Even before the financial crisis hit last year, top museum directors worldwide knew they were operating in a bubble that couldn't last.
"I think what happened was that everything just got out of control. Exhibitons got more and more expensive, they got more and more challenging to produce, and more and more people needed to come in order to justify the cost," says Selma Holo, director of the International Museum Institute and Fisher Museum of Art at USC. "It got to be, I think, an often really empty experience."
With Mari-Tere Alvarez of the J. Paul Getty Museum, who received her Ph.D. from USC, Holo is co-editor of a timely new book, Beyond the Turnstile: Making the Case for Museums and Sustainable Values (Altamira Books).
The result of more than three years of collaboration with museum directors in Mexico, Beyond the Turnstile began as a series of lectures and conversations sponsored by the International Museum Institute in partnership with UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
“We really searched for a common language that would allow museums to evaluate themselves and to also create a set of criteria by which they could be judged," says Holo, professor of art history in the USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences. "The resulting handbook allows museums to look into the future and try to figure out how they can prove and make the case that they are indeed indispensible to society."
In the face of several high-profile museum funding and management crises, Beyond the Turnstile offers a reassessment of “what museums can be — if they are their best selves,” as Holo explains, collecting essays from 40 leading museum directors, curators and scholars on the role of museums in our communities and in our increasingly shared world.
Among the contributions are:
- An essay by Placido Arango, president of the Board of Trustees of the Museo Nacional del Prado in Spain, on the reciprocal responsibilities museums and the public have to one another;
- A defense of the encyclopedic museum by philosopher Anthony Appiah of Princeton University;
- An argument for creativity and interdisciplinarity in museums by Marco Barrera Bassols, museum consultant working now with MoMA on the upcoming Orozco exhibiton;
- A reflection by Alan Shestack, former chief curator of the National Gallery of Art, on the shift from permanent collections to special exhibitions;
- An essay by Carlos Monsivais, Latin America's foremost public intellectual on inclusivity and the museum;
- All-Star baseball player Gary Matthews Jr. discussing the lasting effects of childhood museum visits;
- Why museums should consider cultural justice part of their missions, by Elazar Barkan, co-director of the human rights program at Columbia University;
- “Museums and Creativity” by MacArthur “genius” grant recipient David Wilson, founder of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles;
- An essay by Holo on the “hyphenated American" cultural or ethnic museum as an agent for change.
“We are not prescribing what museums should do,” says Holo, noting that museums worldwide have different funding structures, and the history of a country may influence its programming.
For example, a former colony may have different attitudes than a former colonizer, particularly when it comes to repatriation of antiquities or even with respect to issues of display, Holo explains. An essay in Beyond the Turnstile by Bernard Mueller (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Socials, Paris) addresses this concern in France, as evidenced by the Quai Branley Museum and its exhibit of work by contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare.
Rather, the sustainable values identified in Beyond the Turnstile — including “Relevance,” “Creativity and Experimentation,” Inclusion” and “Public Trust” — are meant to be both flexible and pragmatic markers by which museums can articulate future goals and their success in reaching them, Holo says.
In a recent piece in the Los Angeles Times, Holo wrote: "The principal obligation of museums — one lost in the orgy of spectacle exhibitions — is to transmit...their piece of our cultural DNA to their many publics. This is what they were created to do, and this is what they do best. Museums remind us, through their artworks, of our shared humanity, of our shared desire to create beauty, to investigate our past and to excavate our cultural history in pursuit of our origins."
On February 11, 2010, Holo will moderate a public discussion at USC about Beyond the Turnstile and the crisis in museums today. The event will welcome Beyond the Turnstile co-editor Alvarez; Michael Govan, director of LACMA; Donny George Youkhanna, director of the Baghdad Museum during the American invasion of Iraq and witness to looting; and Jorge Wagensberg, director of the Science Foundation of “la Caixa” in Barcelona.
“This book is meant to be the beginning of a conversation,” Holo says. “We can no longer take for granted that there is an unchanging and unchallenged agreement about the indispensability of museums today....We have to make a case for these values, to identify them as existing "beyond the turnstile," and then we have to find the words to fight for them.”