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The Old College Try

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The Old College Try

THE NEW CRITERION, December 2018

The old college try

On the renovation of Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art.

If the architecture of the American university is said to have a common style, it surely must be the style of aspiration. With no native vernacular academic form, there is little that is organic in the creation of American campuses. The appearance of our universities varies widely, and in recent times schizophrenically, not just school to school but building to building. What unites them all, for better or worse, is the desire to convey their mission in solid form.

Through the nineteenth century and into the first decades of the twentieth, such aspiration drove an extraordinary program of campus design. Today we still consider this era to have produced the quintessence of American academic architecture along with its most affecting structures. As campus buildings were grafted onto older Western roots, Georgian, Gothic, Classical, and other motifs elided the European past with the American present. Where more than one such style coexisted on campus, as they often did, the buildings engaged in quiet conversation. Such forms not only gave shape to external appearances, but also spoke to the coherent internal values of the institutions they housed and contained.

Education of the new nation, they said, derived from the inherited values of the Old World. Here the campus library took architectural precedence. As both the containers and conveyors of knowledge, these libraries became the focus of campus plans. Meanwhile, structures for administration, faculty, and students deferred in their appearance and ambition, often crystallizing in quadrangles arrayed around a central library.

Over the last half century, the increasing architectural incoherence of the American university has foretold changing academic fortunes. In the rush to declare the latest accommodations, auditoriums and gymnasiums, science labs and food halls have clamored for architectural attention. A cacophony of economic interests, fractious politics, and ever-changing priorities has turned the tone of college campuses from study halls into shouting matches. Today’s campuses have become sprawling noisemakers that echo their own educational discordance.

Architectural aspiration, once focused outward, has turned inward against the university’s existing motifs. Building has gone against building as campus architecture has become a blood sport. A competition of progressive forms has not only given shape to new appearances but also spoken to new values. Through rapid cycles of construction and demolition—heralded through never-ending campaigns for capital donations—campuses today aspire to be something smarter than their historical selves. As each new generation of college leadership turns against its predecessor, older buildings go down and new ones go up in the hopes that the ideas they contain will be of the moment. Replacing the timeless with the timely, aspiring to be in the fleeting present, a permanent evanescence has become the academic architectural norm.

The Dartmouth College green. Photo: Dartmouth College.

The Dartmouth College green. Photo: Dartmouth College.

The campus of Dartmouth College, where I was an undergraduate, has long been exclamatory in its architectural aspirations. This fall I had occasion to revisit it during the $50 million renovation of the school’s Hood Museum of Art by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. Even before breaking ground, this renovation, set to open in early 2019, drew public scrutiny, since it includes the partial demolition of the award-winning 1985 museum building by Charles Willard Moore and Chad Floyd. Replacing Moore’s postmodern concoction with the lyrical brutalism of Williams-Tsien, this ostentatious enactment of burial and renewal speaks to the head-spinning shifts of the mercurial contemporary campus.

“The College on the Hill” of Hanover, New Hampshire, sited on a high plain along the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River, Dartmouth has evolved from a missionary outpost chartered in 1769 “to Christianize the heathen” into an elite but removed member of the laureled Ivy League. The college motto, Vox Clamantis in Deserto—“a voice crying out in the wilderness”—has likewise evolved from a passage from the Book of Isaiah, later recalled by John the Baptist, into an expression of the college’s own remote longings, which can be celebratory at times and resentful at others over its academic remove.

Throughout its long history, the architecture of the Dartmouth campus has pivoted around a five-acre open plot known as the Green, which was at one time the grazing land for the remote academic settlement. With the Federal-style Dartmouth Hall of 1784 on College Street to the east, the campus originally faced west, looking back over the Green and the Connecticut River. In 1839, Reed Hall, a neighboring Federal building designed in the dimensions of the Parthenon, housed the college’s first central library. Starting in 1884, Wilson Hall, a fanciful Romanesque pile south of the Green on Wheelock Street, began serving as a new and larger library facility as well as the college’s picture gallery. Finally, in 1928, the campus’s orientation pivoted again, this time to the north, with the completion of Baker Library.

With each of these turns around the Green, the college’s architecture added to the forms of what came before as it tracked the school’s rising stature. What was once an educational redoubt—“a small college, and yet there are those who love it,” as Daniel Webster said in defense of his alma mater in the Supreme Court case of Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward of 1819—evolved into a venerable American institution.

