Cuno Comes Back to Cambridge to Pump New Book

Former director of Harvard’s Art Museums returns to speak on the role and fate of art museums in America.

He disagrees with the argument that museums are “identity-forming institutions” and that the most “authentic voices” to understand a work of art come from the artist’s culture. Citing Edward Said, he called this an unfortunate consequence of nationalism and argued that museums should represent a diverse set of cultures.

Whose Muse is replete with stories of the power of art museums when encumbered by commercialism and money. Neil MacGregor, who directs London’s British Museum, relates the powerful story of how, during World War II, the National Gallery—which had shipped its collection off to Wales for safekeeping—bowed to public pressure and hung a single Old Master painting each month.

MacGregor quotes a 1942 letter to the Times of London, which asks, “Because London’s face is scarred and bruised these days, we need more than ever to see beautiful things…Music lovers are not denied their Beethoven, but picture lovers are denied their Rembrandts just at a time when such beauty is most potent for good. I know the risk, but I believe it would be worth it.” Soon the trustees agreed, and brought out Titian’s Noli Me Tangere, rushing it downstairs for each bomb alert.

This belief in the innate importance of art drives Whose Muse’s argument. And Cuno is hopeful that the authors’ “polemical” ideas are returning to the mainstream. Since Sept. 11, with a downturn in the economy and diminished tourism, Cuno argues that museums have shown “a greater humility and sense of caution,” which will rebuild the sense of public trust in art museums.

“I think there’s going to be a lessening of hyped activity and a return to the collection as a public legacy,” he says. “You see less chest-thumping behavior on the part of museums.”


—Staff writer J. Hale Russell can be reached at

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