Hour 1: Museum-ish

Museums are a well-worn fixture of modern life. Consider:

There are approximately 850 million visits each year to American museums, more than the attendance for all major league sporting events and theme parks combined (483 million in 2011).

American Alliance of Museums.

Not surprisingly, museums appear in popular culture all the time.



James Bond and Q in Skyfall.


“Oh no, Professor Langdon, are we going to be able to decipher the hidden code before its too late?” -Real dialogue from The da Vinci Code, probably.


But much of the pop culture engagement with contemporary art museums is satirical. Watch these:

This satire reflects a prevailing attitude about contemporary art museums in particular, that they are alienating and the art inside them is for rich stuck up people.  People who “get” the art aren’t like the rest of us. In fact, they probably look down on us when they see us struggling to understand these dirty ass Q-tips. This is an image that, for a long time, contemporary art institutions didn’t do much to combat. Heck, some galleries out there don’t even have hours. They are only open when their wealthy owners feel like showing off.

The Men in Black movie also smuggles the criticism that particular artists, like this  Warhol guy, aren’t even really artists.  Warhol just put up those soup cans because he didn’t have any better ideas. Quite a few turning points in art history look precisely like this to people who have trouble with contemporary art. It just seems like artists are getting accolades for things that don’t even seem to be art. So sad.

It is this attitude about museums and contemporary art that we need to address. But do to so, we need to get clear on what museums are.  Let’s get started with this video from TEDed:

As you can see from this quick (and Eurocentric) history lesson, museums have served many different functions over the centuries. The founding concept seems to be that it is a space to exhibit a collection of some sort.  Maybe the exhibition is a way for rich people to play show and tell. Or perhaps this collection is submitted for public study or general entertainment. Either way, with this understanding of “museum,” we can see that many different kinds of collections share the basic concept. Such as:




Botanical Gardens


Cabinets of Curiosity. Recall from the TEDed video that the cabinet of curiosities is a place where all kinds of artifacts can be found.

Carnival Sideshows


Read the above links, but only enough to get a good understanding.

All of these things are, in essence, kinds of museums. Let’s expand on the notion of the functions of museums. A thing is museum-ish when it fulfills a sufficient amount of the following functions:

-Collecting objects.

-Exhibiting objects.

-Interpreting objects.

-Creating programs for education based on these object.

-Making object available for advanced study.

Of course, there are many kinds of museums that have these things as part of their missions. Consider:

General Museums

History Museums

Natural Science/History Museums

Science and Technology Museums

Art Museums

Read up on the differences in the encyclopedia and we can finally get down to business.

Hour 2: Let’s Talk About Art Museums

The first thing that we need to talk about art museums is a concept of art. Funny enough, even though humans have been drawing and sculpting and creating since we’ve been human, art itself has only evolved as a concept recently.  It is a bit like the concept of race or homosexuality. There were dark skinned and light skinned people before there were “black” people and “white” people. There was same-sex sexual behavior before there were “homosexuals”. And there were processes of artistic creation before there was art. We often think that the concepts that we currently use to explain phenomenon are the only way certain phenomenon have ever been understood. One of the greatest lessons of history is that this is not true.

Our concept of art, and with it, art history, owes much to the Renaissance.  Watch these videos to get a sense of the Renaissance connection and the kinds of distinctions within art that we are still struggling to make.

So, the Renaissance was a good moment. And here are the changes that it introduced into people’s thinking about art:


This book was hot in the streets.

A note: I dig the above video except for the “eye of the beholder” line. That doesn’t actually make any sense and we will discuss a bit later why “eye of the beholder” perspective is actually kind of a copout when thinking about art. Nevertheless, her major point still stands. Art post-Renaissance became the kind of thing that was created by particular agents whose creations could be charted by finding their place and charting their influences. In other words, the rise of art as a concept also gave us the ability to think of art history. With these concepts in place, it is possible for the art museum as we know it to arise. Let’s add a bit to the history.

You already have a sense of how this story goes. In the 16th century, the wealthy Medici family occasionally allowed visitors to see their collections. The Pope opened a museum in the 18th century to show off the Vatican’s collection of works. Meanwhile, back in Florence, the Medici family collection ended up in the Uffizi Palace. In Vienna, the Belvedere palace would admit the public to view the Habsburg collection, which had belonged to Emperor Charles VI. Over in France, Louis XIV sometimes let people tour the Versaille Gardens. Apparently, you could see the paintings in the palace if you had “a plumed hat and a sword, which could be rented from the caretaker.” Seems legit. It is actually in this land of feathered hats that a lot of museum elements come into place.

It was the 18th century, after all, the age of Enlightenment. This European movement was kinda similar to the Renaissance in that it was an intellectual movement aimed at combatting the problematic elements of political, social and rational life. Of particular importance for us is its impact on the arts. Read this wiki section about the topic, which is not bad.

The public sphere. Enlightenment conceptions like this led French intellectuals to advocate for a permanent gallery. France happened to have a good space lying around, a former fortress that used to display the royal collection of artifacts. It was called the Louvre.

