5] In the Enlightenment period, the separation of Church and State resulted in secular ‘truth’ gaining an authority, while religion kept its authority for voluntary believers.[6] Secular truth meant a rational, verifiable and objective knowledge and thus, Art Museums, not only because of the scientific and humanistic disciplines practiced in them, such as conservation, art history, archaeology etc., were seen as preservers of the community’s official cultural memory.[7] Consequently, it can be argued that museums should be placed at the centre of the modern relations between government and culture. As a powerful social metaphor and as an instrument of historical representation, museums are crucial barometers of social changes.[8]

This presence of power in society must to be examined closely, according to the French philosopher, Michel Foucault insofar as he understood social power to be fundamentally freedom-restricting and manipulative.[9] His research into the practice of reforming prisoners by trying to reshape their mentalities was comparable, he believed, to many social institutions, albeit well-intentioned ones, such as educational systems, who tried to transform society.[10] Foucault focused on the asylum and prison as institutional articulations of power and knowledge relations. Donald Crisp, cited in Tony Bennett’s book, ‘The Birth of the Museum,’ suggests that another institution of confinement may be ripe for analysis in Foucault’s terms, and that is, the museum.[11] The Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace in eighteen fifty-one, reversed the panoptical (all-seeing) principal of authority by fixing the eyes of the multitude upon the assemblage of glamorous commodities. The ‘Panopticon’ was designed so that everyone could be seen; Crystal Palace was designed so that everyone could see.[12] Bennett himself, draws a parallel between the ‘panoptical’ view of powerful institution’s efforts to effect a disciplinary society, with the museum’s efforts in targeting the populace body as an object for reform through a variety of routines and technologies requiring a shift in the norms of bodily compartments.[13]

For Matthew Arnold, poet and cultural critic, writing in eighteen sixty-nine, the art museum’s challenge, though contributing to a society joined as one by a common culture, was making art a means of unification rather than an engine of social and class distinction.[14] John Cotton Dana, nineteenth century librarian and museum director, contended that museums should be community based institutions. They must serve their constituents through active involvement in their everyday lives. ‘The display of objects must have quite a direct bearing on everyday life,’ he said.[15] This maxim still holds true. It is imperative to make museums inclusive to all members of society and it is essential that a sense of liberty, choice, and relevance is instilled into the contemporary museum-going public. Museums must re-evaluate their social roles and reposition themselves in relation to their audience.[16]

A contemporary of Dana’s, Benjamin Ives Gilman, Secretary of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, differed with Dana’s views on the implementation of education through the auspices of the museum. Under Gilman’s leadership, the first systematic education programme in a museum, came into being and a free-of-charge, teacher-training discipline flourished.[17] The effort to cultivate interest among the young was particularly forward planning. ‘If the children of Boston can learn to enjoy works of art as children,’ wrote the Director, Arthur Fairbanks in nineteen-sixteen, ‘a more wide and real and intelligent enjoyment of art may be expected in another generation than exists today.’[18] The educational services offered at Boston Museum of Fine Art equaled if not exceeded what is on offer today.[19]

Although Dana and Gilmore may have disagreed on the content and purpose of education, both believed that museums were democratic and democratizing institutions with a moral responsibility to educate the broad public. Encouraging visitors to look and see has long been recognized as the principal task of the mainstream art museum.[20] Studies have shown, that in the European context, at least, the most important barriers to participation and involvement in museums, are cultural rather than economic.[21] The development of exhibitions needs to take account of both what people want to know, would be interested in, and how they can come to know it and how they can learn.[22]