Modeled on the Georgian design of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, Baker Library, along with Dartmouth Hall, continues to serve as the architectural standard-bearer of the school. With its four-sided clock and bell tower, Baker represents the brains and heart of the institution, topping off at two hundred feet with a six-hundred-pound copper weather vane depicting the college’s founder, Eleazar Wheelock, with the Mohegan Samson Occom and a barrel of rum beneath the “Old Pine.” Just below, during trustee weekends, the elevated facets of Baker Tower are illuminated in green—a beacon in the color of the school now known during fundraising drives as the “money light.”

It is worthwhile here to note that the many traditional motifs brought to campus during this long period were revivalist forms incorporated by some of the leading architects of the day, such as Lamb & Rich and John Russell Pope. Their employment was supported by philanthropists with a deep engagement in art and architecture such as George Fisher Baker, a board member of the Metropolitan Museum, who dedicated his library as a memorial to his uncle Fisher Ames Baker. These commissions endured well into the age of the skyscraper. Beneath its traditional forms, Baker Library was built with the steel frame structure of a modern building.

Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center with the Hanover Inn in the background.

Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center with the Hanover Inn in the background.

In the post-war years, college planners have challenged the school’s cherished architectural vocabulary not despite but because of its high standing among students and alumni. An appeal for the new has cut against old ideas, old men, and old forms. In the late 1950s, the Choate Cluster of dormitories, designed to be an experiment in student living, landed on campus like a value-engineered lunar base connected through elevated air locks. Stripped of ornament, the River Cluster of dormitories, constructed between 1958 and 1982 and originally known as “The Wigwams,” had all the architectural ambition of a low-rise urban redevelopment scheme.

Dartmouth’s greatest architectural challenge came with the construction of the Hopkins Center in 1962. Championed by Nelson Rockefeller, Dartmouth class of 1930, the campus’s arts complex next to Wilson Hall on the southern side of the Green was designed by Wallace K. Harrison to be a beacon for what was thought to be a culturally impoverished student body. Harrison used “The Hop” as a prototype for New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, which opened four years later. The similarities here are both obvious and unfortunate. The Met’s older sibling has never settled into the look or life of the New Hampshire college. The shock and schlock it introduced to the Green, facing down Baker Library, continue to disrupt the school’s primary architectural fabric.

When Charles Moore took on the design of the Hood Museum for a back corner space left between the Hopkins Center and Wilson Hall, he confronted the challenge of uniting modern and pre-modern with a postmodern confection of the two. Named after the milk magnate Harvey P. Hood, Dartmouth class of 1918, the museum, when it opened in 1985, became Moore’s most notable institutional building and a reflection of the school’s own evolving architectural rhetoric.

Moore’s mode of postmodernism drew on traditional idioms for progressive ends. For the traditionalists, his style made amends for modernism’s campus follies, yet it did so with fingers crossed and tongue in cheek. Writing of the museum’s opening in these pages in November 1985, Roger Kimball took note of Moore’s “self-consciously historicizing architecture” that drew on the campus’s colonial and Georgian forms, but with an “underlying current of architectural trickiness and free play.” Treating tradition as a “more or less neutral storehouse full of stylistic tricks,” the building “exhibits an arbitrariness and frivolity that excludes it from any genuine tradition.”

Apparent in retrospect, the frivolity of the Hood was largely lost on me as an undergraduate. I am not sure I ever found the museum’s front door. Moore was known for oversized piazzas that went nowhere. His Hood began with a “triumphal arch” connecting Wilson and The Hop followed by an open courtyard of uncertain egress. Buzz Yudell, Moore’s architectural partner, applauded the building’s “wonderful sequence of invitation, of discovery unfolding . . . a choreography of experience that works all the way from the outside through the courtyard and inside the building.” Such balletic sensibility was supposedly conveyed through a sculpture of a dancing figure by Joel Shapiro commissioned for the site.

Nevertheless, this college dance always ended in heartbreak. Follow one path and you were spit out the back of the building. Follow another and you were clobbered by the snowdrifts that had built up on Moore’s rooflines. Taking classical orders and tangling them into an irrational knot, Moore disrupted the visitor’s wayfinding at every turn. Anyone looking for art would be stood up at the door. And if you made it inside, Moore placed a guard on an elevated perch at the front desk to frown on the frivolity. These obstacles to entry were a shame, since the college’s collection includes such treasures as Assyrian relief panels from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II on through an impressive survey of work by the college’s artists in residence.

