In 1875, zoologist Edward Sylvester Morse argued in the pages of The Atlantic that museums should be inherently public institutions rather than private collections, dedicated to the expansion and advancement of American scientific knowledge. While a multitude of public museums moved into the public domain during the beginning of the 20th century, historians and academics were faced with a new challenge: How can we properly preserve and protect works of scientific and historical uniqueness in the shadow of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, when total destruction looms around every geopolitical corner?
This problem was articulated by noted intellectual and journalist Walter Lippman in the October 1948 issue of The Atlantic. "Except against the furious destructiveness of modern war, the vandalism of mobs, and the risks of natural catastrophes, the works which are movable will have been deposited in museums which are sanctuaries for the preservation of the relic," Lippman wrote. "But how, then, are the great masses to be given access to their cultural inheritance? A few, but only a few, can travel about the world visiting all the museums making their pilgrimages to the sanctuaries."
So how, then, can historians balance the need for openness in museums and the imperative of preservation? Lippman proposed a few options, among them a museum system replete with replicas and reproductions that communicate the history and craftsmanship of a given piece. But while replicas may overcome the accessibility problem, they get to the very heart of what makes a uniqueness of museum pieces so essential to the human experience:
Does not our concern with attribution indicate that for modern men aesthetic enjoyment is almost inseparable from knowledge, that feeling alone does not satisfy us, but needs the support of understanding--so that if I may take the liberty of paraphrasing Plotinus, our passions may be intellectual and our intellects passionate? I think it does, and that is one more reason, and perhaps the most conclusive of all, why modern museums can no longer be, as they were a generation ago, places where original works are preserved and exhibited -- why they are becoming also libraries and laboratories of research and education.
For the unique objects which any one museum can possess, however fine each of them may be, are incapable of satisfying the need to understand, the need to see not only the unique object, as such, in isolation, but to see it in the context of the whole work of the artist and of his school and of his period and of his culture. Without the context, which depends on the apparatus of knowledge, aesthetic enjoyment--because of the arbitrary and random scattering of works of art all over the world -- would be mere eclecticism, the expenditure of emotion on a series of disconnected, unrelated, and inherently meaningless objects. For only knowledge can impose order and intelligibility upon the feelings and passions, which, if they are excited capriciously can never be satisfied, and become diseased.
Read the rest of Lippman's "The Museum of the Future."
Revisit more pieces from The Atlantic's archives with the Technology Channel.
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