THE NEW YORK TIMES routinely devotes at least one omnibus Arts & Leisure or special section annually to museums, which is only natural considering the number of world-class archives and collections the city has. In his “Critic’s Notebook” feature for the last such special section (May 21, 2021), which reported developments in museums from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, Jason Farago addressed what emerges as the central concern of Under Discussion: The Encyclopedic Museum, a compilation of edited interviews with museum directors, curators, and other contemporary thinkers and scholars produced under the auspices of the Getty Research Institute, and edited by Donatien Grau, a French scholar and critic who is currently the curator of contemporary programs at the Musée d’Orsay. “What should a post-Covid museum be?” Farago asked. “[H]ow can the post-Covid museum be something […] other than a diminished version of what came before?”

Grau’s compilation of interviews essentially asks us not simply to rebuild, reorganize, or reconfigure the encyclopedic museum, but to conceptually reimagine such museums and their place in a globalized civilization divided into contentious nation-states. We have, Grau asserts, reached “a tipping point where the debate on museums […] is now deeply embedded in contemporary world politics and philosophy, in the issue of how we are to live together, and, eventually, in who we are.” More important than the trends and fashions swirling around encyclopedic museums — their scope and organization, their audiences and constituencies, their ancillary activities, their “narratives” (which are always multiple), and their politics — is the issue of globalization itself, which — setting to one side the legacies of colonialism and imperialism that provided its preconditions — until this century had affected the contemporary art world far more than the world of national galleries and encyclopedic (or so-called “universal”) museums.

Grau summarizes his “mission” as follows: “[T]o question and assess the meaning of the encyclopedic museum,” including its very “concept, its realities,” which to some extent accounts for the book’s scope. In addition to museum directors and curators, Grau reaches out to artists, architects, international scholars, statespersons, historians, and philosophers (including one very well-known ethicist).

Grau’s interview (or questionnaire) style evolves as the series unfolds. Some of the interviews go back as far as 2014; some were sustained or supplemented over a period of several years — up to as recently as 2019. (Presumably the undated afterword by Mary E. Miller of the Getty Research Institute was written sometime in 2020, although it makes no reference to the pandemic that has gripped all of us.) In several of them, Grau tends to dive directly — though not always productively — into the subject on a definitional level. In others, he is more topical, taking up one timely issue or single aspect of the discussion and starting from there. His strategy in taking this variable, seemingly inconsistent approach may simply be that he has a lot of ground to cover, although in a sense the issues had already been laid out for him — by the Getty Research Institute’s former director, Thomas W. Gaehtgens, who initiated the project sometime in 2014; and probably also to some extent by James Cuno, the president and CEO of the Getty Trust, whose passion for museums, the encyclopedic museum in particular, is a matter of public record. Grau’s first question in his interview with Cuno — which leads off the third section of the book, on the “Methodologies and Potentials of the Encyclopedic Museum” — more or less asks him to summarize the case he makes in his own 2012 book, Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum; and Cuno does not flinch from addressing the contemporary context (as of 2019, when he was interviewed).

The year we all spent distanced from museums probably gave many of us additional perspective on such sites and our relationship to them, both as museum-goers and as members of a society in which such institutions serve as repositories for our cultural legacies and artistic canons. If it wasn’t entirely clear as we crossed over into this millennium — and into what was already a very globalized civilization — it has certainly become clearer, in the years since September 2011 that we may be looking down a very dark tunnel toward its retreat into darkness. The global pandemic — alongside the political turmoil triggered by a spate of police murders of black citizens, the 2020 election, and the recently (and possibly temporarily) abated slide toward fascism — has only served to reify both the larger purpose of such institutions and their fragility.

