On breaking up big museum collections

This morning I read a fascinating item by Hrag Vartanian, at Al Jazeera America, titled “Break up the major museums to save them.” I encourage reading the whole thing, but very very briefly, he argues that the world’s mega museums are already absurdly big, and that rather than trying to make them bigger yet it’s time to disperse their holdings a bit.

I have a number of thoughts on this, the greatest number being a product of my upcoming book Cotton’s Library, much of which is about a great collection that eventually ended up at a mega-museum, after a long struggle to prevent its dispersal. Having chronicled this struggle, I’m sympathetic to arguments against dispersal… but it’s really a lot more complicated than that.

For one thing, there’s a world of difference between the Cotton Library—even at its maximum extent—and the modern Louvre or British Museum or the Met. Arguing that one or two rooms’ worth of long-associated items should stay associated need not mean opposing the division of composite collections of millions of items.

What’s more, the story of the Cotton library actually touches on significant precedents for such division. Since the library arrived at the British Museum as a founding collection in the mid-18th century, the BM has spun off pieces of its collection twice. Its natural history collections departed by slow, slow stages to become the Natural History Museum; the Cotton library itself left the museum as part of the (sort of) more recent British Library. I certainly don’t regard the separate establishment of these institutions as losses.

Still, this isn’t entirely what Vartanian is getting at. In fact, he specifically eschews any advocacy for administrative division and instead emphasizes spreading around mega museums’ contents, not just to new buildings in the same city but much more broadly.

I largely support this suggestion, though it’s probably a bit of a tougher sell.

In a lot of ways, the separation of the British Library and even the Natural History Museum from the BM is hardly even worth commenting on, as the distance from one to the others is so small relative to their own internal scale, particularly at the BM. They’re all still in central London; you might hop on the tube, now, to get from one collection to another but I’ve been to the BM and it almost seems to merit train travel by itself.

When it comes to sharing items further afield, well, here you start to run up against reluctance. I write about in Cotton’s Library about campaigns to “repatriate” a couple of items from that collection, just to other locations within England, and the British Library’s attitude is decidedly cool. They loan the items out regularly, at present, but only for a few months at a time.

They argument they make against the kind of permanent dispersal that Vartanian suggests is what we might call the Temple of Dendur argument. Anyone who has been to the Met in New York has probably seen the astonishing ancient temple shipped all the way from Egypt, when a dam project meant its submersion if left in place. The argument for having this at the Met is that (in addition to having the resources for something like this), a major museum in New York makes the object in question accessible to a great number and diversity of people. The BM makes much the same argument for keeping the Lindisfarne Gospels and its copies of Magna Carta in London, even though these are much smaller objects that could be secured without the financial resources of a small country.

There is a valid argument for this, but… I feel like it is possible to take it way too far. If you pursue this reasoning to its maximum extent, e.g., every unique treasure in the United States should be re-housed in New York. No one is suggesting this, but it does feel like there’s a constant push in this direction. I’ve lost the link, but I recall a few years ago some or other official nitwit bemoaning the fact that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland rather than in New York which would obviously be so much more appropriate. Meanwhile, maybe I’m just reading certain sources too often, but it seems like a number of people take for granted that any place outside the largest cities is some kind of remote provincial outpost; if some people really want to live there, fine, but normal people want to pile into what’s already popular, and the solution is enabling herd behavior rather than any kind of diversified approach.

This is an issue I’ve complained about before (and probably will again, some day). For the time being, I simply remain convinced that we can do better than “put all the cool stuff in one place and then find a way for everyone to share that place,” as much with museums as with cities.

With museums, though, the situation is perhaps as much like wealth inequality as it is like urban concentration vs provincial development. As the Cotton library is not the same as the British Museum, so is the British Museum not the same as all London, or the Louvre the same as all Paris. Enabling more people to move to these cities as residents is one thing; expanding these mega museums seems like a whole other level of demented. They already have more stuff than anyone can possibly take in properly without spending days. Even if you accompany a larger collection with more space, it won’t change that. This, meanwhile, undermines the Temple of Dendur argument at least a bit: yeah, lots of people will pass through New York or London at least once, but how many will be able to make repeat, extended visits to specific museums?

These places, I should emphasize one more time, are just crazy big. The Louvre, in particular, is just insane!

Meanwhile, none of this even addresses what potentially offers a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too solution: the vast collections that spend most of the time in storage. What’s on display at the BM, or the Louvre, or the Met, is very much just the tip of an iceberg. Some of what’s in storage is certainly of specialist interest, but the stored collections of these institutions absolutely contain the makings of multiple smaller but very very good museums. One of my favorite books, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, makes this point; after writing of remarkable archaeological expeditions that recovered (or plundered) rich treasures of vanished silk road societies, the author remarks that most of the biggest resultant collection “lies, unseen by the public, in boxes in storerooms.” Storerooms at the British Museum, I might note.

Vartanian emphasizes this point, too, arguing that the mega museums should reach more visitors not by expanding their already labyrinthine buildings, but by opening or supporting satellite institutions “with their far-flung neighborhoods and, in some cases, with the rest of the country.” I heartily support this goal, and not, I should add, for my own benefit. Frankly, Cleveland has rather spectacular museums already; the Cleveland Museum of Art could just about sponsor a satellite office or two, itself, I suspect.

I have my doubts about how much traction the idea will ever get, mostly because of inertia. Museums, in particular, are innately conservative institutions. The British Library, e.g., could probably share out more items of interest without surrendering first-order treasures like the Book of Lindisfarne or Magna Carta, and the BM certainly could. I’m just skeptical about how much anyone’s ever going to make it a priority.

Surprisingly, Vartanian describes a few examples of institutions that are experimenting with this, on small or even large scales. So, maybe.

For what it’s worth, I might close by noting that while my visits to the big museums have been amazing, small museums can also be magnificent. Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum is one of the finest museums I’ve ever seen. Relative to Cleveland (which many people regard as the boonies, itself), it’s out there in the sticks, but it’s so worth visiting. The collection includes fine objects, and the smallness is very much a virtue. You can see everything in the permanent collection and any temporary exhibits, and you can really spend time on each item, without your visit ever taking on the quality of a physical endurance contest.

Build some more of these.

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