Smaller and Better Museums: A Commentary and a Suggestion

I

WITHIN a little more than half a century hundreds of art museums have been formed in America, and the few pioneer museums have steadily grown from modest beginnings to such formidable piles as the museum buildings of Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York.

The extent and often the quality of the expansion stagger the imagination and compel admiration. We are tempted to accept a quantitative ideal for the museum as we do for the factory. On the museum side, the appeal for bigger buildings and more exhibits is incessant. This cumulative and quantitative policy has found its fullest and best expression in the Metropolitan Museum, which has actually become what half a dozen American art museums are rapidly becoming, and what fifty more will become when they shall have worked up the requisite patronage.

Accordingly my discussion will concern mainly the Metropolitan Museum, and it will readily be seen that I shall be challenging not the acts or intentions of individuals past or present, but rather that almost automatic and largely undirected growth which has made the great American art museums an eloquent expression of our general tendency toward jumboism. And I shall be writing nothing of which the more enlightened museum officials themselves are unaware. Indeed I write in the hope of giving them courage to oppose those counsels of mere expansion which a heedless generosity and good will everywhere impose on our museums as on kindred educational institutions.

Why is n’t the vast growth a correspondingly great blessing? Simply because it makes the art museums difficult and fatiguing to see. Last winter I had the privilege of holding a class in the Metropolitan Museum. After the talk I took the group for twenty minutes of conference in the galleries. We entered the elevator near the classroom at Eighty-third Street. Arrived at the gallery level, we passed through many galleries of enticing Levantine rugs and potteries; then through a hundred yards of cases of Far Eastern potteries and cabinet objects; here we had a choice of two suites of period rooms, — about a hundred yards of such, — and at last we had reached our objective, at Eighty-first Street, the Altman Collection, thoroughly distracted by the various attractions of the route, or equally fatigued by the conscious effort to resist these attractions.1

I am renewing, of course, the oldest sort of complaint. For years it has been understood by an intelligent Londoner that, whereas he goes to the National Gallery for pleasure, he goes to the Victoria and Albert for some other reason — special study, curiosity. And about twenty years ago the staff of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts made a thorough and classic study of this whole matter. They found certain theoretical remedies and certain practical palliatives for the ills of an unrestricted growth. In particular they wisely reduced their public exhibition, relegating minor historical objects to study galleries, from which the public, while not excluded, was at least warned away. And they introduced a partial system of noncommunicating circuits, by which the visitor should be kept fairly on one æsthetic track. But as the Boston Museum grew in area, the excellent system of circuits largely broke down. It will always break down until some board of trustees and some architect really conscious of the problem design a series of galleries or museums in the form of a wheel, with communication only at or near the hub. And even this obvious architectural device will in turn fail as long as each of our great American museums persists in covering the fields of art which it takes five or six European museums to deal with properly.

Here we are at the nub of the matter. The Metropolitan Museum is conducting more activities than can possibly be conducted properly under one roof and under one administration. To cover the ground of ancient, mediæval, Renaissance, and modern art, the decorative or applied arts separately, the arts of the East, arms and armor, our contemporary national art — to cover these fields, Berlin provides five museums, Paris as many, and London, with the Tower as an armory, six. A smaller capital like Florence would still have five general museums. Indeed, five is usually the European number. Throughout in this calculation only large comprehensive collections are considered, all small, private, and special collections being disregarded.

II

While the distribution of the field to specialized museums is not strictly standardized in Europe, being naturally subject to historic and personal considerations, there is after all a reasonable uniformity of procedure. It is worthy of our study if only because the classification is what we are repudiating in our own practice.

1. There is generally a Museum of Fine Arts, exhibiting only older or fully approved works. The UffiziPitti and Louvre are the high examples of this class.

Often there is a chronological subdivision, into classical (Altes Museum, Berlin; British Museum) and postclassical (Kaiser Friedrich Museum; National Gallery), and sometimes there is a topical division by painting (National Gallery) and sculpture (Victoria and Albert).

What is essential in this classification, which for the art-loving public is the all-important one, is that it respects the old category of the fine arts, believes them for museum purposes to be painting and sculpture, while it keeps what we may roughly call, from its origins, Mediterranean art apart from that of the Orient.

2. Parallel with such museums of fine arts are similarly designated museums devoted to the art of the present and recent past (Luxembourg; Tate Gallery; Neues Museum, Berlin, and so forth). The function of this sort of museum is to encourage new talent by courageous and opportune purchase of works of living artists, and ultimately to pass on to museums of Class I such works as have stood the test of time.