Museums have long been much more than the repositories of their treasures. They are, in Grau’s vaguely delineated but not inaccurate formulation, cultural “devices,” offering us the near and distant “mirrors” of their cultural/historical narratives. They function, not unlike parks, as places of retreat and respite, a moment’s escape or quiet distraction — or alternatively, and only slightly more adventurously, as places for speculative inquiry and inspiration. They are sites of discovery and ongoing education, providing an endless stream of teachable objects and moments combined, recombined, and permutated. They are civic and social spaces, where disparate communities and multiple generations mingle civilly, even congenially. We visit museums for concerts and recitals, film screenings, performances, or even a bit of shopping. We dine (even dance) at museums, meet friends for drinks; attend lectures, symposia on topics that have nothing to do with art; meet political candidates or listen to writers read from their work. Occupying this social crossroads, museums are uniquely situated to offer insightful perspectives on societies and their histories.

But there is an additional issue bearing on both globalized societies and the encyclopedic museum’s institutional role within them, an issue that could be characterized at least in part as “foundational”; and it haunted the Getty Museum in particular for more than a decade before the turn of the 21st century. This issue goes to the core of the historical and economic forces — whether colonialist or capitalist — that have shaped such institutions from their inception: restitution. The Getty had by this time already repatriated more than 40 sculptures or artifacts to Italy and Greece, including the nearly eight-foot-tall limestone-marble Cult Statue of a Goddess (Aphrodite), acquired in 1988 only to be officially surrendered in 2007 and returned to Italian custody in 2010. In fact, the Getty’s return of antiquities to their countries of origin triggered a wave of similar repatriations at several major museums, including the Met (which surrendered, among other objects, the “Euphronios” krater, a beloved sixth-century Greek vessel acquired only in 1972). In late 2017, Grau himself was asked to curate a contemporary show to help inaugurate the spring 2018 re-installation of the Getty Museum’s collection of classical antiquities at the Getty Villa in Malibu. Not surprisingly, another controversial object was a centerpiece of that installation: the so-called Victorious Youth attributed to Lysippus, a roughly 2,200-year-old bronze figure acquired in 1977, the custody of which is still being litigated.

Grau acknowledges the issue in his preface and brings in for comment, among others, Bénédicte Savoy, an art and cultural historian and co-author of the celebrated Report on the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics presented to the French government in 2018, which proposed repatriation and/or exchange of African objects in French museums. Interestingly, in her interview with Grau, Savoy distances herself from both the mechanics of restitution and the implicit politics of the “encyclopedic” designation in favor of an institutional transparency regarding museum collecting histories and practices. “The museum needs to accept that it should show its wrinkles […] to bring itself up to date without rubbing itself out.” It is surprising how many of the encyclopedic museum’s fiercest critics acknowledge its utility, even practicality. In Savoy’s view, the difference is as much generational as political.

The young generations have understood that the museum is not a neutral place and that they can no longer be told exactly what to think about each work without this being challenged by them. […] The museums are in the process of losing their monopoly as the conferrers of meaning on the objects.

Curiously, there is far more enthusiasm for the notion of an “encyclopedic” institution expressed from a non-Western perspective. And this enthusiasm goes beyond an embrace of the putative “universality” of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which the director emeritus of the Musée du Louvre, Henri Loyrette, has defended. Hamady Bocoum, director of the Musée des Civilisations Noires in Dakar, characterizes his collection as “polysemic,” proposing what might be the simplest and most radical response to the conditions of globalization common to all such institutions. Referencing an Africa that is “mostly cultures of encounter,” and citing Léopold Senghor (Senegal’s first president and a member of the Académie Française), Bocoum sums up his approach:

Globalization is cruel. […] We [in Africa] are always in the utopia of the encounter. In Senghor’s view, the universal is the encounter between giving and getting. We give and we get, we are constantly in between both.

[…]

We say, let’s make discourses, let’s create the institution. Everyone conceived their own method, and our advantage lies in not being prisoners of any collection; it is our mobility, our freedom.

These “discourses,” especially in the terms proposed by directors like Bocoum and critics like Savoy, have a welcome freshness. But institutional critique had long been embedded in museum practices in the years leading up to the landmark restitutions, and museums were already dissecting their relationships with their ever-expanding audiences, communities, and constituencies. Alternatively, they were in many instances looking to extend their reach into those communities, to expand their appeal to minority and other underserved audiences. Although this is nowhere mentioned in Under Discussion, including James Cuno’s contribution, the Getty must be particularly sensitive to this criticism, situated as it is atop a promontory high above the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, accessible by the 101 freeway and the Sepulveda Pass, but distant from the city’s center and its main cultural nodes. Of course, many of its patrons appreciate this very isolation — its Magic Mountain aspect, as more than one person I know has described it.