In the nineteen-sixties, sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu undertook an empirical study of art museum visitors and concluded that museums, by assuming knowledge and skills that could only be acquired outside the museum through upbringing and superior education, were the preserve of the privileged and thus served to reinforce class distinction.[23] Bourdieu argued that in most advanced western societies, a systematic connection between the educational systems and the institutions of high artistic and intellectual culture, works to ensure that cultural tastes, interests and abilities are selectively transmitted along class lines in ways which help to perpetuate existing class differences.[24] This study of art museum audiences may seem a little dated today, but the overall conclusion that visiting art museums is a form of cultural distinction remains relevant as seen in more recent studies conducted in Australia. Evidence collated there makes it clear that museums, and art galleries in particular, are at the heart of a powerful social dynamic that is driven by relations of class and culture.[25] Recent visitor studies suggest that if museums want to attract under-represented constituencies, they will have to be thoughtfully ‘wooed’ by special marketing promotions and served by programmes and exhibitions that cater to their specific cultural and historical backgrounds and interest.[26] The anthropologist, Margaret Mead, believed that museums should invest in shops, restaurants and other amenities in an effort to ‘welcome those people unaccustomed to the way of seeing and being of museums.’[27] Museums have invested, almost to the point that these other attractions vie with art for the visitor’s attention. At the Louvre, for example, the confluence of commerce and art is seen as both a cause for concern and a post-modern delight.[28]

The idea of the museum has to, therefore, be ‘reborn’ and some of its characteristics and challenges are clear. An understanding that communication is the basis on which culture is both maintained and transformed, demands a new approach to museum pedagogy.[29] Schools and Colleges Programmes have become an integral part of museums globally. The Irish Museum of Modern Art which opened in nineteen ninety-one, has a major education initiative inherent in its ethos. It has developed a number of programmes and projects intended to address the needs of specific groups, such as schools and colleges. During the academic year, IMMA invites teachers and tutors from pre-primary, primary, secondary and third-level schools and colleges to bring their class groups to the museum for pre-booked tours, gallery talks or to meet artists participating in the Artist’s Residency Programme. In Britain, local education authorities are developing a range of new initiatives to encourage effective co-operation between schools and museums.[30] Schools can integrate what they have learned from museum resources into many aspects of the curriculum which also contributes to preparing pupils for the opportunities and experiences of adult life. Examples given indicate how work in history and art is enhanced by access to museum resources and the possibilities of learning are improved by first hand experience.[31] Links between museums and schools are the foundation for wider contacts between museums and their communities but these liaisons between museums and the worlds of education must take new forms and use new strategies if we are to capture the interest and imagination of a new generation.

In this new generation, the abiding question remains, why is it necessary to go to a museum to see a dead stuffed animal or original painting that can be reproduced to a high quality on the computer screen? During the twentieth and twenty-first century newer forms of visual media such as television, photography and the World Wide Web, have usurped some of the functions and attractions of the museum.

Coupled to these changes, is the spread of many ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions where well known and recognizable names are advertised and promoted in an effort to increase numbers and encourage those who might not frequent museums. Here, in Ireland, this summer, for instance saw two popular and guaranteed crowd pullers, with the ‘Rembrandt’ etchings at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle, and ‘Impressionist Interiors’ at the National Gallery. Aidan Dunne, art-critic of the Irish Times, states: ‘Impressionism is always a winner with the public.’[32]

The emphasis on mega-exhibitions with their intention to draw in large numbers can also lead to conceptualizing the museum experience in terms of tourists. Tourists tend to visit only once amongst a range of sites they wish to experience. Therefore, museums should shift emphasis from the quantity of visitors to the quality of their visit, in order to attract these visitors again. [33] There is now a type of artwork where the artist allows the audience to compete and complete it. They in effect, take on the role of curator and to some extent allow the curator to be the artist.[34] The success of Britain’s Tate Gallery, for instance, which has doubled its visitor numbers in recent years, is due to its recognition that in order to gain a more thorough understanding of its audience’s expectations, it has to abandon the rather sedate norms of museum management.[35] Jessica Morgan, curator at the Tate Modern, is fascinated that few exhibitions take on any really big issues nowadays. She believes that the economic shift will affect the art world and in her opinion, it will be no bad thing to have fewer galleries and less ‘useless’ publications.[36]

Invariably therefore, the contemporary museum has to ‘be all things to all men’, providing aesthetic contemplation and entertainment, connoisseurship and consumption, private delectation and public provision.[37] The answer seems to be that this is exactly what ‘new museology’, has to do – diversify and disperse resources to capture the imagination of a public attracted by ever increasing distractions and entertainments, if it is to play a role in the education and enlightenment of those it is supposed to serve.

