Review of Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum by James Cuno University of Chicago Press

Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum. James Cuno. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. ISBN 9780226126777

This essay is a part of our series, Graduate Students and The Middle Ground Journal.

It is impossible to argue with James Cuno’s title premise: Museums Matter. Of course they do. Museums, especially the big landmark cultural and scientific institutions that are the central concern of Cuno’s book, are cultural cornerstones for their metropolises. Three of the world’s great art museums – the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the British Museum in London – together hosted more than twenty million visitors in 2012, according to statistics published in The Art Newspaper. Numbers do not tell the whole story, of course, but numerous studies have demonstrated that museums in general are among the most trusted sources of information about the past – consistently scoring well above books, personal narratives, or web-based sources.

So if museums are generally trusted, enjoy broad visitation, and occupy key places in the cultural geography of their communities and the world, why this book? By and large, Museums Matter is Cuno’s response to a generation of Museum Studies scholars who have identified museums as instruments of nationalistic and imperialistic hegemony. The critics contend that museums have a long history of crafting and reinforcing narratives that support the interests of business and political elites, and that museum visitation is in large part a modern ritual of civic and cultural nationalism. Cuno, whose authority derives in part from his lofty positions in the museum world, first as President and Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, and then subsequently as President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, contends that the critics have it all wrong. He argues that encyclopedic museums are better understood as archives for global culture where visitors’ experience of the breadth of human experience will encourage them to be more accepting of diversity and be more aware of our shared cultural hybridity.

Cuno’s self-positioning as an opponent of Museum Studies iconoclasm leaves much room for debate and argumentation, and his historical narrative of encyclopedic museums’ origin in a cosmopolitan Enlightenment suffers mightily from the book’s brevity. As a result, some of Cuno’s claims can be unsettling. If we read Museums Matter not as a fully developed argument about the history museums and their current function in fact, but rather as an idealistic expression of the potential embedded in the idea of museums as multicultural educational institutions, the book’s strengths are more apparent.
The structure of Museum Matters owes much to its origin as the 2009 Campbell Lectures at Rice University. Cuno explains that the four chapters, “The Enlightenment Museum,” “The Discursive Museum,” “The Cosmopolitan Museum,” and “The Imperial Museum,” largely follow the structure of the three lectures. At the heart of each chapter is an argument with the critics of museums, who Cuno identifies both in the text and in the footnotes. In the first chapter, for example, Cuno takes issue with the notion that contemporary encyclopedic museums are the products of nineteenth-century nation states. It is just not so, he argues, and relates the founding of the British Museum in the mid-eighteenth century as evidence. Encyclopedic museums, like encyclopedias themselves, he maintains, were integral to the celebration of rationality and the acquisition of knowledge in the European Enlightenment. Relocating museums’ temporal and ideological origins is important for Cuno because he desperately wants us to see museums not as prescriptive narrators of certain truths, but rather as archives for the unprejudiced collection of the world’s cultural history.

One problem with the chapter, though, is that for Cuno’s temporal reorientation to matter, we need to believe that Enlightenment thinkers celebrated something that looks like multiculturalism and the unprejudiced accumulation of knowledge. It sometimes feels as though Cuno is falling victim to presentism; he wants us to understand Kant’s eighteenth-century statements about the value of rationality as readily applicable to our present-day values of multicultural understanding. To be fair, Cuno turns to more recent scholars, especially the French philosopher Tzvetan Todorov, to translate Kant’s arguments as imperative for the present day. The key idea that Cuno borrows from Kant, via Todorov, is this: “Enlightenment opens up the promise of cosmopolitanism because it respects difference in the world” (25). While it may be that Kant and Todorov, as philosophers, both respect the inalienable equality of all individuals irrespective of difference, the historical record from the Enlightenment era shows a profound persistence of inequality and prejudice.

The problem perhaps becomes clearer and more problematic in looking at Cuno’s take on the nineteenth-century birth of the Art Institute of Chicago, the institution of which he was Director when he prepared the lectures. Chicago’s elite Merchant Club, he explains, envisioned the Art Institute as a tool for bridging the diverse communities of an immigrant-dominated modern industrial city to create a unified civic culture. Cuno does not engage the vast scholarship that sees paternalism (and egotism) in the wealthy builders of America’s philanthropic institutions around the turn of the twentieth century, instead suggesting that their purpose for collecting and displaying the historic and artistic artifacts of ancient global cultures were somehow value-neutral efforts to establish a space where Chicagoans could come together and create their own civic culture. While such arguments might be usefully provocative in a lecture, they feel less and less tenable with reading and rereading. The virtually impenetrable barriers dividing social classes in eighteenth-century Europe undoubtedly shaped the learned institutions of the Enlightenment, just as the vast inequalities of the Gilded Age influenced the ideals and priorities of Chicago’s Merchant Club Members. Classification in the Enlightenment tradition was as much about defining hierarchies as establishing catalogues of knowledge. But – and perhaps this is Cuno’s unspoken central point – the inventions of those eras can nevertheless be repurposed to meet the needs of the present day.