Bocoum is not the only commentator to touch on aspects of encyclopedic museums that make curators “prisoners” of their collections and alienate, or at least complicate, institutional relationships with increasingly diverse audiences (although he gives by far the most elegant summation). The colonial legacy of many museum acquisitions, and the wholesale absorption of collections originally established or maintained by variously anthropological, ethnographic, and archaeological institutions, makes the experience well-nigh universal. Examples abound: the British Museum, the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, the Met’s acquisition of collections originally held by the Rockefeller-underwritten Museum of Primitive Art. Conversely, a number of archaeological or ethnographic institutions holding significant collections of art and antiquities continue to retain their independence — e.g., the Istanbul Archaeological Museum or the Ethnological Museum of Berlin. Mari Carmen Ramírez, who put Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts on the map with the museum’s watershed 2004 exhibition of Latin American avant-garde art, Inverted Utopias, confronts the issue more categorically:

What is at stake is not institutional branding or audience development, but rather the articulation and implementation of a different axiology, one forcing the museum to directly engage at the intellectual and practical levels with different sets of cultural values embodied by the new audiences. Indeed, the critical issues boil down to these questions: […] [H]ow can art museums provide a flexible environment for true intercultural exchange among diverse racial, ethnic, and gender groups to take place? How can they make their treasured collections of universal artifacts relevant for under-represented audiences?

Ramírez speaks with some authority here — her work at the Houston MFA represented a tectonic shift in perspectives on art of the Western Hemisphere — though the issue of “relevance” may have more to do with an institution’s relationship with its community than with its collections. (It is unlikely that ancient Egyptian mummies or Italian trecento painting are any more or less “relevant” to a schoolchild in Peru, Botswana, or Mongolia than in New York City.) But that relationship has changed over the last three decades. On one level, encyclopedic museums remain the cultural trophies of cosmopolitan cities they have always been, especially in Europe and North America. But as museums have extended their reach into cultural and educational spheres, they have come under the same political and social pressures as the culture at large.

The problem with Grau’s largely definitional approach to the discussion is that, as he would likely acknowledge, the definition of the encyclopedic museum has been in flux since the institutional framework first emerged somewhere between the early Wunder- and Schatzkammer (e.g., Oxford’s Ashmolean, Basel) and state-appropriated royal collections (the Louvre, the Hermitage, Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum). Nor would such institutions ever have been likely to impose a single “narrative for the world,” as Grau postulates at one point in his introduction, regardless of “political movements” supporting or opposing it. (The closest we have come to anything vaguely resembling such a “narrative” may be E. H. Gombrich’s 1950 treatise The Story of Art and Alfred Barr’s original template for MoMA.) The issue of “narratives,” again, has as much to do with external (and, more specifically, official) perceptions of institutional roles and functions — in other words, community relationships in their largest sense — as it does with nationalistic biases, whether as expressed in or composed out of these collections, their organization, or institutional histories.

Much ink has been spilled over the notional musée universel, as the French once projected their template for the Louvre, versus the more conditionally (or pragmatically) situated “encyclopedic” museum, but as Grau himself notes, citing Loyrette, “the term encyclopedic is a method, while universality is an ambition” that can never be satisfied. So, the reader may ask, why bother? Some of the focus on putative universality is explained (if not necessarily justified) by Grau’s methodology (or, arguably, Thomas Gaehtgens’s agenda), which seeks to examine the institution via both its own structural, “museological” criteria and its evolving place or function in a diverse, globalized culture. That includes the parallel digital domain that has made Google and Wiki-culture an integral part of the globalized world. Amit Sood, the director of Google Arts & Culture, is brought into the conversation (in one of the most entertaining of these interviews) to discuss Google’s project to document and cross-index the contents of virtually every major museum and art/artifact collection on the planet — thus de facto creating a true “encyclopedia” of art and a truly “universal” museum. For someone whose primary role is within the digital domain, Sood is marvelously adept at discussing both institutional relationships and the “narratives” — ergo, the cultural “hierarchies” — that accrete around the physical objects collected by encyclopedic and other museums.