3. There is generally a museum devoted to the decorative and applied arts. (Musée des Arts Décoratifs; Victoria and Albert; Kunstgewerbe Museum, Berlin.) These are usually study and antiquarian collections, but are also of obvious use to the presentday designer.

4. Often the national arts, especially the decorative arts, are separately exhibited. The great national museums at Munich and at Zurich are the high type.

5. Arms and armor are usually shown in an armory apart, as, most effectually, at London, Madrid, and Vienna.

6. Oriental art — better, Asiatic art — is usually assigned to its own museum, as in Paris, Berlin, and Cologne.

7. Collections of prints and drawings, which have not been reckoned in the statistics above, are quite variously treated, as independent, or attached to fine-arts museums, great libraries, and so forth.

Now the art museums of New York, Chicago, and Boston are exercising all these seven functions, and smaller but vigorously growing museums like those of Cleveland, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Detroit are following the same universal programme to the extent of their ability. Is it not the moment to inquire whether this is a wholesome and hopeful growth, or whether it tends to that form of national elephantiasis which has been designated more genially as jumboism?

III

For these vast centralized collections there is only one argument, and that a bad one. It may be maintained that for the special student it is actually an advantage to make prompt comparisons which can be carried out only under one roof — to study, for example, a drawing by Hokusai a few minutes after you have seen one by Rembrandt. There is really very little in the plea. The specialist is usually the last man to be making such comparisons, and in the rare event of a specialist who is also a discursive critic the inconveniences of making such observations in a general museum outweigh the conveniences. Such a student has a highly trained visual memory; he understands the right use of facsimiles; he has the run of print rooms and private collections where such comparisons may be made under the most easy and pleasant conditions. You are doing him no favor to bring the art of the world into unnatural and often compromising juxtaposition, while you are doing the simple art lover a great disservice.

Here there is no need of arguing a case that is generally admitted. If such limited and coherent collections as the National Gallery and the Uffizi have found it desirable to remove, each, hundreds of excellent pictures from general exhibition, in a higher degree the Metropolitan Museum and its public would gain by relegating contemporary American painting and sculpture, decorative arts, the American historical collections, and the casts, to so many separate museums. The decentralization might go farther than that, but I wish to urge only sure cases. In particular the American wing, which has a diminished, homemade look as compared with the glories of the Morgan collection, would be entirely charming if it could be moved off and given its needful isolation.

In general, the surplusage and consequent confusion of our great American art museums are a matter of daily and just comment. It is a situation that urgently calls for a remedy. If the case is clear from the point of view of the public, a reasonable decentralization is equally called for in the interest of right internal administration. To administer wisely such vast enterprises as the great museums of New York and Boston is not humanly possible. The very form of organization is defective. Every department slips away from a necessarily weak central control. An aggressive departmentalism makes anything like a sound general development impossible. The department that is energetic and lucky enough to finance itself — and there are many such — naturally attains a quasi autonomy. The department that has no such resources is neglected or thrown to the caprices of incompetent trustee committees. The museum ceases to be a real organization and becomes a congeries of competitive organizations and personalities.

Apart from such purely administrative infelicities, incompatible tasks are thrust upon the curators. The kind of man who is an ideal keeper of painting for the Louvre or the National Gallery is for that very reason an indifferent or positively poor keeper for the Luxembourg or the Tate Gallery. The former task requires the maximum of caution and conservatism; the latter task the maximum of audacity and generous chance taking. No European nation or city dreams of entrusting these incompatible functions to a single person or organization. We Americans do it everywhere, and naturally with the unhappy result of a general mediocrity in both activities.

Indeed, in order to get a true idea of what our American museums have done through their own organization, one must first think away the great gifts. There would remain a handsome residuum of credit to the staff, — the Egyptian and classical collections of New York and Boston, the armory at New York, the early American and Far Eastern collections at Boston, the Far Eastern collections in the two Philadelphia museums, — but there would also remain, especially in the field of painting, a rather lamentable situation which, perfectly well known to all insiders, it would be unkind to advertise to the outsider.

IV

Moreover, the prevalent jumboism encourages capricious and ill-advised exhibition in order to adorn unreasonably great spaces. Thus we get such archaeological and space-wasting features as the frigid Roman court at New York, in which the fine Greek exhibits are virtually lost; tedious and perplexing suites of composite period rooms, effected at Detroit and vigorously progressing at Philadelphia; everywhere the pursuit of ‘atmosphere’ at the expense of æsthetic realities. And we find elaborate organizations for direct teaching, much of it good, some of it bad; whereas if much of this teaching money were put into really fine things, they would teach silently without any beating of the pedagogical drum. And we mark everywhere, as the museums are made increasingly confusing and difficult for the public, an attempt at compensations of a Barnumistic sort — endeavors to wheedle the public into the museums instead of attracting them by the legitimate method of acquiring beautiful things and exhibiting them well.

