Museum as a Space of Exchange

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In Museum In Motion, the Alexanders quotes Stephen Weil to suggest that museums have become “institutions rooted in interpretations in its broadest sense, actively seeking to provoke thought and the exchange of ideas between the museum and its visitors” (10). I agree that there is always an exchange of ideas between an exhibition and its visitors, and it is always influenced by the curator of the exhibition. The viewers’ interpretation of the artworks would be unavoidably directed by the curator’s thematic design of the exhibition and the spatial arrangement of the artworks. Take the Vermeer Exhibition for example, the curator, using the synchronic method, separates the paintings into several groups with different themes, then puts them into different spaces in the exhibition halls. It in this way prevents the visitors from understanding the artworks with other methods (such as taking each painters’ works as a unit, or studying the paintings chronically), but forces the viewers to make comparisons between genre-paintings of the same theme by different artists. As the curator subtlety exerts influence on the way in which the viewers study the artworks on display, they also have the autonomy to read the narrative of a single painting on their own. Thus, the exchange of ideas happens both between the museum and the viewers as well as the curator and the viewers.

To go one step further, I also suggest that the exchange, behind the viewers’ direct interaction with the artworks, happens on a larger scale in terms of cultural transmission. The nature and the function of the museum make it one of the most efficient places for cultural exchanges, because the museum displays artworks from all over the world, and attracts visitors with different backgrounds. For example, going to the Vermeer Exhibition is for me the experience of a Chinese student studying and appreciating Dutch paintings in an American institution. The art gallery in D.C. gives me access to artworks from places that are inaccessible for me for the time being. Andrew McClellan rightfully points out that “Museums are inherently ‘cosmopolitan’ institutions.” The National Gallery of Art could borrow the artworks from Europe; it can also attract local as well as international visitors. It seems to me that the process in which the viewers appreciate the Dutch paintings is a form of cultural studies that promote some sort of cultural exchange in the global context, which in a way gives the visitors a cultural experience that is normally unrealizable in their immediate environment. I, therefore, agree with McClellan that “As globalization draws the world closer together, the art museum prepares the way for a deeper understanding of our differences and commonalities.”

Another case that may help illustrate my point regards my visit to an art gallery in China. During the winter break, I went to the Sackler Museum of Art in Peking University in Beijing, and visited an exhibition titled “Enchanted Nature – Deforestation and the Environment.” It displayed more than 70 drawings and paintings by the Latin-American artist Nicolás Herrera. The paintings were bought and brought to China by his American patron (philanthropist? collector?) Dame Jillian Sackler. Herrera’s paintings address to the environmental problems in the Amazon forest caused by the deforestation. It introduces the Caribbean modernism to China, and also promotes the Chinese viewers’ understanding of the environmental problems in the Amazon Forest. The transcultural communication is especially meaningful, because the deforestation would cause environmental problems that involve every country in the world, and the force of the global capital that caused the deforestation can only be resisted most efficiently by the joint effort of countries in the global system. What the exhibition does is to raise people’s awareness through cultural shocks that the artist aims to achieve through his artworks. The museum as an institution makes the cultural transmission possible on a global scale.


The picture was taken from:

The screenshot was taken from: (More about the exhibition can also be found here)

Andrew McClellan, The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.

Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, Second Edition. Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press, 2007.