Forging a Public Trust

Harvard’s chief art curator muses on the past and future of museums

With funding for cultural institutions on the decline, the question of the role of museums in preserving the artifacts of the past for societies present and future looms large. Perhaps no man struggles more with such questions than Harvard’s Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums, James Cuno. Originally a football jock with no interest in art, he changed course and in 1985 received a Ph.D. in Art History from Harvard, and has been the Director of its museums since 1991. Harvard itself has come under fire for its plans to expand its museums into Allston despite the outcries of local residents. The Harvard Crimson caught up with Cuno to ask him about the history and the future direction of the museum world.

The Harvard Crimson: Talk a little about the history of museums as cultural institutions and art history as an academic discipline? Which came first, or is it impossible to separate the two?

James Cuno: Museums are the product of an Enlightenment impulse to collect and categorize examples of knowledge, whether scientific or artistic. The initial modern museums appear in that age—like the British Museum in the mid-18th century, which was concerned with culture broadly stated, not just with art. The art museums of the French Revolution made available aristocratic collections to the people. During the 19th century, nations felt compelled to do so and developed the resources to do so. As museums developed, institutions of patronage broke down. In their place develop private galleries and individual bourgeois patrons become dominant in the second half of the 19th century. But artists want their works, if collected by private individuals, to end up in public institutions for them to be seen next to history. Painters are in some dynamic and negotiated relationship with the thought of the art historian. There was, as there is now, a three-way relationship between the art historian, the museum and the artist. And the private collector fuels that.

THC: Is the museum’s role at Harvard very linked to art history purposes and the world of academia?


JC: I think Harvard is a very verbal domain. We’ve got a long line of distinguished novelists, poets, playwrights, writers who come from Harvard; less distinguished, by far, is the line of painters or sculptors who come from Harvard. Something in the culture of the place encourages the verbal response to things over the visual. Now, museums are not here simply to respond to the interests of the History of Art and Architecture department. We are here to respond to and provoke the consideration of art as a distinct object. In the curriculum of the art history department it is in terms of history and the patterns of relationships over time; for the VES department it is in terms of the making of the thing. For museums, it is in terms of the thing made and seen on its own without the apparatus of history so that one can engage in a visual and critical analysis of that single object. I think that in some way we have a responsibility to both departments.

THC: But to some extent, isn’t the museum is very much in the tradition of the hands-off study of art?

JC: Well, the museum is a preservationist institution. It’s acquiring things to hold, in trust, forever, for the benefit of the students, faculty and the public who come. Now, we hope that from most exhibitions of contemporary art we acquire something for the collection, but it’s the other parts of the museum that are meant to really build the collection. Contemporary art is meant to take more chances, see how things look, to put them in different relationships with each other and see how they hold up over time. So the museum is essentially, as an institution, conservative. The gallery system ought to be less so.

THC: Some have advocated a need for rigorously redefining the museum’s role to address the current intermingling of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art or culture. Is this acceptable for a living, breathing institution?

JC: I think for a museum to be a vital part of the culture in which it finds itself, it should have a dynamic relationship with that culture. The influence ought to go in both directions. The museum doesn’t need to become like a circus or shopping mall; it doesn’t need to emulate these commercial culture entities in order to justify itself in the world or to attract the numbers of people that keep it alive financially. Now there is a distinction between popular culture and commercial culture. Museums are about slowing people down and changing the pace at which they regard the visual world and asking them to look longer at certain things. It ought to be a world apart from the street. In that respect, we need to not emulate the street.

THC: What are the implications of the explosion of museum expansions at Harvard, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the MOMA, and others?

JC: The expansions are motivated by different things. We’ve got to provide more space for our growing collections. And because of the great numbers of people coming to museums and the now greater variety of people—different in age, in academic preparation, in expectations they may have about the experience in the museum—we must provide different levels and more of the visitor amenities. You’ll have more people go to art museums in the United States than go to all sporting events combined. Five million a year go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, five million go to the National Gallery in Washington.

THC: People often worry that the architecture of these new museums overtakes the artwork.

JC: If it’s done for the wrong reasons, it can. The overall concern should be providing improved conditions to engage with works of art. If that is a lower priority to the signature style architectural building, that could be in conflict with the space, it is a problem. It has been a problem in some institutions where it is really about the exterior image of the building that can be captured in a photograph of the city; it’s not really about the works of art. The more you build, the more money you have to raise under pressure. And when you raise money under pressure, you might take more risks with regard to the people you get involved with.

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