The old Hood Museum of Art. Photo: Timothy Hursley.

The old Hood Museum of Art. Photo: Timothy Hursley.

Like Jesus and Alexander the Great, it seems that the life of an architectural style now lasts thirty-three years, give or take. What starts in infancy praised by wise men ends in premature death. Moore’s Hood Museum was the height of sophistication in 1985. In 2018, his architectural references and games have been replaced by new demands for access and transparency, all against a backdrop of renewed suspicions of cultural inheritance along with a joyless sobriety that can be puritanical in its enforcement. Moore’s fall from grace reflects the decline of postmodern architecture in general, where even Philip Johnson’s landmark at&t Building now faces down brutalist intervention.

With such buildings as the “new” Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have distinguished themselves through designs that impose brutalist order onto historical motifs, tempering their own anti-historicist forms with sumptuous materials. At the Hood, they have stripped off Moore’s archway and north façade and half covered over his courtyard with a pillbox bunker of Flemish bond brick. A solitary square fourteen-foot window faces Baker Library like a vitrine and gun emplacement to shoot the art collection onto the Green. With the right object in view during their somnambulating passage to class, not even a preliterate undergraduate may mistake this new building for anything other than an art museum.

Preservationists have been quick to point out the irony, if not the hypocrisy, of the partial destruction of Moore’s museum by Williams and Tsien. In 2014, these architects objected vociferously to the destruction of their own American Folk Art Museum building of 2001 after its takeover by the Museum of Modern Art. When MOMA floated the idea of salvaging parts of their building, Williams and Tsien maintained their museum was “a whole” and rejected such “façadism.” “The idea of installing a few panels somewhere doesn’t interest me,” Williams said at the time.

Of course, this is precisely what these two have done at Dartmouth—salvaging, modifying, and demolishing various parts of Moore’s design. “I don’t care about the criticism,” Williams said when I asked him about preservationist concerns, including those voiced by the Charles Moore Foundation. “We do everything we can, absolutely, to try to respect the Moore work, to respect Dartmouth, to respect the Hood as it grows and grows into the future. I am completely and utterly convinced that we have done everything we can. It was all entangled.”

The planned north façade of the new Hood Museum. Rendering: MARCH.

The planned north façade of the new Hood Museum. Rendering: MARCH.

Undoubtedly the new Hood will solve many of the problems of the 1985 museum, which Moore entangled quite deliberately. Sight lines have been straightened. New rooms for collection study and “experiential learning” have been established. New white-box spaces will display the school’s modern and contemporary collections to greater effect. Much expense has even gone into preserving parts of Moore’s waterlogged building, including the addition of new mechanisms to melt the snow that accumulates on his copper roof. After the mysterious departure of his predecessor, the Hood’s current director, John Stomberg, continues to manage the museum ably even through the construction, maintaining an interim gallery in a storefront on Main Street.

The most prominent change will be the addition of a new social space recovered from Moore’s courtyard. This cavernous lobby, performance hanger, and student lounge will also serve as a space for donor cultivation, much as the Barnes foyer by day converts into an entertainment venue by night.

Here ultimately is the latest priority for campus architecture. Institutions are now competing for increasingly concentrated and demanding donor dollars, along with wall space for their prized contemporary collections. Funded during the “quiet phase” of the plan, the new Hood is the leading edge of the school’s new $3 billion comprehensive capital campaign, titled “The Call to Lead”—in which, presumably, old ideas, old men, and old forms should not be followed.

Through rationalism richly appointed, the new museum breaks from the past by offering insiders first-class passage into the future. A lot less could have been imposed to preserve Moore in its entirety while still adding to the exhibition space of the museum. A one-time proposal to turn the romanesque arch of Wilson Hall into the museum entrance would have restored the primacy and original intent of this overlooked campus building. No less than Robert Frost credits Wilson Hall with inspiring him to become a poet when he walked through its arch as a freshman in 1892 and came upon a poem by Richard Hovey published in the November 17 edition of The Independent.

But such preservation is never the true aspiration of the contemporary university. Quite the opposite: the public destruction of old forms has become as important as the erection of new ones. The question is not what has been, but what could be created to “effect change and improve lives around the world,” in the words of Dartmouth’s new capital campaign. The American college of the present must be focused on the future. The results may be good for college architects but bad for college architecture. Once the shovel hits the ground, a building is already a thing of the past.

