What a Museum Should Be

In the hyper-commercialized world of today, nearly every museum that visitors enter thrusts useless but appealing merchandise into their patrons’ faces, giving them more opportunities than they could possibly want or afford to buy artsy trinkets. Museums no longer consist of an admissions desk, a bathroom and galleries; now it would feel unusual, a refreshing change of scenery, to visit a museum without a gift shop, without a café, without large spaces designed for nothing other than concerts and lavish parties.

Without a doubt, museums have limited revenue sources and face unique challenges. In order to remain relevant and worthwhile, art museums depend on sufficient funds to properly preserve and display priceless artworks, attract the best curators and art historians money can buy and install state-of-the-art security to safeguard their treasures.

As if that didn’t pose a tall enough order, art museums must do all of this while keeping admissions prices as low as possible to allow people of all socioeconomic backgrounds to experience the joy of art, an expression of the human condition to which everyone should have access. Nevertheless, the superfluous frills that are now commonplace in art museums often become a distraction and a nuisance. Similar to how some colleges become more interested in selling their product rather than offering an education of unique quality, art museums seem to fall privy to neglecting their duty to curate thoughtful exhibitions because they’re too busy trying to sell concert tickets, attract mega-donors whose names are then promised a prominent spot in the museum lobby and contrive “blockbuster” shows that are rich in notoriety but weak in substance and scholarship.

The complete ignorance of the Barnes Foundation’s board of trustees when they ignored Albert Barnes’ will and moved his art collection to Philadelphia solely to collect ever greater funds and enhance the city’s prestige had convinced me that, when city governments and corrupt but powerful charitable trusts are involved, art and its owners’ voices will surely be muffled out amid the cacophony of the rush for cash. To my pleasant surprise, however, the renovation of the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, which began in 2009 and just reopened this July, manages to avoid the temptations of focusing on income streams in lieu of displaying art in the most accessible way to viewers. Even more surprisingly, the renovations made a point of restoring the look of the museum and its surrounding gardens to its original 1926 design. This involved some investigative work for the renovation officials: they traveled back in time to take paint and material samples sealed behind contemporary walls, researched the original landscape blueprints in their archives and reexamined how they should present the art.

The result of their meticulous toil exemplifies the ideal model for an art museum, with elements that I wish more museums would incorporate into their own operations. The walls of the museum are no longer painted with dark colors; in their place stand the linen walls that originally adorned the museum when it opened in 1929. The gardens surrounding the museum match those of the original, down to the very last flower. They appear lovingly maintained and affect a peaceful atmosphere surrounding the Beaux-Arts building. Due to innovative conservation techniques that shield it from air pollutants, one of Rodin’s most famous works, The Burghers of Calais, now regains the position outside that it lost in 1955, where the museum’s founder, entrepreneur and philanthropist Jules E. Mastbaum, originally placed it. Rodin’s sculptures Adam, The Shade, Eve and The Age of Bronze have also gratefully returned to their spots outside for the same reason.

Most wonderfully of all, the museum radically changed how it presents Rodin’s genius to the world. Before, the museum’s curators simply chose to crowd as many of the more than 140 pieces in its collection as it could into the scant 5,300 square feet structure. Now, they have pared down their on-view collection to allow more breathing room and give each individual piece more appropriate space to shine. And while some pieces stand out for their sheer celebrity or size, such as a life-size 1929 copy of The Kiss, viewers aren’t “told” which works are important and which are not by virtue of a prominent, central gallery location. Since museums often tout the few masterworks they may have (a designation which they determine, not the viewers) and almost shrug off their other holdings by stashing them in stale corners, they often pressure their visitors who perhaps don’t feel like the adequate art connoisseurs they aspire to embody to “like” certain works and in the process excuse them for eschewing others. An implicit message appears to underlie the overt conspicuity some works enjoy that whispers, “This is a masterpiece; if you don’t like it and therefore don’t recognize it as such, you’re the very ignorant buffoon you claim to deprive that doesn’t understand Art!”

This subliminal prodding or judging thankfully fails to infect the Rodin Museum. The small number of carefully placed choice pieces in nondescript places within the museum’s intimate rooms liberates visitors to view each and every work without preconceived notions pushing them to give more value to one sculpture over another. It frees viewers to consider each piece objectively and embrace their original thoughts rather than merely submitting to the echoes of the “Art experts” bounce and ricochet within their skulls, sometimes with enough force to knock them senseless and give up trying to appreciate art — a reaction every museum struggles to avoid.

With this freedom I personally proceeded to seize on some works that perhaps would have been tempting to disregard in an effort to imitate the art experts I yearn to emulate. I had never heard of Rodin’s 1885 piece Danaid (The Source). The relatively small sculpture mesmerizes me in the way it depicts the musculature and bones of the subject’s body. Rodin contorts the woman’s form as to almost abstract it, yet when I look at her, she seems so real and immediate that I feel in my own torso the cascading bends and protruding bones of her own. I don’t know if Danaid is considered a seminal component of Rodin’s oeuvre, or whether the art world deems it lousy. At the Rodin Museum, I don’t feel like I have to care, either.

Go to the improved Rodin Museum and discover your own treasures, reach your own conclusions, and learn about art from the art itself, not from some anonymous curator with a Ph.D. The museum’s curators plan to reconfigure what’s on view every couple of months, making it worthwhile to visit as an enigmatic, multi-faceted friend — almost like the architectural version of a Swattie.

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