Museums in the 21st century require change, reconsideration

The original Clark Art Institute, with steps reminiscent of an ancient Greek temple, can be intimidating. Grace Flaherty/ Photo Editor.
The original Clark Art Institute, with steps reminiscent of an ancient Greek temple, can be intimidating. Grace Flaherty/ Photo Editor.

“Claiming Williams invites the community to acknowledge and understand the uncomfortable reality that not all students, staff, and faculty can equally ‘claim’ Williams.” So goes the mission statement of Claiming Williams Day, held this year on Feb. 4. Begun in 2009, this annual event functions as an official attempt to induce change in an institution by acknowledging and examining its history of bestowing privileges by –  among other factors – class, race, and ethnicity.

The pattern of elite institutions favoring a certain group, whether intentionally or not, is not one unique to the university setting. Museums in particular fall fault to this. The Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) hosted a Claiming Williams event, “Who are Museums For? WALLS and Diversity at WCMA” to address this. Participants were asked to write down words they felt described museums in general. Among words like “fun” and “quiet” were ones like “highbrow,” “intellectual” and “elite.”

Museums face a difficult dilemma. On one hand, they’re supposed to be bastions of culture, places to go to be in the presence of beauty and ideas. In this sense there is instilled in the visitor a certain immediate inferiority; you are not meant to be an equal to what’s housed inside these places. On the other hand, though, it is in the interest of museums to attract visitors, as many and as varied as possible. Today, at least, there are more new positions dedicated solely to engagement. From WCMA to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and even to the Whitney Museum of American Art, museums are working to bring in younger and historically less-involved audiences.

It can be said that there has been a shift in the aim of the museum. What we now think of as a museum started off as the private collection; the first publicly-owned museum in Europe, for instance, was a private collection sold to the city of Basel, Switzerland, in 1661. By the 1950s, museums were prevalent, but something of their legacy of being private, elite and therefore aloof, remained. This change, told through its architecture and to a lesser extent its collections, was the focus of the Claiming Williams event hosted at the Clark, “Claiming the Art World.”

The Clark’s original building, which now houses its permanent collection, opened in 1955. White marble with stairs leading up to Doric columns, low-lying and perfectly symmetrical, the building is an image of enlightenment and order, evoking associations to an ancient Greek temple in stature and a bucolic summer home in location. The intimate scale of the museum was mandated by the Clarks. They wanted their work housed somewhere that felt like a home, complete with fireplaces and other familial accents; they wanted the experience of looking at their works to be as comfortable as wandering through one’s own home. “Of course,” the guide reminded us, as we stood at the foot of the steps, looking up, “who lived in a house like this?” Not most.

The new building of the Clark, opened in 2014, goes for a different approach. “I like to accomplish art spaces that inspire viewers and evoke their creativity and freedom of thinking,” Tadao Ando, the architect, said in a press release on the occasion of the new Clark’s opening. “I have tried to express a deep respect for the landscape outside and an equal reverence for the art inside.” In many places in this new building the only thing separating the works from the hills is a floor-to-ceiling pane of glass – even the flooring of light grey stone continues unbroken between inside and out. Parts of the campus are open 24 hours. The intended message is clear: “This is an open place. Come in.”

Unlike the original building, there’s no staircase up to the entrance of the new Clark. But for many – particularly those walking over from the direction of the College – there doesn’t appear to be any entrance at all. One approaches the marble building only to be told by a small sign that “This is not a public entrance.” The actual entrance, down a gravel path, past a door that itself looks like another entrance and behind a wall, can be difficult to find.

Interestingly, this is a problem shared by WCMA. “Things that make me feel stupid, that’s the worst,” said a participant in the “Who are Museums For?” event. She was talking specifically about the entrance to WCMA and the difficulty in locating its galleries, but there is something in that statement that seems to cut directly to the core of the issue, the disconnect between a museum and its audience, that common sense of not belonging.

From opaque wall labels to confusing layouts and often to the art itself, there is much at a museum that lends itself to this feeling. For now, there is a wariness on the part of the public regarding museums and a haziness on the part of the institution regarding its own identification. Museums want to bring in as wide an audience as possible, and yet often the first thing a visitor will see is a wall engraved with names of donors. This is now recognized as a problem, and this admission in itself should be applauded. It remains to be seen how concentrated and how effective these efforts will be.

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