[I]t comes down to this: Do I have an asset with an important story to tell to people? If I do, then I should be able to find new ways of doing the storytelling to get people engaged in it and then to see how it reflects upon all paths of life. […]

Is [Google Arts & Culture] a new kind of museum? I do not think so. […] [A]ll objects come from different countries [and] […] cultural contexts, but I think this notion of curiosity-led exploration has always been core to museums. Not a narrative imposed on you, but the possibility to establish multiple entries for people who want to explore.

Sood is also aware of the extent to which the digital platform is an ideal mechanism for “flattening” notional hierarchies. “The way I deal with the hierarchal problem is this: on the site, all museums and all objects are equal […] where you can go to the British Museum, then just suddenly find your way into a museum that maybe you had never heard of.” He is also aware that such hierarchies are inevitable to the extent that museums must contend with the physical layout of departments, collections, exhibitions. “Their hierarchies are also due to physical constraints: you can only show so much. Museums cannot show their whole collections.”

Google Arts’s method of linking sequential tabs and windows is instructive for museums that may wish to further integrate (or “cross-index”) their departments and collections — although such a project would likely extend beyond visual display and physical installation into the digital realm. Though why not? If a museum can migrate its audio tours from Walkman-style gadgetry to smart phones, conceivably such cross-indexing could be scanned into phones.

The Sood conversation, like others in this series, also points up some of the shortfalls in Grau’s framing of various lines of inquiry — here relative to the institutional authority of encyclopedic museums and their relationship to both national and global cultural identities. Some of these questions are probably more applicable to national galleries or institutions conceived as state-sponsored or municipal collections of art gathered over their historic spans or by way of citizen bequests (e.g., Washington’s National Gallery, the National Galleries of Scotland, etc.). At one point, Grau asks Sood, apropos of “the authority of the nation, the authority of the canon” (categories that do not necessarily overlap in the context of an encyclopedic institution), whether he thinks encyclopedic museums “can be democratized.” Sood wisely detours away from this question, responding, inter alia, that “[b]oundaries need to be broken,” though also that “governments [will still need to] support culture.”

Obviously, Grau’s concern here is the relationship of institutions of authority to the communities they serve — the same concern that would generally apply to various government institutions, regulatory agencies, courts, schools, universities, and state-sponsored scientific and cultural institutes. Although his line of questioning might be more precisely couched in terms of “legitimacy,” its application to museums, and particularly the encyclopedic museum, is dubious at best. On one level, the “canon” is always evolving, however stately the pace. Further, to the extent that it can even be statically defined, it is already “democratic” — subject to the ongoing “town hall” of critical debate. The agencies of democratization in this sphere are (naturally enough) cultural: ideas, fashion, technology, the way we live — in short, another aspect of the generational evolution noted elsewhere in these interviews.

Whether following his own definitional template or presuming to take a cue from his subjects’ expressed views and concerns, Grau’s questioning frequently misfires. Sometimes his opening gambit is foiled altogether. For example, he asks the formidable French cultural historian Marc Fumaroli his “position” on the “question of the encyclopedic museum,” a concept Fumaroli dismisses as “neither sensible nor timely.” Or, with a view to a museum’s ostensible nexus with national identity, he queries Krzysztof Pomian, a cultural historian and former dean of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, about the persistent popularity of encyclopedic museums, to which Pomian responds, “I don’t altogether agree with the premise of your question.” Grau is never less than game, though; and the occasional tactical misfire occasionally yields a larger strategic dividend — the unexpected insights or solutions to problems suggested by the broader parameters of his project or raked over in other interviews. Max Hollein was interviewed while still director of San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums, and his commentary regarding more “complex” and “complicated” historical and institutional narratives, and the problems involved in conflating such narratives with an institution’s “editorial voice,” make clear just how smart the Metropolitan Museum of Art was to appoint him as its new director.

