The Mediating Functions of Museums

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When I think of mediating, I think of efforts being made to resolve disputes (as a “political mediator” might do). This can be achieved if people learn more about each other’s cultures and make a greater effort to understand why people feel and act the way they do. To what extent are museums capable of doing this?

The world’s first great national art museum? It’s been disputed.

Certainly, museums serve as important introductions to global cultures. Museums in Motion outlines many examples of this quite well. To begin with, the Renaissance was a time in which Europeans regained interest in ancient societies after having largely forgotten them during the Middle Ages (a period which was mostly museum-free). The modern concept of museums gained traction during this same period, as scholars, collectors and royal families took great interest in foreign and ancient cultures, and wound up gathering artifacts from those societies to put on display. Notable museums that were products of this movement include the Uffizi Gallery, the Habsburg collection in Vienna, and the palaces at Versailles and the Louvre (which became “the first great national art museum” when it opened to the public during the French Revolution).

Museums in Motion repeatedly promotes museums as positive outlets of cultural discovery, calling them “centers of education and public enlightenment.” The authors note that James Smithson pushed for the Smithsonian to be built “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men,” and they also remark how the beauty of art can “inspire and uplift the lower class.”

James Smithson never even visited America, yet he helped found the country’s most famous body of museums.

In turn, Professor Irvine’s piece on The Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld describes museums as “mediums with a message,” and praises the collective activities and meaningful collaborations that emerge from art. He also argues that art helps to make society more “nodal,” meaning that the different parts of its network are now better connected. The long, though incomplete, list at the end of the essay of all of the people and groups that combine to form the “Artworld” really illustrates what power art has of bringing people of all different backgrounds and professions together for a common purpose.

Lots of discussion awaits over this topic, I’m sure.

Is that power enough to make art “mediating,” however? Not everyone quoted in these articles appears to be on the same page. Museums in Motion offers a dissenting view provided by Canadian anthropologist Michael Ames: that by “museumifying” cultures, we limit our insight into them, because museums can only tell us so much (and usually only the highlights) about the topic which they are presenting. “Museums by their very nature limit their audience’s abilities to make sense of collections and place them in broader social contexts,” he writes.

This sentiment is echoed in Daniel Burren’s essay Function of the Museum, in which he suggests that museums can limit our appreciation of the fine arts by boiling down the wide variety of works out there to only the chosen few which are put on display– for reasons which are “obviously economically motivated,” moreover. He describes this as a “flattening effect,” and calls the museums that participate in this process “an enclosure in which art is born and buried.”

“Cultural Theft”

Furthermore, the readings describe instances in which museums led a lot of cultural theft, most notably during the Napoleonic era in France. So perhaps museums are not always the great cultural mediators we would like to think of them as being? And since many art museums “are aesthetic rather than educational” and  “allow the viewer to experience beauty, rather than convey information” (according to Benjamin Ives Gilman), perhaps the impression we have of them as providing limitless insight into societies around the world is somewhat overstated?

I see where Burren and Ames are coming from, don’t think that museums should really be faulted for their limitations, since of course they’re restricted by how much can physically fit in a single building. In order to satisfy these two, I think museums should clearly encourage their visitors to study the material which they have on display in greater depth once they get back home, so as to learn the story more thoroughly. Lots of museums I know of emphasize this quite well.

Paintings like “Guernica” prove what great a role art can play in historical commentary and political protest.

I would also argue that art can have more educational value than Gilman gives it credit for: the memory of historical periods such as the American Revolution, the Spanish-American War and the Iberian Invasion have been kept alive in large part thanks to famous works of art like Washington Crossing the Delaware, Picasso’s Guernica and many of Goya’s paintings, respectively. Also, I think we have learned our lesson from the thievery of the Napoleonic era and now make much more proper arrangements when transporting precious artifacts from one country to the other (no more wrenching away big obelisks from Egypt and planting them in the middle of Paris, like the one in Place de la Concorde).

Overall, we’ve learned a lot from the mediating functions of art. We’ve seen how they have introduced many visitors to new cultures and ideas, contributed to intellectual advancement and fostered important communities worldwide. We’ve also had to think about the limitations of such a concept and how they might be overcome; in general, I think that this can and has been done many times. It was nice to get a lot of great insight into these topics through these readings.