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Why We Need Museums Now More Than Ever

An art critic and the Met's former director make the case for objects in the digital age

CRISTINA QUICLER/Stringer/Getty Images

Museums have long attracted rather woeful comparisons to mausoleums, tombs, and crime scenes, among other sites of death and decay. The French writer Paul Valéry once lamented that only in the museum do we “put the art of the past to death.” Just a few decades later, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno pronounced the museum as a family sepulcher, replete with “[d]ead visions,” where art is forced to relinquish “its place in the immediacy of life.” And in the late 1960s, the artist Allan Kaprow went so far as to say, “‘Life’ in the museum is like making love in a cemetery.”

Today’s museums, though, seem more vital than ever. Despite the increasing digitization of artworks, scores of art pilgrims still flock to destinations around the world, spanning from Paris, to Abu Dhabi, and coastal Mississippi. In 2012, American museums alone received an unprecedented 850 million visitors, according to the American Alliance of Museums. The Economist calculated “That is more than all the big-league sporting events and theme parks combined.” Austerity measures and a squeeze on subsidies have driven some institutions to near bankruptcy, but many have continued to flourish. A number have even indulged in elephantine (and often profligate) expansion projects, razing old buildings to accommodate ballooning crowds and changing appetites.

The museum of the digital age has shored up its financial security with spectacle: blockbuster exhibitions, cafés with cosmopolitan cuisine, rock concerts, soirées for college students, and gift shops vending jewelry, trinkets, furnishings, and posters of coveted artworks that hang nearby. The immersive experience, orchestrated from the grand steps to the bathrooms, can no longer claim to be geared exclusively toward education, repose, or cultural enrichment. It is also a consumer experience par excellence.

Rendez-Vous with Art

It is in this climate that an essential, though wholly unpresuming, volume has emerged at the hands of two debonair pilgrims—nowhere near the pulse of the digital age yet bearing the supplies to survive it. In Rendez-Vous with Art, the art critic Martin Gayford tags along with Philippe de Montebello, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s director emeritus, and the two carry on recorded conversations as they cruise through the Western art world. The text relies on de Montebello’s discerning aesthetic sensibilities, hard-earned after his 31-year tenure at the Met from 1977 to 2008 (the longest in the museum’s history), and Gayford’s percipient insight.

Despite its seemingly inconspicuous posture, the book is a needed intervention. Most surveys conducted by museums show that viewers rarely spend more than an average of 30 seconds looking at an artwork, and in many cases as little as seven. The exchanges in this book, accessible to both seasoned and uninitiated art enthusiasts, persuade us to slow down and savor the act of seeing: in its variegated pleasures, critical offerings, and challenges, both physical and psychological.

For de Montebello, worthwhile encounters with art require work. Visual arts, unlike performance or literature, can be deceptively taken in at a glance. “The result,” he says, “is that one sees things superficially, because fully to enter into a picture’s world and allow it to yield its many different layers of meaning requires at least several minutes.” Many museums, he reveals, promote their collections as outlets for entertainment to “beef up their numbers” and, as a result, they avoid challenging visitors so as not to “intimidate” them. Instead of trying to wrest the museum from its modish state, de Montebello and Gayford merely prop open a side entrance, offering readers a chance to enter through the galleries instead of the gift shop.

At the outset, Gayford joins de Montebello at his old stomping ground to experience a stunning fragment of Egyptian sculpture from the fourteenth century B.C., portraying a queen from Middle Egypt. A lower portion of a face, embellished with a sensuous pair of lips, is all that remains. “[Y]ellow jasper lips,” de Montebello calls the piece—as if referring to a toothsome mistress—is one of the finest works of any civilization he claims. If presented with the chance to reclaim the rest of her, he would decline, for he feels already so “captivated by the perfection of what is there.”

“The fragment,” one of the dominant tropes of their text, has ties to both art objects in the museum and their conversations. Since their meetings were nothing short of “opportunistic and impulsive,” they reflexively take shape as disjunctive chapters in the text. Each one, not sequential and mostly undated, hinges on a different conversation at art sites in New York, Florence, London, Paris, Madrid, Rotterdam, and The Hague.

