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Big Museums Need To Stop Hoarding Treasures Nobody Ever Sees


While most of us can live with an overstuffed closet for a while, at some point we come to see it as a problem. We cannot acquire new things when we have nowhere to put them. We recognize that items we are no longer using could be of use to someone else. We also know that, no matter how spacious our home may be, we can always use more free space. These rational human impulses are so ingrained that we see the inability to throw things away, commonly referred to as “hoarding,” as dangerous to our well-being and that of others.

Over the past three centuries, Western countries developed large, public institutions designed to house objects of cultural, historic, or scientific importance. Today our great museums contain some of the most beautiful and significant objects in existence. But as they continue to acquire more items they can neither afford to care for nor display to the public whom they are supposed to serve, it appears that many museums have turned into hoarders—on an epic scale.

An Immodest Manifesto

Even if the recent coup attempt was your introduction to the Byzantine mess of contemporary Turkish politics, you may already be familiar with the travails of Turkey’s most famous living writer. Orhan Pamuk (born 1952) is the first-ever Turkish recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the author of international best-sellers such as “My Name Is Red.” Pamuk was at the center of an international uproar in 2005 when he was prosecuted under a bizarre law that permits civil lawsuits against those accused of criticizing the Turkish state.

A few weeks ago, Pamuk delivered a videotaped speech to the International Conference Of Museums (ICOM) in Milan, largely based on his essay, “A Modest Manifesto for Museums.” Turkey’s Nobel Laureate is no stranger to running museums. A few years ago he founded the “Museum of Innocence” in Istanbul, which houses a collection of objects he assembled in tandem with writing a novel of the same name. Visitors to the museum receive free entry if they bring a copy of Pamuk’s book with them—which, if the reader will forgive the pun, could be described as a “novel” approach.

Pamuk’s remarks to ICOM were directed primarily at emerging economies, but he also weighed in on the concept of large, national museums, the sort we are familiar with in the West. He opined that the age of state museums such as the Louvre or the Hermitage is over, in part because they have chosen to focus on becoming tourist attractions. He believes that in order to remain relevant, museums need to become smaller, more efficient, and narrowly tailored in their focus. He argued state funding currently directed toward large, existing museums needs to be diverted to new, smaller institutions.

There are a number of problems with Pamuk’s manifesto, which at times comes off as highly impractical or self-contradictory. Yet he does manage to come close to identifying a fundamental problem with many of our major museums today. Like the home of a hoarder stuffed to the rafters with both trash and treasure, these institutions are now so massive and their practices so irrational that the public cannot perceive just how much trouble some are in.

Building the World’s Museum Behemoths

The majority of Europe’s great museums were formed from the private property of ruling dynasties, whose collections governments appropriated and put on public display. The French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath really got the ball rolling, but the rise of both republicanism and socialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, along with the wealth and political influence of the middle classes, only accelerated this process.

There were exceptions, however, as in the case of London’s National Gallery, which was formed not by taking royal property—Queen Elizabeth’s art collection is still hanging on her walls—but a combination of state purchases and private donations. This latter model, combining public and private giving, was followed here in the United States beginning in the nineteenth century, when most of our great museums were formed along broadly philanthropic lines. The wealthy were prevailed upon to make gifts to these institutions, which they did for a variety of reasons, such as social cachet, civic pride, or tax write-offs. This model remains the standard for museum acquisitions, since even the best-funded institution does not have the resources to pursue acquisitions on the scale a seriously wealthy collector can.

Because of how they came to be, many of Europe’s great museums began life as institutions of already significant size. Yet long after families like the Bourbons and Romanovs had fallen from power, the institutions born from their princely collections continued to add to their already enormous accumulations of objects. Sometimes these items were acquired through sponsoring expeditions or purchases from dealers and auction houses, but they also occurred through the passage of laws designed to benefit national museums at the expense of private ownership.

The German Parliament, for example, recently passed the most restrictive cultural export laws in Europe, which will potentially reap significant rewards for the country’s largest museums. Among other provisions, legislation currently awaiting the signature of the German president requires that to leave the country any object more than 50 years old and sold for over 150,000 euros must apply for an export license. This way, German museums can have a crack at acquiring the object for themselves. Similar laws already exist in many European countries, including the United Kingdom, Italy, and Spain.

Large U.S. museums did not have the benefit of the more extreme measures used to form the major European collections. Yet despite their comparative disadvantage, from their founding American museums desperately wanted to catch up with their European counterparts: and catch up they did. Through a combination of private and public sponsorship, funded by the enormous wealth that resulted from the Industrial Revolution, American museums were able to rapidly assemble collections of art, cultural objects, and scientific specimens that equaled or surpassed anything that could be seen on the other side of the pond.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened in 1872 with a collection of about 140 objects displayed in a rented commercial space on Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. Today the Met’s collection consists of more than 2 million objects, displayed in three separate museums. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC first opened the doors to its iconic “Castle” building on the National Mall in 1855, displaying a modest collection of art, specimens, and curiosities. If one were to include all 19 museums that make up the Smithsonian today, its more than 138 million items would dwarf the combined collections of the Met, the Louvre, and the Hermitage.

For more than a century, leaders of major museums thought the size of their collections mattered more than the ability of visitors to actually see them. As a result, these institutions became behemoths, in possession of so much “stuff” they could not hope to put even a fraction of their holdings on display. Under these circumstances, museum acquisitions turned into an elite form of hoarding.

Unbeknownst to many, thousands of museum-owned objects are sitting in basements, warehouses, and storage depots around the world, most of which the public never sees. Sometimes this is because the items are too fragile to be handled or displayed. But mostly it is because there is simply nowhere else to put all of these things.