[1] Danielle Rice cited in Philip Wright, ‘The Quality of Visitors’ Experiences in Art Museums’ in Peter Vergo (ed.), The New Museology (London, 1989), p. 135.

[2] The Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin ( (2 Nov. 2008)

[3] Ibid., (2 Nov. 2008)

[4]Peter Vergo (ed.) The New Museology. Introduction. This would include famous museums such as the British Museum and the Louvre. In fact, the origin of the museum is often traced back to the Ptolemaic mouseion at Alexandria, which was first and foremost a study of knowledge, a place of scholars and philosophers and historians.

[5]Carol Duncan, ‘The Art Museum as Ritual,’ in Donald Preziosi (ed.), The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology (Oxford, 1998), p. 473.

[6] Ibid., p. 473. The Enlightenment period was a phase in Western philosophy and culture in which reason was the primary source and basis of authority.

[7] Ibid., p. 473.

[8] Nick Prior, ‘Having One’s Tate and eating it,’ in Andrew McClellan (ed.), Art and its Publics (Oxford, 2003), p. 53.

[9]Robert Wicks, Modern French Philosophy: From Existentialism to Postmodernism (Oxford, 2003), p. 231.

[10] Ibid., p. 232. New forms of discipline and surveillance, in an attempt to ‘govern’ the populace induced the inmate into a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assured the automatic functioning of power.

[11]Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum (London, 1995), p. 59.

[12]Ibid., p. 65.

[13] Ibid., p. 100. Bennett gives examples of not being allowed to touch exhibits, no food nor drink allowed and some restrictions on dress code.

[14] Andrew McClellan (ed.), Art and its Publics: Museum studies at the Millennium (Oxford, 2003), p. 13. Between 1867 and 1869 Arnold wrote Culture and Anarchy, a critique of the Victorian age.

[15] Ibid., p. 20. Dana’s main objective was to make the library relevant to the daily lives of its citizens and to promote the benefit of reading.

[16] Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and Interpretations of Visual Culture (Oxford, 2000), p.150.

[17] Ibid., (2 Nov. 2008)

[18] Ibid., p. 19.

[19] Ibid., p. 19.

[20] Ibid., p. 36.

[21] Tony Bennett, ‘That those who run may read’ in Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (ed.), The Educational role of the Museum (London, 1994), p. 243.

[22]Eilean Hooper-Greenhill in ‘Education, Communication and Interpretation’, The Educational role of the Museum, p. 19.

[23] Andrew McClellan, Art and its Publics, p. 32. Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel’s study was entitled, The Love of Art.

[24]Tony Bennett, ‘That those who run may read’, in The Educational role of the Museum, p. 243

[25] Ibid., p. 243. A significantly higher proportion of income earners in the 20,000 dollar bracket did not visit galleries than those at 60,000 or more; 26 percent to six percent.

[26]Andrew McClellan, Art and its publics, p. 38.

[27] Ibid., p. 32.

[28]Nick Prior, ‘Having one’s Tate and eating it’ in Andrew McClellan (ed.), Art and its Publics, p. 54. In 1993 a shopping mall was installed in the Richelieu wing, running directly into the heart of the museum.

[29] Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and Interpretations of Visual Culture, p.150.

[30] Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (ed.), Initiatives in Museum Education (Leicester, 1989), p. 4.

[31] Ibid., p. 4.

[32] Ibid., (4 Nov. 2008)

[33] Eilean Hooper-Greenhill in ‘A Curatorial Dilemma’, The Educational Role of the Museum, p. 256.

[34] Jessica Morgan, ‘What’s the big idea?’, (30 November 2008), p. 13. She talks about Carston Holler’s ‘slides’ in the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern.

[35] Eilean Hooper-Greenhill in ‘A Curatorial Dilemma’, p. 256.

[36] Jessica Morgan, ‘What’s the big idea?’, (30 November 2008), p. 13.

[37]Nick Prior, Art and its Publics, p. 63.

One Response to “What should the role of the public art gallery be?”

  1. Sonia Sikka says:

     On the educational value of school trips to art museums, see this clip:

    Elizabeth Rogers on curating non-Western art

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