That we know a good deal about Max Hollein (or at least his recent museum history), but relatively little about Pomian, indicates another deficiency. Although it might be expected that a volume published under the imprint of the Getty Research Institute would be designated primarily for an audience of museum and art world professionals, brief profiles of the interview subjects would have been helpful for readers who might know, say, public intellectuals such as Kwame Anthony Appiah or Fiammetta Rocco (The Economist’s Culture editor) but not museum directors like Henri Loyrette or Philippe de Montebello.

Last year, German publisher Hatje Cantz released what can only be regarded as a predecessor volume to Under Discussion, entitled Living Museums, a compilation of Grau’s “Conversations with Leading Museum Directors,” which he claims to have conducted “face-to-face” and in the cities where these directors lead their respective institutions. They read much more conversationally, almost spontaneously, than the interviews gathered in Under Discussion, but they also appear to have been extensively edited. (In his preface to the new volume, Grau credits Peter Behrman de Sinéty for his contribution “in making these conversations into a text.”)

As with Under DiscussionLiving Museums is divided into three sections, in effect advancing a hypothetical evolution of the contemporary art museum, from the “connoisseurial” collection (encompassing both encyclopedic museums and national galleries), through the notionally “political” museum, to the “global” institution, the outstanding example of which is the Guggenheim. But in fact, all of the institutions discussed in the book (including MoMA and the Louvre — perhaps especially the Louvre) encompass each of these aspects to some extent; and it’s not as if this “evolution” cannot also be viewed in reverse: for example, given their current accumulation of knowledge and expertise, we can assume that the connoisseurship available to these institutions has never been greater.

The conversations underscore certain critical aspects of almost any (but especially an encyclopedic) museum’s essential purposes and functions, its physical operations (and economics), and its relationships with the communities it serves, both local and global. The conversations also vividly flesh out what might be termed the institutional preconditions for encyclopedic museums. Regardless of whether the foundational resources for the major encyclopedic institutions were derived from autocratic or aristocratic patronage (unchecked by democratic or constitutional authority), colonial or wartime plunder, merchant or industrial wealth, or state sponsorship, great encyclopedic collections are usually fueled by a fundamental passion for collecting — usually well informed by scholarship and connoisseurship, strategic (though not always entirely rational) focus, ambition, and vision. What Grau has effectively done here is platform the issues — politicization, globalization — that have complicated the mission and perception of encyclopedic art museums as public institutions. The sustained accomplishment of that mission requires a kind of surround-sound sensitivity to an institution’s resources and capabilities, its manifold connections to its constituencies, its “narratives” as they evolve continuously in the culture, and the shifting cultural context itself.

By far the most entertaining of these conversations — and instructive on many levels applicable to the encyclopedic museum — is Grau’s sprawling chat with the Guggenheim’s legendary director Thomas Krens, who — whatever may be said in retrospect about the controversies surrounding his tenure there — successfully transformed the Guggenheim from its dual-footprint late-20th-century condition into a truly global institution. Krens’s story could almost be called a cultural picaresque, full of serendipitous life and career turns, intellectual intersections, encounters, and discoveries at every turn. (Something that might be considered for a future edition of Under Discussion would be an appendix of two or three of the Living Museums conversations — including the one with Krens.) His intellectual curiosity is boundless, leaping from artistic process and art history to financial planning and strategic management, design and architecture and project planning on a grand scale, and back to the theoretical domain, always ready to examine a question or a project from a fresh angle.

What emerges from these discussions is a sense of the stakes (incalculable but enormous); the necessity of a kind of trust management on a scale parallel to what will be required to save that other essential asset — the biosphere; and an institutional strategy to carry over the long term. The nexus of encyclopedic museums with diverse communities is no more or less complicated than its nexus with cultural diversity — and the net effect is usually a multiplier. While Krens’s focus is on contemporary art institutions, his formula is applicable here: “Culture is biological, and therefore by definition, cultural narratives are almost infinite and endless: any story can be told.”

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Ezrha Jean Black is a staff writer for Artillery, a Los Angeles–based national art magazine.