The Ever-Changing Roles of Museums


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      Since the inception of the institution, museums have mediated the story of humanity by offering society to connect to the past, present, and future. The Artworld delegates to museums the task of creating a place where society can make interpretations and meaning from the Art. While the functions of any museum – to collect, conserve, and research – have remained resolute for many years, the roles that the institutions play have varied from forums, gatekeepers, amusement, escape and education to “platforms for international dialogue and oases of beauty” (Alexander & Alexander; McClellan, 10). These ever-changing roles reflect the ever changing society in which museums inhabit. Just like pulling a tensor in Tomas Sacareno’s installation, the interconnected tensors of museums, society and politics react to one another (Latour, 10).

       Throughout history museums have been tied to authority and politics. Burren alludes to this authority when he describes the museum as a “privileged place” (189). From the Romans, the Medici family, Napoleon, to Hitler, art collections symbolized power and civilized society (Alexander & Alexander). As collections grew, democracy spread, and public access granted, the museum became a place where all could engage and share a nation’s cultural capital. Public participation was encouraged through the placement of museums, for example, the National Gallery located in the easily accessible Trafalgar Square, and museum-going became a shared cultural experience (Alexander & Alexander). It became an escape for the hardships of poverty and war, a place to transcend, to learn, and to connect to a national sense of pride.

        But what happens when the tensor connecting the museum and the nation’s political system is yanked? With the political activism of the 60s, the Civil Rights movement, and massive globalization, power and injustice become face-to-face with museums. Hans Haacke’s MoMA-Poll directly linked the museum with a political campaign with actual ballots to be cast for or against a candidate. How does the museum’s role change when the subject of the art actually is political? Do the museums actually hold the power? Regardless, museums continue to collect, preserve and research, but as society changes new challenges face museums and the messages they chose to mediate to the public. Museums are a place where cultures intersect and one can find similarities and differences with the world around them (McClellan).  They must adapt with time and remain like “a cultural coral reef, always growing and changing” (Alexander & Alexander, 38).

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

          Press, 2008.

Bruno Latour, “Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist,”

          International Journal of Communication 5 (2011), 796–810.

Daniel Buren, “Function of the Museum.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard

          Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

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).