Objects and Space

My class on “Arts and Social Engagement” ends with a look at institutions and policy. Bricks-and-mortar and intellectual property laws seem destined to stultify conversation on the arts. But both institutions and policy structure channels of access (or not), value (or not), and innovation (or not).

On institutions, Steven Conn’s book Do Museums Still Need Objects? gives a great overview of the changing value we have ascribed to objects and space. When museums took shape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, objects ruled. The institutions were packed, pictures climbing up walls, artifacts overflowing vitrines. The object was the source of meaning and curiosity, the reason you came to the museum. Over the 20th century, however, that value shifted. First there was more attention to education in recognition that objects may not inherently relay their meanings. Museums also moved out from the larger cities to the smaller, regional ones and took on local subjects and valence. The public widened.

Then the 1960s marked a shift away from museums and objects. People questioned the authoritative voice attached to both. Conn makes the point that the battle for justice spread beyond the political realm into the cultural one. Universities, arts festivals, museums came under scrutiny for their role in perpetuating inequities and their responsibility in ameliorating them. Museums, in particular, became cultural hubs, with gift shops and cafes, where gathering together became the focus rather than looking at objects. He notes the shift to space: museums create a reason to come together physically, to form a collective sense of oneself in that gathering, to build a public forum by considering yourself in relation to others and the ideas generated by objects.

It’s a provocative arc, and yet my students picked up on the questions that remain. If we gather at the museum to have a drink instead of study an object, are we just perpetuating bourgeois consumption rather than democratic debate? If the worlds of art and commerce blend so closely, will any of the idealistic aims of art endure? In his musing on museums through a paean to love, The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk writes that “Real museums are places where Time is transformed into Space.” Have we lost Time in deference to Space?