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The museum of the present

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The museum of the present

THE NEW CRITERION

December 2016

The Museum of the Present

What’s a museum? This is a question I have asked more than once in The New Criterion. It’s one this magazine has been asking since its first issue. And it’s one that I wish museums would ask more frequently of themselves. Because the answers are changing—through assumptions that are often unannounced, unacknowledged, and unexplored.

Writing nearly twenty years ago on “the ongoing transformation of the American museum,” the late theorist Stephen E. Weil identified how museums were moving from “being about something to being for somebody.” This is a phrase that has been taken up by critics of contemporary museum culture, but for Weil it signaled a positive change, a momentous redirection he traced back to the cultural revolts of the 1960s. The museum of the past, he said, was content to care for the “oldfashioned satisfaction,” “aesthetic refreshment,” and “pleasure and delight” of its permanent collection—or what the museum director Barbara Franco derided as the “salvage and warehouse business.” Through new evaluation standards tied to continued tax-exempt status, Weil argued, the museum of today “is being told that to earn its keep requires that it be something more important than just an orderly warehouse.” In other words, through historical inevitability and government coercion, Weil concluded, the museum of tomorrow must come to see itself not as the steward of a collection of objects but as “an instrument for social change.”

Twenty years on, the prophecy is coming true—but with increasingly ominous and destructive results, especially for collecting museums. In 1997 the Brazilian museum director Maria de Lourdes Horta envisioned how “a museum without walls and without objects, a true virtual museum, is being born” to be “used in a new way, as tools for self-expression, self-recognition, and representation.” Or as Neal Benezra, the director of sfmoma, more recently observed, “times have changed. Back then, a museum’s fundamental role was about taking care of and protecting the art, but this century it’s much more about the visitor experience.”

Over the last few decades the American museum has only been too successful at turning this vision into reality. By the numbers, museums have become thriving enterprises, competing and ballooning into what we might call a museum industrial complex. Today there are 3,500 art museums in the United States, more than half of them founded after 1970, and 17,000 museums of all types in total, including science museums, children’s museums, and historical houses. Attendance at art museums is booming, rising from 22 million a year in 1962 to over 100 million in 2000. At the same time, and hand in hand with these numbers, billions of dollars have been spent on projects that have largely focused on expanding the social-service offerings at these institutions—restaurants, auditoriums, educational divisions, event spaces—rather than additional rooms for collections. At the present rate, the museum of the future will virtually be a museum without objects, as new non-collection spaces dwarf exhibition halls with the promise that no direct contact with the past will disturb your meal. As London’s Victoria and Albert Museum once advertised, the museum of the future will finally be a café with “art on the side.”

The museum of the past focused on its permanent collection. The museum of the present forsakes the visited, and its own cultural importance, to focus on the visitor. From offering an unmediated window onto the real and astonishing objects of history, the contemporary museum increasingly looks to reify our own socially mediated self-reflections. This it does not learn from history but to show the superiority of our present time over past relics. The result is a museum that succeeds, by every popular measure, in its own destruction—a museum that is no longer an ark of culture, but one where the artifact at greatest risk is the museum itself.

The American art museum was born in the nineteenth century, a century later than its European counterparts and largely as an answer to those institutions, but with a unique American quality tied to its permanent collection. Unlike in Europe, where museums were either created out of revolutionary turmoil or acts of government, almost all American institutions were founded and supported by the free will of private individuals. The treasures these benefactors bequeathed became not only public objects of secular devotion but also tokens of the idealism behind the institutions that maintained them. As manifestations of private wealth transferred to the public trust, American museums were founded, in part, to represent our civic virtues. The aesthetic education offered through their permanent collections was not just about history and connoisseurship. It was also about how hard work can become an expression of virtue by gifting objects to the public trust. It’s truly an astonishing American story: no other country has seen such private wealth, accumulated through industry, willingly transferred to the public good.

But it wasn’t long into the twentieth century before some American museums began to attack their own cellular structure, usually in the pursuit of progressive social change. These assaults were most manifest in the physical transformations and deformations of institutional buildings. Now, in many cases it should be said that the changing appearance of our museums was benign. Rather than malignant tumors, they signaled healthy growth through evolving architectural styles. The dozen or so buildings that make up the Metropolitan Museum of Art have created a unified whole out of an assembly that range from Gothic Revival to Beaux-Arts to modern. These diverse structures complement one another and work to complete the museum’s founding vision.

