Break up major museums?

Hrag Vartanian, ‘Break up the major museums to save them’, Aljazeera America, 31 August 2014

 August institutions should build more outposts rather than cloister themselves in big cities

The Louvre in Paris recently told The Art Newspaper that it expects its visitor numbers to rise by a third over the next decade, putting the world’s busiest art museum on track to welcome 12 million visitors annually by 2025. It’s a staggering figure that points to a growing reality facing art lovers and museumgoers: How can you expect to see and enjoy art through the chaotic crowds that are increasingly defining major museums?

In the last few years, many of the largest and most popular museums, including the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, have been experiencing significant issues with crowding. The head of visitor services at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg recently admitted to The New York Times, “Such a colossal number of simultaneous viewers isn’t good for the art, and it can be uncomfortable and overwhelming for those who come to see the art.” In the same article, an art historian disparaged the situation at the Uffizi Gallery, home to some of the most famous masterpieces of the Renaissance, saying, “It seems like a tropical greenhouse. You can’t breathe.”

Lest you think museum professionals are the only ones concerned, the voices of visitors are starting to echo on social media and websites such as TripAdvisor, where one review of the Vatican Museums encapsulates the anxiety perfectly: “Seriously, it would only take one person to trip or to cause some kind of mild panic or corridor rage … it doesn’t bear thinking of.” Another visitor, this one to the Louvre, wrote, “There was absolutely no way that myself and my family members could enjoy the museum. There are so many people that all you have time to do is make sure you aren’t trampled by the mass coming at you from every direction.”

The tension has been building, and not only among tourists and museum professionals. In 2011 one London critic coined the term “gallery rage” to describe the anger he felt when visiting the Tate Modern’s very popular Paul Gauguin show. It’s a feeling most of us can relate to. If museums in our imaginations are places of contemplation, in real life many are no longer the tranquil havens we wish them to be.

Some museums are responding to gallery rage. In 2011 the National Gallery in London limited the number of visitors to its Leonardo da Vinci exhibition even though it meant the museum would lose $14,850 a day. But few institutions can afford to turn away that kind of money. There must be another solution.

There is. We need to break up the major museums. That may sound radical to some, but it’s an idea whose time has come. I’m suggesting not that museums sell off their collections but that more museums consider aggressively building outposts or prioritizing longer-term partnerships with smaller or newer institutions that could benefit from such relationships.

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