I know an old retired and retiring director of one of the world's great museums who likes to sum up the attitude of some of his young colleagues in the phrase, "Whatever shall we do next?" We know the latest answer. The Venus de Milo will be wrapped up, crated, and sent from the Louvre to Japan. It will make headlines and attract the crowds. Those of us who may want to pay tribute to a classic ideal of beauty that may not be fashionable but is still worth a moment of reflection will have to exchange our ticket to Paris for one to Tokyo. Or if we cannot afford this and decide to go to Rome instead, we may discover at the place where we hoped to find solace and inspiration in Michelangelo's Pieta a little notice: "Gone to the World's Fair; back soon." Whatever will they do next? Take out the windows of Chartres and send them to a show? Lend the caves of Lascaux to Egypt for the promise of one of their pyramids? It would cost a lot, but it could be done, and would it not further understanding among men or at least among transport contractors?
Satire apart (though it is sometimes difficult, as a Roman poet said, not to write satirically), what is it that makes the guardians of our artistic inheritance so subject to whims and so eager for stunts? Perhaps it is unfair to blame them too much, for they are driven into this attitude by public pressure: the pressure of success and the menace of failure. Exhibitions attract, museums repel. The museum has been denounced for so long as the morgue of dead art, the vault for mummies, that a museum director can hardly be blamed if he tries to shout it from the housetops that his own museum is alive, that it moves with the times and responds like a kaleidoscope to any shake of fashion.
But even these hectic efforts to remove the faintest smell of mustiness and to keep up with every new trick of display technique are, one suspects, of comparatively little avail. Parties of schoolchildren and sightseeing tourists will make the round of the galleries, but what of the citizens who own and support the collection? We are all guilty here. We know the museum is there, we are proud to think of its treasures, but it is precisely because we know or hope that these will always be with us that we let the days slip by—and go to exhibitions instead. For the exhibition puts the pistol at our heads; it is now or never that we can see these works assembled at so much cost from all parts of the globe, and so it has to be now. The museum may own better works, but they can wait.
Moreover, the exhibition has a social incentive that is quite out of reach of the permanent collection. For the exhibition will always stand high on the list of likely conversation topics at parties. We can turn to our dumb-looking neighbor and ask with perfect propriety, "Have you been to the exhibition of Japanese basketwork?" Even if she says no, we can tell her about it. But social conventions normally discourage us from asking our fellow citizens whether they have ever visited their own museum? Even less are we expected to describe the content of one of its galleries, where, possibly, superior basketwork has been displayed for many decades. And so the exhibition flourishes, first as a prospective topic and then as a remembered one. The museum lingers in the shadows, a place that reproaches us with its very presence and with its countless showcases which we could and should see and enjoy if only we had the leisure.
What other solution can there be, then, but to transform museums into exhibitions? To exploit the attraction and the menace of change? To invent excuses for loans and for impermanent shows? To ask, in other words, "whatever shall we do next?" because the question is raised by the public?
And yet, I think, this drift toward sensationalism must end in disaster. Physical disaster, possibly, for the transport and shuffle of frail and precious objects are obviously fraught with danger; psychological disaster certainly, for works of art should provide more than momentary stimulation. For good or ill the museum is a resting-place, the treasure-house where the heirlooms of the past which were cut adrift by the wars of princes and the greed of collectors found a haven at last. It is restful for us, too, to know that they are there, that we can seek them out and consult them whenever we feel like it. Perhaps there are not that many people who desire this reassurance. But they are the ones whose needs are genuine and should be respected. It should be possible for them to visit their favorite painting, statue, or vase for a few minutes without having to search and to learn that it was removed to the stores or sent to Timbuktu to make room for some circulating circus. Granted that a museum is, at best, an imperfect setting for a work of art, it is at least a second home and not a wandering sideshow.