In contrast, consider the history of the Brooklyn Museum—born in 1823 nearly a half century before the Met and a manifestation of rising civic confidence in a borough that was once America’s third-largest independent city. In the 1930s, a progressive director by the name of Philip Newell Youtz launched an assault on his nineteenth-century museum from which this great unfinished institution has never recovered. Believing that the “museum of today must meet contemporary needs,” Youtz attacked the museum’s 1897 home designed by McKim, Mead & White on Eastern Parkway and vowed to “turn a useless Renaissance palace into a serviceable modern museum.” Praising the educational practices of the new Soviet museums, he undertook the transformation of the Brooklyn Museum from a temple of contemplation into a school of instruction, where the arts were put in the service of progressive ends and funding would derive from the state rather than private philanthropy. Youtz sought to transform his institution into a “socially oriented museum” with, as he stated, “a collection of people surrounded by objects, not a collection of objects surrounded by people.” He even hired department store window-dressers to arrange exhibitions and transform his collection into a parade of teachable moments.

Beyoncé Knowles with  Apollo killing the Python snake  at the Louvre .

Beyoncé Knowles with Apollo killing the Python snake at the Louvre.

Youtz then turned his programmatic assault into a physical one. Historians may question the ultimate motivation behind his demolition of the Brooklyn Museum’s exterior Grand Staircase, which once resembled the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was meant to elevate the museum-goer from Eastern Parkway into the refined precincts of the museum. What is not in doubt is Youtz’s belief that his iconoclasm, pushing the museum lobby down to street level, “improved” upon the McKim, Mead & White design. Continuing in this way, Youtz went about mutilating much of the museum’s ornamental interior.

In this example, we can see that a progressive strain agitating for a more “socially orientated museum” long predates the 1960s. But since the 1960s, such progressive ideology, combined with what I would call a non-profit profit motive that seeks ever larger crowds, greater publicity, expanding spaces, ballooning budgets, and bloated bureaucracy—a circular system that feeds on itself—has turned the American museum into a neoliberal juggernaut.

The expansion plans that museums now seem to announce by the day may appear to be the evidence of healthy organic growth. But their motivations are just as often closer in ideology to the removal of the Brooklyn Museum’s Grand Staircase—efforts at distancing the present from the past.

There are many examples. The 70,000-square-foot $114 million new wing of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which opened in 2012, is but one. Designed by Renzo Piano, the building, which required the demolition of Gardner’s historic carriage house, now serves as the only entrance to the institution and connects with the original museum through a glass-enclosed airlock. The addition offers a Kunsthalle for new art, eateries, shops, a greenhouse, a visitor “living room,” and apartments. All are attractive, but for what end? A greenhouse to cultivate new interest? A hundred-million-dollar engine to generate new donors—even as streaks of rust still stain the museum courtyard? I would argue that the expansion primarily serves to quarantine the original museum’s antiquity behind an architectural filtration system. With the anointment of “Renzo’s oil,” the museum shifts its focus from what is left of its collection onto the visitor experience. As the Gardner’s director explained to me at the time of the opening, finally those people in their cars on Fenway Park Drive will recognize the Gardner as a museum, because here is Renzo Piano. Nevermind that the Gardner’s fanciful palazzo has been a signature of the Boston streetscape since 1903.

Back in New York, the Whitney, a museum with a vastly different history, relocated in 2015 from the Upper East Side to a flood zone along the Hudson River with results that are surprisingly similar to the Gardner’s. We have heard the modern museum referred to as a “white box.” Designed, again, by Renzo Piano, here is the museum as sky-box, an institution built as much to be looked out of as looked into, a place where see-and-be-seen has moved from the periphery to the main event. As opposed to the Whitney’s former fortress of solitude on Madison Avenue, designed by Marcel Breuer in 1966, the new museum metaphorically explodes, reprocesses, and repackages its own history through a giddy, irrational space for spectacle and an incinerator for its dusty, unwanted past.

This may be one reason why the institution has been rechristened as, simply, whitney, dropping the words “museum,” “American,” and “art” from its branding. Yet while Piano increased the Whitney’s floorplan from 85,000 to 220,000 square feet, just 50,000 of that is going to indoor galleries, up from 33,000 on Madison Avenue. The rest goes to multi-million-dollar views and a circulation system that forces the museumgoer outside onto a fire escape turned against the skyline, which like Piano’s Pompidou treats the museum as an institutional theater.