The dawn of digital media, which has allowed many museums to share more of their holdings with the public than ever before, has shed light on just how enormous some of these collections are. For example, the website of the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna features photographs of and information about nearly 11,000 objects from its collection, from Flemish altarpieces commissioned by the Habsburgs to cuneiform tablets dug up in the ruins of Babylon. Yet when considering that the museum’s Ancient Egyptian collection alone consists of more than 6,000 items, you get a sense of what a small percentage of its holdings you can see, even online.

Too Big to Fail?

While they may seem to have great permanence, simply because they are so large, today many of the world’s great museums are struggling to survive. Despite the thousands of visitors traipsing down their corridors every day just to see a fraction of their collections, in many cases the costs incurred to keep these institutions running have been increasing faster than revenues. This is occurring even as museums acquire even more objects, engage in expansion projects, and turn to staffing cuts as their primary cost-saving measure. The outright failure of these cultural institutions may seem unlikely, given their size and importance, but that’s exactly what happened to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

Although this result may be considered an extreme example, the Corcoran’s bad decisions are by no means unique in the museum world.

Founded in 1869 by banker William Corcoran, the Corcoran Gallery of Art was one of the first public art museums in the United States. Its collection eventually grew to include more than 17,000 objects. Over the past decade the Corcoran struggled to survive by trying multiple methods to stay in the game, including a failed attempt to add a monstrous new wing by starchitect Frank Gehry that would have doubled the museum in size. The Corcoran ended up paying Gehry $17 million for his work, even though he never built anything, and by 2014 the museum was forced to close. Its collection was sent to the National Gallery of Art down the road, and a nearby university acquired its building.

Although this result may be considered an extreme example, the Corcoran’s bad decisions are by no means unique in the museum world. Recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it is millions of dollars in the red, despite receiving more than 6 million paying guests annually. The Met plans to cut a total of 100 employees by the end of 2016, and has reduced the number of special exhibitions it will hold. Yet despite its financial woes and staff reductions, this year the Met has taken on a costly new lease to expand into the hideous, Brutalist former premises of the Whitney Museum of American Art, as part of an effort to make itself appear more up to date.

Similar problems have plagued the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, one of the largest scientific museums in the world. To the shock of many, the Field sold off its entire collection of 35 paintings by George Caitlin (1796-1872), arguably the greatest visual chronicler of American Indian tribes in the Old West. Meanwhile, it was borrowing millions of dollars for expansion projects, while simultaneously slashing staff levels. Last year, one of the Field’s mid-level employees admitted to embezzling more than $400,000 from the museum between 2008 and 2014 (although law enforcement believes the real amount was closer to $900,000), thanks in part to poor management oversight.

The Met and the Field are not alone in their troubles. Both the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Brooklyn Museum in New York are currently offering buyouts to their employees to try to get their expansionist budgets under control. The Uffizi in Florence receives almost 2 million visitors a year, but is so inefficiently run that the average visitor must stand in line for two hours just to get into the building; the Italian government has recently brought in a new director from Germany to try to get things under control. Major museums in Barcelona, Detroit, Lisbon, Naples, Paris, and San Francisco have all been threatened with closure in recent years, thanks at least in part to similar issues of bloating and bad management.

Less Can Be More for Museums

The problems described above are too complicated for an easy, quick fix. However, a common-sense approach de-hoarding would go a long way toward helping major museums refocus their priorities. I do not mean to suggest that curators start making keep and toss piles out of the objects in their collection, much as I would argue that most art created after World War II should be sent off for recycling. But perhaps some basic principles could be applied to the task of rationalizing these institutions.

A common-sense approach de-hoarding would go a long way toward helping major museums refocus their priorities.

First, museums need to make a concerted effort to find out what they own. We have all found ourselves in the situation where we have purchased an item only to come home and find that we already have another just like it that we have forgotten about. That objects of cultural, historic, or scientific importance continue to turn up after decades buried in museum attics and storage vaults tells us that many museums do not have a clear picture of their institutional holdings. Spending money to acquire new objects for museums that do not even know what they have in the basement is a waste of taxpayer funds and charitable endowments, and should be suspended until museums have a firm understanding of what they already own.

Second, museums must refrain from accepting donations of objects when those objects will not significantly improve their holdings in a demonstrable way, and if they will not have the space to display or study them. If I can only fit 12 jackets in my coat closet—putting aside the question of why I would need 12 jackets in the first place—I should not ask for a thirteenth jacket for my birthday, unless I intend to swap it for another. Similarly, if a museum already has 20 Picasso paintings, but only has the room to display ten of them, it is difficult to understand how that institution would be improved by accepting a donation of more, unless it intends to get rid of some other things it no longer wants.

There we hit upon a final suggestion: museums should carefully consider the dreaded “d” word—deaccession—for objects that are no longer needed or wanted. If I have not worn a tie for six months, for example, I should probably donate it to charity, or give it to someone I know can use it. For museums this can be a bit tougher, since they sometimes have legal restrictions preventing them from getting rid of the unwanted objects in their collection if those objects were part of a bequest. Nevertheless, plenty of academic, local, and regional museums would be only too glad to accept and display many objects, and the public will still benefit from them remaining in institutional hands.

Our great museums preserve objects that are important to understanding ourselves and the world we live in. The work they do to educate, preserve, and maintain these objects is commendable, and the knowledge and scholarship they foster benefit us all. But however great their scholarship, numerous their visitors, and vast their holdings, museums need to be something more than an ever-growing hoard of objects, collapsing under its own weight. To survive and thrive in the decades to come, these institutions need to recall that sometimes, less can be more.