In the second chapter, “The Discursive Museum,” Cuno takes a different tack. Where the first chapter celebrates the present-day possibilities for the benevolent intentions embedded in the idea and establishment of encyclopedic museums, the second undercuts museums’ narrative power. This argument, coming from the Executive Director of one of the world’s premier cultural institutions, only makes sense as a response to specific critiques emanating from the realm of Museum Studies. In particular, he calls out art historians and museum scholars Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach along with sociologist Tony Bennett, authors of important critiques of the institutional and cultural significance of museums. Cuno argues that those critics, in their effort to define museums as instruments of hegemonic nationalistic power, have denied the agency of museum visitors to experience museum collections on their own terms. He pulls no punches, writing, “I deem their critiques fantasy, projections of their own intellectual predilections for theories and arguments built on rhetoric rather than evidence” (53). For Cuno, it is objects, not exhibits, that possess narrative power, and the best thing that museums can do is to present the artifacts as objectively as possible so that visitors can experience them as they choose. He describes a porcelain ewer in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago that was originally crafted in Ming China, but then modified with silver embellishments in England. The ewer serves as an extraordinary example of the mobility of both objects and people, and the exciting possibilities that exist when cultures overlap and blend.

The third and fourth chapters work together to further develop Cuno’s central premise: that encyclopedic museums are not imperialist or nationalist institutions, but rather open archives for the collection and display of world cultures. Rather than promoting the greatness of a particular nation state or cultural tradition, encyclopedic museums provide the space for the products of many cultures from the breadth of world history to be placed alongside one another so that visitors can appreciate the vastness of the human experience writ large. Cuno argues that these museums were “witnesses to,” rather than “products of” empires. That is to say, the diverse objects collected in encyclopedic museums graphically depict the social and political reorientations inherent in imperialism across the sweep of human history. By their very nature, empires have always broken down and reoriented political and cultural geographies, and the objects in a well-populated encyclopedic museum can provide a catalog of the wealth of cultural hybrids that have across time and space.
Unlike Cuno’s 2008 work, Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage, this book never directly engages the questions of antiquities collecting or repatriation. Collecting is an almost passive act: “Within twenty years of [the Art Institute of Chicaco’s] incorporation, in 1879, its collections included examples of ancient Greek, Etruscan, Egyptian, and Roman art, as well as Japanese ivory sculptures, Asian and Indian woven fabrics, Chinese bronzes, Syrian glass, Native American baskets, and European and American paintings and sculptures” (4). The focus here is on the collection’s coverage, not its acquisition. In Chapter 3, “The Cosmopolitan Museum,” to demonstrate the way that objects in museums embody narratives of movement and cultural hybridity, Cuno discusses a plaque in the Art Institute’s collection that had been “forcibly removed from the West African kingdom of Benin in 1897 by British troops seeking retribution for the deaths of their colleagues. Its irregular shape and rough edges betray the violence of its removal” (63). To his credit, Cuno does suggest that to fully understand this object, we have to account for “a particular imbalance of power at the end of the nineteenth century,” i.e., European imperial dominance of Africa. But the in the narrative he provides – the object was the product of technical skills acquired in the Benin kingdom, which was “a warfaring power” (65), only to be seized when that kingdom lost its confrontation with another empire – he seems more apologist than instructor: if world history is the history of inter-imperial violence, the best we can do is appreciate the way the world’s artistic treasures reflect broken cultural boundaries.

Museums Matter is, despite several important limitations, a useful book. Cuno makes an interesting, if not altogether convincing, argument that we risk undermining the profound good that encyclopedic museums can do in our rush to right the wrongs of European colonialism. In the end, though, Museums Matter cannot be read uncritically. In a classroom setting it would be ideally paired with some of the critics that Cuno cites, or perhaps others who see ongoing threats to the cultural life of formerly colonized places. As the world continues to deal with the often-tragic legacies of European imperialism, it is important that we identify and hold onto institutions able to offer us better models for relating to those whose views differ from our own. So perhaps Cuno is right. Maybe if we had more encyclopedic museums in cities like Shanghai, Lagos, Nairobi, and Phnom Penh displaying priceless treasures of our shared global heritage, encyclopedic museums’ potential as seedbeds of a global cultural consciousness could be more fully realized. But how would those museums build their collections of the word’s cultural treasures in postcolonial metropolises to demonstrate the power of cultural cosmopolitanism to their booming populations?

Reviewed by Eric Steiger, University of California, Irvine
Edited by Sarah R. Hamilton

(c) 2014 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 8, Spring, 2014. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]