It would be nice if I could post a photo of the Berkshire Museum in connection with positive news, but… [sigh]
“How could we continue to live if we were changeless?*” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Change is scary. Change is necessary. Change is unavoidable. That’s the mantra for this week. The hard part is knowing which changes are beneficial and which are not.
The Berkshire Museum has so far cleared all hurdles toward selling the best of its art collection to help fund an ill-considered expansion program. The best-known of those works, Shuffleton’s Barber Shop by Norman Rockwell, has already been sold to the embryonic (or nascent?) Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. The idea that this sale will ensure the Berkshire Museum’s future would be laughable were it not so sad.
I passed by the museum over the weekend. I didn’t stop. There was no point in stopping.
A few weeks ago I started seeing images of this shirt, designed by Mike Murawski and LaTanya Autry, and it stuck with me at once. You can read more about the shirt here on Murawski’s blog. One of the ongoing debates about museums is how to keep them relevant, and acknowledging the role of the museum in social debate is a big part of that. Many museums were, and continue to be, built with large donations from people and/or corporations whose ethics and business practices are worrisome, if not outright deplorable. Museums have long turned a blind eye to this – and, let’s be clear, some museums would not exist today without those donations. Should museums be more critical of their donors? Yes, and that conversation is one that should never stop.
But greater concerns arise once the museum itself is built. A donor might give money to an institution, but that should not affect how the museum’s programming is shaped. And museums should not shy away from examining contemporary social issues in their galleries and programs. Issues of the time – for example, a sociological study of peasant life in the Renaissance as depicted by painters of the period – are fine, and sadly uncommon in museums – but today’s issues must also be addressed. How people lived casts a light on how we live now. Concerns about ideology coloring exhibitions are all well and good, but this has always happened. “Don’t rock the boat” is a sociopolitical stance.
Museums have never been neutral, but they have maintained a false veneer of neutrality. It’s time to put that aside and be a part of the world. Relevance is important, and the boilerplate objection to arts funding is that art is not relevant. That’s nonsense, and shows the poor reasoning of those who make that argument. As our understanding of issues changes, so should how museums approach those issues. This is always happening, at times of a small scale, but it’s time for a more intentional approach throughout the field.
*Quote from Fragrant Palm Leaves, Journals 1962-1966, pp.86-7. Copyright 1966 by Thich Nhat Hanh. Translation copyright 1998 by Mobi Warren. Published by Parallax Press, Berkeley, California