In short, our æsthetic jumboism everywhere transfers that confidence which should be felt in the great work of art itself to all manner of marginal activities conducted more or less relevantly about works of art of the second or third order. Such are the patent evils of our museum situation, and I think no well-informed person in or out of an art museum will seriously contest these allegations.

It should in fairness be added that this unrestricted expansion on a generally mediocre scale has not arisen from the fault of any staff or board of trustees. It represents a pioneer condition, which, more or less inevitable at its time, we now have outgrown. It represents a natural but unhappy continuation of foundation propaganda when the necessity for such propaganda has passed.

When an American art museum is founded, in order to survive it must literally be all things to all men; it must appeal on the broadest and most miscellaneous basis to everybody who may give it support. Accordingly it would be unimaginative and unkind to mock at what was done in the nonage of most of our art museums. When I first saw the Pennsylvania Museum, it contained the queerest hall I have ever visited in many years of frequenting galleries. It was the hall of small personal bequests. It was filled with small show cases of almost uniform size, each containing the artistic remains of some patrician lady of Philadelphia. The cases were of singularly even contents. The major exhibit was a cashmere shawl or a Spanish mantilla. About it were set a carved ivory fan from Paris, a poor filagree box from Genoa, a bad Indian bronze or two, a few mediocre miniatures, a bit of modern Japanese porcelain, an enameled snuff box of doubtful period—in short, the contents of madam’s whatnot, and the record of her travels.

This quaint and pathetic display has vanished with the snows of yesteryear and the ladies of bygone times. Time cures all but the major ills; these require study and conscious reform. I do not so much as poke fun at the administration that accepted these bequests, while I highly approve the administration that keeps them from public gaze. These bequests were after all a symbol of the loyalty and attachment of old Philadelphia for its bantling museum, and had these gifts been refused, it might have discouraged or actually have quenched that splendid generosity in which to-day the Pennsylvania Museum rejoices.

This case is a parable for the whole situation. A grown-up museum need not and should not act like an infant museum that is having hard work to grow at all.

V

I am writing in the hope of establishing a general principle, that of decentralizing our overgrown art museums in the interest of the pleasure of the public and of a more reasonable administration of the museums themselves. Into details of policy and technical programmes I do not wish to enter. These will vary somewhat here as they do in Europe. But at least the broad lines of a programme may be suggested.

The old division into the fine and applied arts, while perhaps æsthetically and historically invalid, remains sound for practical museum purposes. The museum that is best visited and makes most strongly for general culture will be here, as it is in Europe, the museum of European (taking the term very broadly) painting and sculpture. That is the museum of the type of the Louvre before its accretions of the last generation.

The richness of European collections has dictated a further subdivision into the classical and postclassical fields, and sometimes into painting and sculpture. It is doubtful if our American art museums will ever be rich enough in really fine objects to necessitate these subdivisions.

The starting point of a reform, then, would be to isolate museums of the fine arts in the strict sense. One can imagine what a joy the museums of Boston and New York would be if they were restricted to the classical and Egyptian collections, European and American painting and sculpture, and the respective print rooms. Such a reorganization would not merely make these museums available for delight, but would also reveal unsparingly their weak spots and gaps. In short, a systematic development at the top, which is now thwarted and confused by a multiplicity of activities, would become possible and inevitable.

Next there should be a special museum to deal with contemporary art, and it should not be in any way subordinate to the museum whose scope is retrospective.

Whenever collections of Oriental art or of specialties like arms or armor become sufficiently large and important, it will be in everybody’s interest to house and administer them separately.

Finally the great category of the decorative and applied arts is best handled by organizations devoted to that subject. Even from the point of view of the public, while there are sound theoretical reasons for keeping these closely allied branches under one roof, to do so produces a confusing and overgrown museum. In every practical way, the art lover does better to take his fine and his decorative arts ‘neat’ in the museum, mixing them at his own pleasure, if he wishes, as a collector.

Naturally I am perfectly aware of the formidable financial and even legal difficulties involved in the decentralization of our great art museums. With similar difficulties we constantly cope successfully in the fields of business, education, and charity. For a material gain, such desirable reorganizations are readily undertaken. I am merely urging a similar lucidity and courage upon the corporations governing our great art museums, in the interest of that sure spiritual gain which comes whenever an ideal of quality takes hold of and controls a habit of mere expansion.

  1. By an opportune chance, a member of this month’s Contributors’ Club pointedly discusses this very difficulty. See ‘Horrors of Museum Trotting and a Remedy.’ — EDITOR