The first few chapters present Florence on an afternoon in 2012, but we shortly find ourselves sloshing through the city’s flooded streets in 1966 as de Montebello recalls the great deluge of the Arno River, and then return to the present to be absorbed by a mythical beast—“part lion, part goat, part snake”—called the Chimera of Arezzo (400–350 BC) at the Archaeological Museum. The narrative winds in serpentine fashion and returns to the artwork—especially its capacity to enthrall and lift us from the world. De Montebello croons, “when wholly absorbed by it [an artwork], nothing else exists; we have abandoned our whole being to that one surpassing achievement.”

Just as their conversations are fragmentary, so too are objects in the museum, which are “detached from a greater whole,” Gayford writes. Whether pillaged spoils, family heirlooms, or votive offerings, nearly every possession in a museum’s holding has been deracinated. Although the history and the initial function of objects are made fugitive in their displacement, it is incumbent on the museum, or so many believe, to provide didactic material that partially reintroduces historical context. But the museum as a space for the public, predicated on the alienation of an object’s aesthetic qualities from its use-value, de Montebello reminds us, has only existed for a few centuries and is a “completely Western construct.” The Louvre opened its doors in 1793, and major American museums, such as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Met, did not exist until the 1870s and later. 

Museums, especially those in America, which did not begin with a wealth of dynastic spoils at hand, have long thrived on an impulse to bring history near by organizing the world through its objects—what de Montebello refers to as the “Western compulsion for categorization.” The late literary critic Eugenio Donato once argued that museums rely on this “fiction” so that their holdings can “somehow constitute a coherent representational universe.” This fiction informs acquisitions, exhaustive taxonomies, and approaches to display, all of which attest to a particular politics, as a museum’s staff chooses the grounds on which one version of history is written and maintained.

For de Montebello, the museum is not merely a repository of objects from which history is written, but also a locale threaded with the possibility of both cerebral and affective engagement. Unlike many scholars and museum professionals, de Montebello has always been keen on attending to the ways viewers viscerally respond in the museum. What seems universal, he claims, is: “Most people react and ‘feel’—or not—in front of works of art.” Throughout the conversations, he constantly returns to the way the body registers affect: how it desires, suffers, and changes in the presence of artwork. He, for instance, finds it difficult to transcend the vexations of his bad back—making his encounters with artwork contingent on his comfort. In reference to what philosophers would call the “embodied” act of seeing, de Montebello reminds that “The eyes are connected to every part of the body, not just the mind.” At the age of fifteen, after discovering a picture of the sculpture of Marchioness Uta in Naumburg Cathedral, de Montebello even recalls falling in the love for the first time: “I loved her as a woman…with her wonderful high collar, and her puffed eyelids, as though after a night of lovemaking.” Later in the book, he stumbles across the stunning little Portrait of Elisabeth Bellinhausen (c.1538-9) by Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder in the Mauritshuis, which elicits an equally tender response. The allure of fictive flesh, it seems, has drawn him back to the embodied experience of seeing for years. 

While Gayford and De Montebello never explicitly prescribe a way of navigating aesthetics, what makes their conversations exceptional is that they persuade readers to support a particular disposition towards seeing—one built not simply on pleasure and emotion but also on focus and critical awareness. Even though de Montebello is quick to adjudicate on quality at a moment’s notice, he believes: “there is a reason why museums have preserved and presented things, and it behooves us to try to understand why … it is incumbent on each of us to make some effort, at least.” 

At a moment when it is so convenient to encircle ourselves with images and digital ephemera, the museum holds a particular value: It is an abiding material ground, attesting to all varieties of beauty and history, which demand careful attention to be reckoned with.

Ever prescient and disgruntled, Adorno once wrote that artworks were “hoarded” in museums such that their “market value leaves no room for the pleasure of looking at them.” Gayford and de Montebello in this volume take on the order of creating slightly more room, imagining an opening through which different futures for the museum could enter, especially those founded on a love of looking.