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Daily RC Article 189

Evolving Role of Museums: From Custodians to Instruments of Social Change

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It is a well-known fact that the museum of the past was content to care for the “old fashioned satisfaction,” “aesthetic refreshment,” and “pleasure and delight” of its permanent collection or what was derided as the “salvage and warehouse business.” But I think (and others agree) that the museum of tomorrow must come to see itself not as the steward of a collection of objects but as “an instrument for social change.”

In 1997, a Brazilian museum director envisioned how “a museum without walls and without objects, a true virtual museum, is being born” to be “used in a new way, as tools for self-expression, self-recognition, and representation.” Another museum director observed, “Back then, a museum’s role was about protecting the art, but this century it is more about "visitor experience."” Museums will focus on restaurants, auditoriums, educational divisions, event spaces. The museum of the future will virtually be a museum without objects, as new non-collection spaces dwarf exhibition halls with the promise that no direct contact with the past will disturb your meal.

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The museum of the past focused on its permanent collection. The museum of the present forsakes the visited, and its own cultural importance, to focus on the visitor. From offering an unmediated window onto the real and astonishing objects of history, the contemporary museum looks to reify our own socially mediated self-reflections. This it does not learn from history but to show the superiority of our present time over past relics. The result is a museum that succeeds in its own destruction. …

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Unlike in Europe, where museums were either created out of revolutionary turmoil or acts of government, almost all American museums were founded and supported by the free will of private individuals. The treasures these benefactors bequeathed became not only public objects of secular devotion but also tokens of the idealism behind the institutions that maintained them. As manifestations of private wealth transferred to the public trust, American museums were founded, in part, to represent our civic virtues. The aesthetic education offered through their permanent collections was not just about history and connoisseurship. It was also about how hard work can become an expression of virtue by gifting objects to the public trust. But it wasn’t long into the twentieth century before some American museums began to change. …

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Consider the Brooklyn Museum. In the 1930s, a progressive director Philip Newell Youtz undertook the transformation of the Brooklyn Museum from a temple of contemplation into a school of instruction, where the arts were put in the service of progressive ends and funding would derive from the state rather than private philanthropy. He demolished the Brooklyn Museum’s exterior Grand Staircase, which once resembled the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here, we can see a progressive strain agitating for a more “socially orientated museum”.

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Another example where a museum has catered to the "visitor experience" is the Whitney museum. Designed by Renzo Piano, the modern museum as sky-box (known as “white box”),. reprocesses, and repackages its own history through a giddy, irrational space for spectacle. dropping the words “museum,” “American,” and “art” from its branding. Yet while Piano increased the Whitney’s floorplan from 85,000 to 220,000 square feet, just 50,000 of that is going to indoor galleries. The rest goes to multi-million-dollar views and a circulation system that forces the museumgoer outside onto a fire escape turned against the skyline.

The evolution of museums from guardians of objects to agents of social change is highlighted through historical transitions and contemporary trends. Traditional notions of museums as repositories of cultural artifacts are giving way to a focus on visitor experience and societal engagement. Examples from institutions like the Brooklyn Museum and the Whitney Museum illustrate shifts towards more socially oriented approaches, emphasizing interactive spaces and community involvement over static collections. As museums redefine their purpose in the modern era, they are increasingly becoming catalysts for broader societal dialogue and transformation.
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