The history of museums is a history of theft, appropriation, bribery and manipulation. It is also a history of beauty, elegance, scholarship and public education. We can easily extend these descriptions to other cultural landmarks and institutions: Few libraries, monuments or public buildings come without a complicated history that mixes oppression with celebration.
As I intimated in my last column, I give tours at the Yale University Art Gallery (a lot of them recently, as the newly renovated spaces have reopened in spectacular fashion) and have a deep and abiding love for museums and for art. I spent this past summer visiting some of Europe’s finest museums on a Yale fellowship, and saw firsthand the extent to which the great collections in Europe are built out of extraordinary objects that arrived through dubious means.
Few museums enjoy making reference to this part of their histories: They prefer to provide a sanitized version of events for public consumption that steps over the dingier aspects of the story. I listened to an astonishing number of audio guides and read an alarming number of labels that came perilously close to telling lies. Museums are not innocent spaces — and no convoluted, whitewashed version of events will make it so.
I say all this because most visitors I see at the museum come in with a sense that museums are elitist, highbrow institutions, designed to safeguard works of art and promote superior cultural taste in the masses. Some are shocked when I tell stories about objects that came to Yale through bribery or manipulated auctions; works that were sawn in pieces and scrubbed clean of paint; works that were illegally excavated and sold before there were laws against it; paintings that were heavily cleaned by a small group of somewhat radical art historians, now too damaged to go back on view.
To counteract these stories, I share tales of monuments that we only know about because an archaeologist arrived before a war started, and got some pieces out; I talk about the high-quality conservation and restoration work that the gallery is currently doing to preserve important pieces of art in our collection for future generations. Yale has, in the wake of the Machu Picchu episode, cemented itself as a deeply thoughtful institution that is comfortable with publicly owning up — unlike many European art museums — to the problematic histories of some of its artifacts.
The challenge then becomes balancing the image museums present of themselves — pure temples to art — with the masked realities of blood, sweat and tears. Learning to read museums is much like learning to decode a piece of literature: You look for signs and symbols, for deliberate effacements and evasions. You acknowledge that everything is a construction, and done deliberately. You ask questions, and don’t accept half-hearted answers.
In the same vein, Yale allows me to tell the stories of these objects in all of their convoluted glory. My teachers at the museum taught me these stories, as have my art history professors. They’ve shown me that it’s possible to balance a love of a museum or cultural institution with criticism of its history, and that above all, every terrible story is an opportunity for further education, for oneself and others.
Objects and museums are our global cultural heritage. As a community, we are responsible for safeguarding the works that defined moments and peoples in the past. But our job is also to recognize that no object or institution is made with completely clean hands — not even the ones around the corner. That should not stop us from loving these places. But it should teach us to read them, and consider history, a little differently.
If for no other reason, these stories should put an end to the notion that museums are “boring.” Though not all objects have an “Indiana Jones”-style backstory, a surprisingly large number of them do. Even for those that don’t, we still see in those objects the truth of museums and other cultural institutions: They bring us closer to our common humanity through an exploration of the human psyche, in the stories shaped both through and around the object.
Zoe Mercer-Golden is a senior in Davenport College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .