Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 27, 2007
Elizabeth Rodini The Ivory Tower and the Crystal Palace: Universities, Museums, and the Potential of Public Art History College Art Association.
View of Feathers, Fins, and Fur: The Pet in Early Maryland exhibition at the Homewood Museum, Johns Hopkins University, winter 2007. Photo: Will Kirk.

“Public history” is a well-established and familiar sub-discipline to students of history. Many universities offer degrees and concentrations in this or a related field. Historians who train in public scholarship expect to pursue work in places where a relatively broad audience encounters the past, including national parks and monuments, historic houses, and museums. As public historians, they pursue research and author historical materials. They may be involved in curating exhibitions, directing educational programs, and advocating for historic preservation, among other, more general administrative duties. Fundamentally, their job is to interpret history for a range of audiences, and to mediate between the academy and the public.

As an art historian and curator who works in museums and thinks about them in an academic setting, I have recently begun to wonder how this professional model compares to the structure of my own discipline. A 1999 conference at the Clark Art Institute on “The Two Art Histories” attested to a gap between the academy and the museum, one that is both wide and strongly felt.1 At times, this gap provokes some strange points of resentment. A respected medievalist recently remarked to me, in a resigned tone, that more people came across Byzantine art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s impressive 1997 Glory of Byzantium show than would ever stumble upon it anywhere else. They were drawn in, he implied, by the glitter of the big banners, the lure of the blockbuster. As a medievalist, he was both pleased and distressed by this fact, desiring recognition for the material on display but feeling it was cheapened by that seductive siren, the museum. He wanted a public, saw it at the Met, but somehow could not quite square this popular interest with the scholarly one that is his domain. From his perspective, museums resemble a necessary but somewhat unwelcome assistant, like a crutch or a frivolous gig for a serious musician who needs to pay the bills. Whether deliberately or not, this perspective views scholarship as divorced from the general public interest in and enthusiasm for art.

Yet the most prominent, most venerated of all museums are art museums. Out-of-towners flock to the Louvre when visiting Paris, and to the Metropolitan when in New York. We may cynically attribute this draw to the tourist industry and commercial hype, the same impulses that bring crowds to Times Square and the Apple store. But the fact remains that significant public spaces for art-historical work exist and thrive, places where large and diverse audiences encounter the material that is the primary concern of our studies. We enjoy outlets for the public presentation of our work unlike those of any other academic discipline, places that have prominent profiles, serious reputations, and even glamour, places that routinely get reviewed in newspapers and magazines and that are crown jewels in the identities of many communities. The art museum is a prominent stage with a high level of visibility. So why, then, do we never talk about public art history? Why does this concept not run through our profession? Is there, or might there ever be, something we would call by this name, and if so, what would it look like?

My goal in this essay is not so much to answer these questions but to employ the concept of public art history as a lens for viewing the current relationship between museums and universities. I want to explore the museum as a potential place of interface where the public can meet scholarship. University art museums are the natural place to begin this investigation, and they have been the focus of several recent, prominent conversations. These include a conference co-sponsored by the Princeton University Art Museum and the Wolfsonian-Florida International University (“Creator, Collector, Catalyst: The University Art Museum in the Twenty-first Century,” Miami, December 2006)2 and the fall 2006 issue of the College Art Association’s (CAA) Art Journal featuring a roundtable conversation on “The Role of the University Art Museum and Gallery” (vol. 65, no. 3: 20–39). The issues raised at these gatherings—regarding the role of the university art museum, its unique potential and constraints, its value to students, faculty, and the broader community—underpin this essay.

I want to broaden the conversation, however, by considering not just university museums but other, non-university-affiliated institutions as well. This turn raises important conceptual questions about what the fundamental directives of museums and universities are and where these might intersect. I am less interested in reaffirming the divide that persists between the “two art histories” than in exploring some of the ways that the mutual concerns of museums and universities might be productively harnessed and developed to support the work of both institutions. On the practical side, this essay reviews some concrete attempts to bring the work of universities and museums together through curricular and programmatic initiatives. Conceptually, it is concerned with institutions and disciplines, with teaching and learning, and with the public face of a scholarly pursuit. The starting place for these comments is a 2007 CAA conference session that I co-chaired with David Little, entitled “Object Lessons: Looking Closely at Museums and Universities.” The participants in that session—Michael Hatt, Kimerly Rorschach, Jessica Stockholder, and Daniel Weiss—helped direct me to some of the particular issues and case studies explored below.

Rorschach, former director of the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago (and present director of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke), recounts how, newly arrived at her position in the mid-1990s, she was regularly asked to explain why the university needed an art museum, with the Art Institute of Chicago just a few miles away. This question, which initially left her on the defensive, ultimately provoked Rorschach to reconsider the mission and priorities of the Smart. She chose to situate it less as a shadow of its great neighbor down the road and more as a public face for the university, a place that would build on the intellectual resources surrounding it. The Smart would no longer try to survey all of world art, which it could do only in a relatively unbalanced, emaciated way, but instead would use its collections to delve into complex, thematic issues that pushed against traditional, monographic, and sequential exhibitions—the notion of “theatricality” in Baroque art and culture, the expression of identity in nineteenth- and twentieth-century German art, and the status of the copy in traditional printed imagery, for example. This shift involved reinstalling the permanent collection and rethinking the exhibition program. With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Smart Museum positioned itself as a key resource for both the university and a general audience.

The Smart’s transformation (with which I was closely involved, as the Mellon Projects Curator) serves as a fine example of the successful integration of museum collections into the broader activity of the university, but I would hesitate to call it a model or a template. Where Rorschach and the Smart really excelled was in identifying their strengths and resources and exploiting them productively. This is a balance that each institution must rethink and readjust according to its own circumstances. University-museum dialogues must be similarly malleable, and can be framed according to a range of needs and ambitions. They might, for example, center not on what the museum itself presents but on how that presentation is received—focusing, in other words, on the viewer and on training students to be critical museum visitors and users.

The urgency of this task struck me particularly hard last spring, as I was teaching an undergraduate course at Johns Hopkins University titled “Museum Matters,” which was based in field trips to a variety of local museums (ranging from the Baltimore Museum of Industry to the Walters Art Museum to Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine). The objective of the class was to teach students about the critical issues and ideas at work in museums today—from the interpretative to the ethical to the practical. We approached museums as everyday visitors, analyzing what we encountered in the galleries, as well as from a privileged, behind-the-scenes point of view. My students were bright, thoughtful individuals; they had been taught a critical approach to texts, and were even (as members of a highly visual generation) savvy about images. But they were remarkably naive about the “text” that is the museum.

The most revealing excursion was to an exhibition on slavery and its local impact that was presented simultaneously at the Maryland Historical Society and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. Called At Freedom’s Door: Challenging Slavery in Maryland, the show was curated by a group of students at the Maryland Institute College of Art under the direction of MICA’s curator-in-residence, George Ciscle. It combined historical documents with contemporary art, and didactic with expressive text. My students were astounded at the level of thought that had gone into every element of the project—from the symbol-laden design of the entryway, to the direction of the path carved out for visitors through the gallery, to the placement height of different wall labels (some directed at children, others at adults), to the font used on those labels. Almost weekly for the remainder of the semester, they commented on their astonishment at the purpose behind each and every element of the exhibition (part of which came, undoubtedly, from knowing that this was the work of a group of their peers).

What impressed me was the fact that, without direction and encouragement, these students generally failed to see a similar purposefulness and intention in the other museums and exhibitions they visited. For them, the museum possessed a neutrality, maybe even an inevitability, that I had to work hard to dislodge. We spent a great deal of time talking about choices that were made, in selection, interpretation, and presentation. The terms “narrative” and “story” became a regular part of our vocabulary: What story is being told in this exhibition? Why was that story chosen? Who chose it, and why? How is it conveyed? What other sorts of stories might be told instead? And so forth. I realized that what lay at the heart of this course was a tutorial in museum literacy.

As I think about these students and about why “museums matter,” I am increasingly convinced that museum literacy is something universities should be thinking about and museums should be trying to foster. The reason is simple but also powerful: museums are one of the most important and influential sites of learning in the United States today. Although they may not outweigh television and the internet as sources of information, they have an authority that other media struggle to match. People still trust museums.3 At the same time, audiences generally do not have a critical framework for analyzing the institution or its exhibitions. The museum is still, in this context, like a temple: whatever is presented within its hallowed halls is considered doctrine.

An interesting case—one that takes us back to public history—is a plan to put together a traveling exhibition, tentatively titled America at 400: The African-American Imprint on America, about the impact of black Americans on life in this country. A prominent committee of academics, museum professionals, and cultural figures (including Cornel West from Princeton University, Lonnie Bunch from the Smithsonian Institution’s nascent National Museum of African American History and Culture, and talk show host Tavis Smiley) is advising on the exhibition, which is projected to travel across the United States for five years, beginning in 2008. The goal is to educate a wide segment of the population on the contributions black people have made to this country. In so doing, the committee hopes to deepen conversations about race by contextualizing the sound bites (think Don Imus) that dominate this issue today. That they chose an exhibition format as their medium and museums as their venue (rather than, say, another Roots television series) is significant and speaks to the power, attraction, and authority of the exhibition as a forum for communicating complex and important ideas to a broad public.

A recent article in the New York Times discussed the critical process of selecting objects for the exhibition.4 What to choose: Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves? Martin Luther King’s Nobel prize? A pressing comb for straightening kinky hair? A photograph of the Tuskegee Airmen? Of the many worthy artifacts and juxtapositions, a few will be selected, and those will be the ones that tell the story of millions to millions more. Yet if the exhibition is a typical one, it will not allow much insight into the selection process, and most visitors will not have the experience or training to take the show apart and analyze its structure. They will take it for what it is—not necessarily a bad thing, but shouldn’t we want audiences to have a critical distance on exhibitions, just as we hope for with regard to television and movies, advertising, and even the newspaper? Museums play a tremendously significant cultural role, but most people have no way of understanding the museum apparatus itself.

Universities in general, and departments of art history in particular, could help to ease this problem by incorporating some attention to museum literacy into their curriculum. The phalanx of deracinated slides and slide pairs (or digital versions thereof) should periodically be replaced by a discussion of the box that presently frames much of that art (as well as anthropological, historic, and natural artifacts) and of the relationship between the box and its contents. Art historians excel at analyzing historical context—the church, palace, garden, and so forth—but tend, at least in the survey classroom, to stop there. This approach takes students only so far. Those who learn to read an installation or exhibition, take apart its narrative structure, interpret its voice, and probe its critical objectives are even better equipped to transport classroom learning out into the world, and to become informed consumers of culture.

While this does not require an entire course dedicated to the museum, I do believe there is much to be gained—not just for art historians, and not just for academics—from considering more seriously the museum itself as a topic of study. Many vital issues are distilled and crystallized through the analysis of the museum, particularly if we look across disciplines. For example, the relationship between collecting, display, and nationalism is a rich topic that helps explain why places like the British Museum and the Louvre (important models for many other museums) look the way they do.5 Similarly, the early and critical connection between museums and the field of anthropology sheds some light on why, even today, certain objects are positioned as “art” and others as “artifact” (to play on the title of the Center for African Art’s 1988 exhibition dedicated to this topic).6 Art historians have much to learn about the assumptions of our discipline, and even its very existence, by studying the history of the museum. Our students do too.

Working from this sense of importance, Johns Hopkins University has recently established the Program in Museums and Society which, among other things, supports an undergraduate minor. Its name intentionally distances the program from the familiar area of Museum Studies, which is readily associated with graduate-level, pre-professional training (and is thought to occupy a somewhat suspect niche in certain quarters of the art-historical community). Hopkins wanted to suggest a more critical stance, one that examines the institution of the museum as a key social and cultural actor both in the past and in the present. The program, which I direct, is cross-disciplinary (historians of science, historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists are among the participants) and analytical. Within this framework, the museum functions as a lens through which a discipline, its history, and its present concerns can be more closely examined.

The program also considers museums as points of intersection for scholarly work and the general public. While not vocational in its objectives, the minor in Museums and Society requires all students to take at least one “practicum” course, consisting either of museum visits or a hands-on museum experience. Recent and ongoing courses have resulted in student-curated shows on campus in the Hopkins Archaeological Collection and the Homewood House Museum, and at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum. Certainly one pedagogic goal is to convey a sense of the realities that museums face in their daily operations, grounding a distanced, critical perspective on the museum in concrete experience. In addition, these courses focus on translating research from a scholarly context to a public one. Students accustomed to writing for one person—their (sometimes weary, sometimes distracted) professor—find themselves thinking about a broader audience, considering what potential visitors know, what will interest them, and how an idea can be expressed through a meaningful grouping of objects and a carefully authored text. This is a valuable undertaking for all students, one that helps them translate their academic skills into a public, professional sphere. It can be a similarly useful exercise for faculty as well.

Certainly the notion of “museum as laboratory” underlies these pedagogic experiments, and it leads to several important points. For one, this analogy has a venerable tradition at American universities, as Kathryn Brush has shown in her work on the remaking of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard in the 1920s.7 Under the guidance of its founding directors, Edward W. Forbes and Paul J. Sachs, the new museum building erected in Cambridge was to be a “Laboratory of the Fine Arts,” one that would prepare art historians through firsthand familiarity with objects and materials. Their use of the term “laboratory” was, as Brush explains, an appeal to the seriousness of science, an effort to ally the discipline of art history with the rigor of chemistry and physics. For the gentlemen art historians that Harvard was training in the 1920s and 1930s, the connoisseurial experience gained in the museum was essential preparation for future work in the field.

In today’s university/museum context, “laboratory” can take on additional shades of meaning, directed not only at the refined preparation of future art historians but at the virtue of inviting students to attend to the public dimensions of their academic work. Museums—once inward-looking spaces primarily dedicated to preservation and research—are increasingly turning outward, focusing on how to attract, appeal to, and retain audiences (in the words of Stephen Weil, they are increasingly “for somebody” rather than “about something”8). Rather than dismissing this as a tendency grown out of economic necessity and the entertainment turn of the museum industry, we might consider it a valuable broadening of the museum mission, one from which students and scholars of art history have much to learn. Firsthand curatorial work invites us to look beyond the academy and consider how to build connections between museum objects and a museum-going public.

Significantly, universities are also striving to shed the image of the ivory tower and to assume a position of relevance, even in the humanities (at Hopkins this notion is neatly summarized in the tagline for the current capital campaign: “Knowledge for the World”). Relevance does not imply converting liberal arts programs into vocational institutions. Rather, it suggests the virtue and even necessity of turning one’s personal education into public good. This principle underlies a 2004 Association of American Universities report, Reinvigorating the Humanities, and its ten overarching recommendations for bolstering the humanities in academic and national life.9 Universities have an obligation to serve the communities that support them, directly and indirectly and from the local on up. Museums—as places where academic research can be presented engagingly to a general viewership—are ideal “laboratories” for this sort of work. (A dose of reality is also in order: faculty working toward tenure need projects that will get them there. As long as museum exhibitions and catalogue authorship do not count in the tenure system, these sorts of projects will be less attractive. A recent editorial in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Nancy Cantor and Steven Lavine provided a useful definition of public scholarship and some of the steps necessary to have it fully validated in the academy.10)

Another way of considering the “laboratory” is by looking at its institutional and operational implications. Laboratories are places of collaboration and teamwork, concepts that do not typically shape the solitary, often cloistered nature of much research in the humanities. But there have been some forays into team-based research in this area, most notably at the Stanford Humanities Lab (SHL), where the models of work that pertain in the sciences are applied to literary studies, history, and other disciplines. Each research project at the SHL is carried out by a team, led by a “P.I.” (Principal Investigator) and made up of undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows who engage cooperatively in both the research and presentation of their work. The goals of the SHL are manifold, and include crossing and even breaking down disciplines, “animating the archive” (that is, searching for new, engaging means of presenting research in the humanities), and the production of “Big Humanities,” or humanities initiatives of wide-ranging value. Notably, the SHL emphasizes exhibits as a primary tool for moving research in the humanities beyond the walls of academia and into the public sphere.

While not every university may be positioned or inclined to open a center such as the SHL, its work offers some suggestive models for research and for the presentation of that research to the public, particularly in the form of student/faculty co-curated exhibitions. The benefits of exhibition work for students are akin to the broader goals formulated by SHL. Such projects are uniquely rewarding and teach many things that traditional academic work in the humanities does not—about teamwork, professional deadlines, presentation for a broad audience, and so forth. They offer valuable lessons about process and about compromise. Students who work through the challenges of organizing an exhibition alongside their instructor—considering how to present an idea through objects rather than words or how to explain a complex topic in an accessible way—are much closer to understanding the research process than they are when they sit as passive recipients of information. Similarly, this sort of work can begin to unmask the museum, revealing the many choices, voices, imperatives, and concessions that go into an exhibition, from the grand blockbuster to the small gallery installation. Students who have helped curate a show, however modest, will come away as more informed, productively critical viewers of the museum.

We must also consider what museums, particularly non-university museums, have to gain by collaborating with universities and by serving as a “laboratory” for their pedagogical and research initiatives. More minds, including younger ones, can brighten any institution, and can impact museum divisions from curatorial (perhaps with a more casual exhibition design or snappy, even slangy text) to marketing (students are an excellent test-group for learning how to attract and interest the elusive 18–30 set). More conceptually, a genuine dialogue between museum and university might encourage a rethinking of the exhibition itself. Exhibitions are typically declamatory; they make statements that are the result of the research behind them. But the questions and debates, the disagreements and divergences on which academic work thrives are rarely evident to museum audiences (the exceptions are most often found in catalogues, the typical scholarly apparatus of the museum exhibition). Exhibitions are usually polished products that provide relatively limited points of access for the visitor, who sees only the results of the curatorial effort and not the process.

How might the exhibition look and act more like scholarly discourse? While this might at first be an off-putting idea (dry, dull, and a public-relations nightmare), it need not be. Research conducted by museum educators suggests that audiences appreciate being invited more deeply into questions and points of disagreement than they typically are, and that they want to be able to weigh exhibition material according to their own knowledge and instinct. It follows that a more transparent exhibition style, one that reveals something of the inquiry process—from questioning to debate, perhaps even including doubt and contradiction—might be at least as effective as the typical, declarative museum mode.

An excellent example of this sort of work was recently presented at the Walters Art Museum in Courbet/Not Courbet, a sidebar show to the larger exhibition, Courbet and the Modern Landscape. The curator, Eik Kahng, hung “problematic” works attributed to Courbet, instructed viewers in basic connoisseurship, and then asked them to study, assess, and vote on one work about which she was genuinely uncertain: Courbet or not? Though the exhibition was not the product of university-museum collaboration, Courbet/Not Courbet took the spirit of the university into an exhibition format by posing a question and inviting research into the answer. It refused the declarative statement in favor of exploration and inquiry. Audience-based research again indicates that today’s museum visitors do not like to be told what to think, that the presentation of a fixed narrative and an array of facts is unappealing and, ultimately, not terribly effective. Museums must not give up serious research or intellectual integrity in the face of such pressure. But they can work—as the Walters did in the case of Courbet—to reveal the thought process that goes into the conclusions they present, making the exhibition and the thinking behind it more transparent. This is less a literal collaboration with the university than a collaboration in spirit.

Many, more concrete forms of university-museum cooperation are possible, and at the moment institutions across the country are experimenting with different collaborative models. A number of university art museums (like the Smart Museum, mentioned above) have benefited from funds provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation beginning in the early 1990s, which recognized a serious divide between the work of museums and universities, even on university campuses. These funds, in the form of grants and matched endowments, were intended to promote active and profound engagement between the museum, faculty, and students. The resulting initiatives in many cases became models of how to navigate the museum-university divide and range from shared programming, to labels written from differing academic and personal perspectives, to exhibitions curated by faculty and students.

Some academic institutions have struck out in different directions, with varying motives. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, has recently established a partnership with the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, that permits advanced undergraduate and graduate students extensive, firsthand work in a museum, including an internship. The program, Illinois at the Phillips, provides a resource to students who would otherwise not have easy or deep access to a strong contemporary art collection and infuses the Phillips with energy and activity, from courses in the galleries (open as space allows to enrollment from the general community), to conversations with artists, to an annual academic symposium. The symposia meet in two sessions, one in Washington and one in Illinois, and are expected to result in jointly sponsored publications. In Florida, a strategic partnership between Miami International University and the Wolfsonian boosts the potential of two young institutions, providing the former with rich collections of interdisciplinary interest and the latter with a broader range of intellectual resources. Creative collaborative initiatives are also underway between the Bard Graduate Center and the Metropolitan; Rice University, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Menil Collection (focused on conservation and funded by the Mellon Foundation); and at Case Western Reserve University and the various museums in Cleveland’s University Circle.

At Johns Hopkins University we do not have an art museum (though our Archaeological Collection and two historic house museums are valuable assets, increasingly used in curricular initiatives). But we maintain close relationships with several significant institutions, namely the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art, our immediate next-door neighbor. Recognizing these assets, the university has tried various models of cooperation and collaboration, including internship and fellowship programs, courses taught collaboratively by faculty and curators, co-sponsored lectures and symposia, and faculty-curated exhibitions. A more ambitious and creative step was taken in 2004, when I was hired as a liaison to oversee and build academic relationships between the three institutions. Although this position was phased out after two years, it was successful as an in-depth investigation of the possibilities for partnership. Because I had staff positions at all three institutions, I became well acquainted with the various players, knew their goals, capabilities, and limitations, and was able to forge a vision for cooperation that was realistic and manageable. At Hopkins, this resulted in the Program in Museums and Society which, though wholly contained within the university, retains a lively link with both museums. This year, in fact, each one is hosting a student-curated exhibition.

The Hopkins experience offers several lessons. One is that collaboration and cooperation are greatly facilitated from within, by someone “embedded” in both institutions. A joint appointment that allows full insight into institutional operations is desirable, even if—as turned out to be the case at Hopkins—it is primarily an exploratory one leading to other models. Another lesson is that no single collaborative mode will fit all institutions and communities, and that flexibility, experimentation, and risk-taking are necessary for success. Hopkins lacks an art museum, but it does have a strong leaning toward critical rather than pre-professional training, great interest in museums from a range of departments (including Anthropology and History of Science and Technology), easy access to museums of all stripes, and a mission to build energy and excitement around its undergraduate humanities departments. The Program in Museums and Society serves these needs effectively and in a unique way.

There are certainly challenges to university-museum interactions, elements both concrete and abstract that hamper significant collaboration. These include the semester-based timetable of the university as opposed to the long lead-times required by the museum, the relative status of academic faculty and curators (a fraught issue in the university art museum, as well as in the discipline of art history more broadly), divergent institutional priorities, and inflexibility on both sides. A fundamental cultural difference exists as well in that museums are driven by teams while research in the humanities, with the occasional exception (as at the SHL), is driven by individuals. None of these challenges are insurmountable, however, and all of them can be overcome with the right combination of creativity and determination.

A more fundamental divide may be revealed by the fact that, just as we have no public art history, our (Anglo-Saxon) art museums are not called “art history museums.” The reasons for this are disciplinary, institutional, and material. Art is (about) much more than history. It has a complexity that stubbornly resists one person instructing another in how to experience it, and that likewise resists the notion that a museum’s task should be to “tell” us “about” it. This is not to deny scholarly expertise (as is the vogue among politicians who contest the opinions of medical researchers regarding the scientific value of stem cells, or climatologists regarding the impact or existence of global warming), but to acknowledge an immediate aesthetic element that stands outside knowledge. Art exists in the present, as an object, distinct from the myriad of interpretative frameworks that it might be given. David Carrier identifies this duality as a larger paradox that exists within “art history” itself.11 There is the art object, and there is historical analysis, but the former in no way depends on the latter. The implication for museums is that they must strike a balance between object and interpretation, must be sites of experience as well as of instruction. Academic collaborations and experimental laboratory models are well and good, but “art museums” should not, indeed cannot, become “art history museums.”

If the notion of the (university) art museum as laboratory extends back to Harvard in the era of Forbes and Sachs, it is worth considering how that notion has changed and what it might mean today. It is still the preferred metaphor for a creative and engaged use of museum spaces and collections. Indeed, Harvard University Art Museum (HUAM) Director Thomas Lentz describes the new museum facility currently being planned at Harvard as a “state-of-the-art visual arts laboratory.”12 But the earlier Harvard laboratory model was an inward one, concerned above all with developing expertise in the experts, honing their eyes, building their knowledge, and preparing them intellectually and professionally. The early twenty-first-century “museum-laboratory” has a broader scope, embracing not only an inward but an outward focus. In addition to training specialists in the material history of art, museums are ideal places to explore the issue of access, and to consider how the public encounters art, historic materials, and the work of scholarship.13

Again the case of Harvard is revealing. HUAM is currently engaged in research led by “Project Zero,” part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to analyze how visitors learn in museum study centers. This investigation considers not only art-history students at Harvard but a general museum audience, and so engages a range of questions (regarding pedagogy, accessibility, and even etiquette) that would not typically concern the initiated museum scholar training in connoisseurship. Similarly, “Project Zero” researchers anticipate extending their work in study centers to inform a broad spectrum of museum learning, including that which occurs in the galleries and through educational programming, and to suggest new models for HUAM as it grows.14

This is a very different model from the museum laboratory of Forbes and Sachs, and provides a useful point for returning to the notion of public art history and the museum’s role as meeting place for scholarly work and general audiences. Lisa Corrin, director of the Williams College Museum of Art, recounts how, when interviewing for her present position, the search committee informed her that they were seeking a “public intellectual,” someone who would present the work of the university to a general audience and would use her role to communicate broadly the complexities and the value of scholarly activity.15 This statement encapsulates, in a phrase, the potential of the museum to serve as the interface between academics and broader audiences, and the importance of making scholarship relevant. The same statement can be interpreted as a call for transparency: for universities to share their work more readily and easily with the public; for museums to permit a view behind the carefully polished surfaces of exhibition rhetoric; and for both to open a window onto serious, critical thinking about art and art history. The “crystal palace” of my title refers not only to the structure built in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851 (a landmark in exhibition history that is central to any study of the museum), but, metaphorically, to accessibility, particularly of the intellectual variety. This is something museums have to offer, and something universities need.

Elizabeth Rodini
Andrew Heiskell Arts Director
American Academy in Rome

1 The conference was held in April of 1999, and papers were published in The Two Art Histories: The Museum and the University, ed. Charles W. Haxthausen (Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2002).
fn2. For a white paper on the Miami conference, see Michael F. Brenson, “The University Art Museum in 2007: Hopes, Constraints, Questions,” August 2007, posted on the Wolfsonian’s website, Video recordings can be found at
fn3. This “trust” (and its betrayal) take many forms; see James Cuno, ed., Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004).
fn4. Felicia R. Lee, “Exploring the ‘Imprint’ of Black Americans,” The New York Times, April 16, 2007,
fn5. See Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London and New York: Routledge, 1995); Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994); and Carol Duncan, “From the Princely Gallery to the Public Art Museum: The Louvre Museum and the National Gallery, London,” ch. 2 in her Civilizing Ritual: Inside Public Art Museums (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), 21–47.
fn6. Arthur Coleman Danto et al, Art/Artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections, exh. cat. (New York: Center for African Art/Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1988).
fn7. Vastly More than Bricks and Mortar: Reinventing the Fogg Art Museum in the 1920s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Art Museums, 2003).
fn8. “From Being about Something to Being for Somebody: The Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum,” ch. 3 in Stephen E. Weil, Making Museums Matter (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002), 28–52.
fn9. Reinvigorating the Humanities: Enhancing Research and Education on Campus and Beyond, ed. Katherine Bailey Mathae and Catherine Langrehr Birzer (Washington, DC: Association of American Universities, 2004).The entire report is available online at
fn10. Nancy Cantor and Steven D. Lavine, “Taking Public Scholarship Seriously,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 9, 2006: B20.
fn11. See ch. 12, “Art History,” in Critical Terms for Art History, 2nd ed., ed. Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 174–87.
fn12. Building Our Future newsletter, spring 2007 issue,
fn13. This is the topic of an upcoming symposium entitled “The Public Object: Facing Contemporary Challenges in the Art Museum.” Jointly organized by the Program in Museums and Society at Johns Hopkins University and the Walters Art Museum, it will be held at the Walters on February 1, 2008. More information is available at
fn14. More information on this “Project Zero” research project, “Learning in and from Museum Study Centers,” which is led by Principal Investigator Shari Tishman, is available at
fn15. From her remarks on the panel “Beyond Graduation” at the 2006 Princeton-Wolfsonian Florida International University conference “Creator, Collector, Catalyst: The University Art Museum in the Twenty-first Century.”