Louis XIV appointed a director to set up the gallery space and arrange to have all the paintings moved, reframed, and repaired, if necessary. The director created a commission of people who could help solve museum-related problems. This team figured that the gallery should be fireproofed, that there should be plenty of overhead lighting. Despite these strides, the gallery wasn’t opened to the public for a long time. Well, not until after that notion of The Public Sphere collided with the concept of government itself. This collision, for those keeping score, was called the French Revolution. The gallery at the Louvre was very public after that went down. In those days, a week was 10 days, and the gallery was open to the public for 3 of them.  Had more than 500 paintings up in there on its opening day in 1793.

As the power of monarchy waned in Europe, and this new upstart republic called the United States got its footing, more and more museums opened up. The 19th century was a golden age for museums, partially because European powers were looting so much cool stuff from the rest of the world. Europe invested its wealth from colonial endeavors and slavery into the arts, and housed the artifacts that it took from its colonies in exhibits. (People are kinda sore about this, if you are wondering.)

Over in the United States, museums were also stepping up, particularly art museums.  before the 1840s, most private collections had paintings. But since they were portraits of historical figures, they weren’t seen as works of art per se, but matters of historical record. In 1842, though, things changed. In Connecticut, the Wadsworth Atheneum put on an exhibit of American Painters.


The Civil War hasn’t happened yet and a lot of people are slaves, but whatevs, let’s start a museum.


By 1870, the American art scene was blowing up. The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in New York City, touting a mission that by now, sounds very familiar to us:

…for the purpose of establishing and maintaining in said city a Museum and library of art, of encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and the application of arts to manufacture and practical life, of advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects, and, to that end, of furnishing popular instruction.

The Met

The Museum of Fine Art opened in Boston.  1885 saw the opening of the Detroit Institute of Art. In 1893, the Brooklyn Museum opened. The party kept rolling. Fast forward to 2000 and you’d find 3500+ art museums in America. Fine art was everywhere in America, even if it wasn’t exactly for everyone.

But what exactly is the structure of an art museum? How are these institutions run and how are they maintained?

Let’s talk about the structure of the museum for a moment. Have a look at this organizational chart for the VMFA.

Some of this structure is the same as any organization. But look at the special museum-related bits.  Have a look at the Advancement tab under Resources and Visitor experience. Since the vast majority of museums are non-profits, they rely on donor funding as well as government funding and admissions. (This is the case mostly in America–museums in Europe are often paid for entirely by their host governments.) According to USEmbassy.gov,

The largest share of museum operating revenue (38 percent) comes from donors in the private sector. This is defined as individuals, charities and philanthropic foundations, as well as corporate sponsors. Often these funds are pegged to a particular exhibition or initiative, frequently focused on education.

Museums, then, expend a lot of resources connecting with patrons to secure donations. The bigger the better. It is not hard to see why museums in America have historically catered to wealthy people with “expensive taste.” It doesn’t happen that often, but sometimes the tastes of these big donors, some of whom become members of the Board of Trustees, will come into conflict with museum directors, who also want to look out for the preferences of the general audience.

Let’s look over at the Art and Education tab. There you will find a role that, from the perspective of the general audience, is the most influential. That’s the curator.  Of the many things that the curator does is select the artwork that will make up a special exhibition. Curators are experts in their respective art fields. They know looooooots of stuff about art and artists.  Whenever there is a show, it has been curated. The curator might pursue a certain idea or theme with an exhibition, which is used to organize the works of art that are procured and put on display.  Confused about the big idea of this exhibition? Find the curator. Ask her some questions.

Another important element of the museum is the maintenance of the art itself. These are works of art that are completely original and often very, very expensive. They have to be moved in a way that doesn’t damage them. Then they have to be protected and preserved. This in an of itself is a science. Just think of how many times some furniture movers have maybe chipped the bookcase. Now, imagine of that bookcase was valued at  $180 million.

There are also people in the museum who are very important but who are not granted significant status, like custodians and security.

Now, when you go to the museum itself, you might find docents. Docents are part of the educational department of the museum. They are a late addition to the museum landscape. They showed up in America in the early 20th century, to help museum goers interpret exhibitions. Docents are a good option when you don’t walk through the museum with your own interpretive scheme, or get a bit of help from someone who has had some training.

A note: Many these days would mistakenly take “gallery” and “art museum” to be interchangeable. I think it is best for us to draw a distinction and think of galleries as smaller, privately owned outfits (of which there are a few in Richmond), whereas museums these days are public. The modern gallery usually sells the art on its walls. It is a for-profit business. The modern museum on the other hand, are non-profit, do not sell art (unless times get hard) and sometimes charge admission. Now, it is easy to equivocate on “gallery,” because the word also refers simply to the room where the art is hanging. So, the room in the museum with the art is also called a gallery, but it’s not a gallery gallery.  To make matters worse, some places that are clearly museums are officially called galleries.  Don’t get tripped up. You got this.

There are few important ways to distinguish museums. One is whether the museum is collecting (like the VMFA) or non-collecting (like the ICA).

There is more for us to learn to museums, but let us take a break from history and ask some questions about the art that museums often hold.



A conversation with Rob Stein on Museums and Big Data.