Category Archives: Museums and Arts Institutions

Teaching the manatee to leap

Manatee_1 I am on Vancouver Island, visiting my sister.  Yesterday we went to the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.  What a pleasure.  Somehow they found a way to make the manatee leap.

The RBCM is full service museum, bugs to rugs, natural history, history, and anthropology, all at once.  The historical creations of 19th century British Columbia are particularly good, as the visitor walks through mining sites, train stations, saloons, street scenes, all wooden, scaled down and in every respect accessible.  It is an unapologetic exercise in artifice.  We are not asked to suspend disbelief.  But the past returns to us with many of its tell tale wrappings in place, and this really do help us to understand what it is we are looking at.

And when you start to examine RBCM artifice, you see how masterful it is.  This museum can "scale"  from exquisite minatures and object constellations en bas, to rooms, buildings, and landscapes above, with a precision and agility of those + and – buttons on a Google map.  The curatorial story does not scale quite so beautifully.  But it’s close.  Light and sound are wonderfully manipulated.  The dioramas are eye-popping.  The "animating ideas" are really animating. 

Mostly, what you see here an absolute devotion, intensely hard work, real intellectual and manual effort, and as sincere an investigation of the curatorial possibility as I think I have ever seen.  Having worked in a museum, I know how hard it is to summon and sustain this level of professionalism.  The museum is strewn with opportunities for bloody mindedness.  There are the gold plated incompetents, the too-sensitive-for-this-world curators, the status hungry adminstrative staff, the union louts, the work-to-rulers, the cowardly and risk adverse.  If a great sports team "always finds a way to beat you," these institutions always seem to find a way to lose.  ("And they call Alabama the Crimson Tide.")   There is no real competititon.  There is no real punishment for second best.  There is just a long slow descent into mediocrity. 

To find a museum this good  suggests an X-files episode.  What in God’s name can have happened here?  What mystery virus or extraterrestrial intervention?  But no, the signature skill and intensity of this institution is everywhere on display.  It can’t have come all at once or from afar.  It’s built right in.  This means that this museum found a way to bring in the right people, to give them the right resources, and to protect them from all the ways a museum can manatee its way through the world.  Remarkable.

What makes this really heartening is that too often museums seem like Canada in little.  Canada now endures gold plated incompetents, the too-sensitive-for-this-world, the status hungry, the union louts, the work-to-rulers, the cowardly and risk adverse.  This is a nation that specializes in passive aggression and bloody mindedness. 

Museums, that is to say, seemed to capture the spirit of the nation but not at all in the way intended.  This is the Museum as Dorian Gray portrait, showing the worst of the nation, not its best.  But here at the RBCM something remarkable is on display, and I left with new hope for the nation.

serial ownership

Roy Hoffman has a good essay today in the NYT called My Private New York City.

He describes his visit to the Rembrandts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this way.

Among them [the paintings], I also have the chance to become a thief. When the guard steps to an adjacent room, and other museumgoers drift out before a new batch wander in, I steal a heightened moment. Of the billions of people on the planet, I, alone, commune here.

The portraits are all mine.

This is serial ownership. Every Met visitor owns a Rembrandt in their turn. It’s a charming idea, a deeply proprietary feeling for things we do not own…or a feeling of ownership that lasts a moment and leaves no mark. Cats, I believe, think of the world as a matter of serial ownership. This is why they jump up on counters when you’ve told them not to. If you’re not using it, the feline argument goes, then for the moment it’s mine.

Skeptics will say that serial ownership is an illusion that serves the idea of property and its institution of theft. Romantics will say it’s a way of stealing things back.

But what’s called for is a more careful inventory and analysis of the possibilities. What, precisely, are the connections, satisfactions, meanings, definitions and functions of the things we own? How many of them can be true of the things we don’t? What satisfactions, etc, are unique to the things we own serially? (It should count for something that we can have daily access to the wonders of Rembrandt, without have to spend a penny in upkeep, conservation, insurance, security…and not a “penny” in insecurity of ownership.)

I don’t think anyone has broken this down. You would think, of course, that museums and other institutions would take an interest here. Pragmatically, it supplies the logic with which they could persuade an art collector to put their collection into the public domain. It is also the logic of museum support at the membership and the philanthropy level.

Some of the web is a commons. We own it serially. Some of the culture it cares about is a commons, too. You would think someone in this community would have “run the numbers” on this argument.

Most of the city is owned serially…even as it is owned by other parties and interests. If there is something to the Putnam’s Bowling Alone argument (Putnam, Robert 2000. Bowling Alone: The collaspe and revival of American community, Simon and Schuster), it comes from this proprietary feeling that we cultivate for things we own in this temporary way, in Hoffman’s. Putnam’s argument says that it is when this temporary sense of ownership is abandoned that cities begin to decay in earnest.

There are some really difficult ideas swirling around here. What if claims (to identity or ownership, say) no longer need to endure to hold. We could dismiss this vista as nonsense…a refusal of the felicitous conditions that have always held and must always hold. But then we now see lots of claims to identities being made on a temporary basis that once required full time committment.

In a postmodern culture, we can say at least that the ideas of ownership are being tested. In the case of the Rembrandt’s, it belongs to the philanthropist, the museum, the curator, and to Hoffman. Oh, no, he just left. Now it belongs to a rather attractive women in a rich red coat.

go here for the original essay