Do all of these initiatives really turn museums into instruments of “social change”? Do they merely justify bigger budgets and higher ticket prices? I would argue that by mediating our experience through ever more gauzy filters they in fact blunt the true radicalism of our direct encounter with the objects of history. Rather than “decentering us at a radical moment of unselfing,” as the director James Cuno once observed, today’s institutions promote “museum selfie day” and roll out every trick at recentering the experience of the museum around you. What better way, after all, to reap the benefits of hashtag advertising while entertaining the egocentrism of your turnstile clientele.

But why not? What is so wrong about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent promotion of “nail art sessions by Lady Fancy Nails” as it did around the show “Manus x Machina”?

Or what about a promotion by the Art Institute of Chicago that offered a “full-size replica of Van Gogh’s painting The Bedroom” available for nightly rental on AirBnB.

Or how about this season’s “Met Workout,” a museum-sponsored event that advertises: “Goodbye SoulCycle, hello Vermeer and Picasso. You thought just trying to stroll through The Met collection was a workout? Try doing stretches in the shadow of Diana or squats while pondering the shapely poise of John Singer Sargent’s Madame X.”

Maurizio Cattelan with his sculpture  America  t the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Maurizio Cattelan with his sculpture America t the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

This fall the Guggenheim museum installed a working gold toilet designed by the neo-Dadaist Maurizio Cattelan in one of its bathrooms. The facility, which requires a special guard and janitor, attracts hour-long lines that snake up the rotunda. This interactive Duchampian sculpture, the most shared golden toilet on the internet, is called America (how original), but it might just as well be titled “the museum.” The provocation is presented as an inside joke, but it ultimately degrades the institution itself for one more social-media share. A golden toilet is an appropriate symbol for the museum fully dedicated to the visitor experience.

The problem is that such promotions, by converting the museum from a temple of culture into a cathedral of the self, spend down its reserves of virtue. The Instagram age has little need for more venues for “self-expression, self-recognition, and representation.” Our times yearn for a real, unmediated engagement with the objects of the past that only a traditional collection-based museum can offer. This may be one reason why we saw a widespread uproar over the recent rebranding of the Metropolitan Museum. It wasn’t so much over its lackluster typography and a spendthrift rollout at a time of operational shortfalls. It was that so many people deeply admired what the museum’s traditional brand had come to represent.

There are many counterexamples to this story—museums that resist progressive currents and reaffirm their original collection mandates. Increasingly I draw encouragement not from too-big-to-fail institutions but from those tributaries and backwaters of our museum mainstream—from New York’s Hispanic Society, for example, preserved in amber on 155th Street and Broadway, to house museums like the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights, where Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote parts of Hamilton while sitting in Aaron Burr’s bedroom. Museum trustees still have the power to redirect their resources away from artless atriums and administrative bloat to true collection access through initiatives such as the visible storage centers sponsored by Henry R. Luce.

But I suspect we have only seen the proverbial tip of the iceberg now in the path of the museum at full speed. Museums may assume that new buildings and hashtag diplomacy will insulate them from the most destructive progressivist mandates, but these are just openings for a new generation of cultural leaders, contemptuous of the permanent collections of robber barons, to undermine their stewardship. Already, ill-adventuring museum directors such as Thomas Hoving have shown us what could be done through deaccessioning when, in the early 1970s, he began liquidating bequests over the objections of his curators to enhance his own discretionary spending. Now look for a further loosening of deacession standards.

For a generation, museums have chased after the numbers, with blockbuster exhibitions and amenities that have indirectly ceded curatorial control to the turnstile. The government now looks to accelerate this abdication of leadership through “reenvisioning our grant programs,” as the National Endowment for the Humanities announced this year.

If the museum visitor now expects to receive the keys to the collection, backed by government mandates, there may be little hope to save the museum from populist whim. In October an activist group called “Decolonize This Place” continued its targeting of museums by storming the rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History. Chanting “Respect! Remove! Rename,” they then covered the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt and demanded “that City Council members vote to remove this monument to racial conquest.” At one time this might have seemed like an extreme suggestion, but given the current iconoclasm on university campuses, the protesters know they are part of a populist insurgency. This is the end result of the “museum for somebody”: a museum without objects that is ultimately objectless—a museum for nobody.

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