Just a couple months ago, I went to the newly reopened Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. I confess; I found the experience mind-numbing. Not that the collection of Picasso’s and Kandinsky’s and Pollock’s and Giacometti’s and Kahlo’s works was not remarkable. But rather, the museum was crowded and disorganized—filled with lines that meandered purposelessly from wall to wall of the galleries, and tourist groups that seemed to have found themselves boxed into exhibit rooms they neither cared to be in nor had any idea how they’d gotten there. I walked in a fog from painting to painting, rode up and down escalators that connected the floors like a great white honeycomb, and felt at once despair and relief that I had not the time to see it all.
My thoughts echoed Paul Valery’s words in the essay, “The Problem of Museums”: “Did I come for instruction, for my own beguilement, or simply as a duty and out of convention? Or is it perhaps some exercise peculiar to itself, this stroll I am taking, weirdly beset with beauties, distracted at every moment by masterpieces to the right or left compelling me to walk like a drunk man between counters?”
I don’t like museums, but I have recently become fascinated by them. I am taking a class on the history of art museums, and I never realized before that there are so many ways to think about the museum! The museum is a collection, a practice, a space, an idea, a vessel, a thought, a discipline, a site of transformation. A temple, a stage, a box, a sanctum, a theater. A sign, a symbol. A tool of empire. A means for proselytizing. As collective memory. A textual strategy. The museum is both public and private. Elitist and democratic. The museum itself is a work of art, one that is met with great suspicion if it purports to compete with the work it houses (think the Guggenheim). The museum is political, formative, constitutive. It tells us who we are, what we value, and how we see the world.
The museum, despite its particularly Western origins, is an institution that exists in multiple forms all over the world and has continued to perpetuate itself and its projects for centuries. There are few institutions as compelling, as much a part of our collective psyche and experience of history as the museum.
But I suspect that most museum-goers don’t actually like to go to museums. We just like saying that we’ve gone, that we’ve seen “the Great Masters.”
On Oct. 2, 2005, a brand new museum opened at my university with much pomp and fanfare. The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University is a $23 million museum, founded and funded by Duke businessman-alum Raymond Nasher and designed by architect Rafael Viñoly. Three days before the Nasher opened its doors to the public, Duke students were invited to a wine-and-hors d’oeuvres reception in the Great Hall of the museum (cocktail attire optional). I attended the party with over a thousand of my fellow students and was thrilled by the space, by how it felt to walk around a Matisse with a cup in hand, surrounded by artsy people and expensive stuff. The evening was a grand success: students felt ownership over the space; the party generated excitement about the museum’s exhibits; and we all got to perform erudition in a public forum. For that evening, we, slovenly college students, became the elite.
And what better place in which to be initiated into high culture than the museum? The museum signifies both who we as a collective humanity are and what we value. Where we’ve come from and where we imagine ourselves, as bodies and nations and species, to be going. The museum stores both artifacts and fancies. It is—or at least purports to be—a map of human existence as well as human imagination, imagination as reflected by the artworks themselves and by what is chosen to create and represent the imagined past.
The week the Nasher opened, my art history class toured its galleries with a member of the museum’s Education Department. We were told that the Nasher aims to “engage” every visitor, however that happens. Engagement was described as the criterion for success. But by what means, engagement? By the easiest, most recognizable display of the world and its “cultures” and “people”? By signaling what is already deeply embedded in our psyches?
We museum-goers like saying that we’ve seen “the Great Masters.” We also like to say we’ve seen the world.
The museum works on all of us from childhood. We first see the world—its Chinese vases and erotic Indian idols and Native American headdresses and tribal African masks—through the eyes of collectors and curators who freeze the Other in the distant past and give us all of African civilization in Gallery 35 between 17th-century Dutch and 18th-century Flemish painting. We are accustomed to seeing the glass-cased Hindu deities represent India in the art museum. The dancing Shiva, the pearl-blue snakes coiled around his calloused feet. The paintings of maidens, gopis, red for Kali, green for fecund, their hair black, their hands four shades of gold, tipped with mehndi. We have come to expect the peacocks. The courtesans. The rajas. The mosques that conjure the Taj Mahal.
We are accustomed to seeing our incomplete histories lined up in some semblance of order with explanatory placards.
Which is why a university museum has the capacity to shake student museum-goers out of complacency and force us to question just what the museum is doing, just what it’s for.
Which is why galleries like the ArtsIndia (located in New York and Palo Alto)—which complicates notions of a monolithic India in art by showing everything from the Sufi-inspired work of Manjit Bawa to the expressionist paintings of Anjolie Ela Menon—are doing such significant work.
Which is why it is so important that all of us go to museums, whether we enjoy going or not. And that we go with critical eyes, look for more than the Matisse, look for the way we as Indians (or we as women, or we as children, or we as anybody, name your group identity of choice) are being represented to the world. See how we look, and what’s at stake, when the museum puts us on display.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a junior and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.