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Up Close and Personal

The Magic of Museums and the Eloquence of Artifacts

MUSEUMS AND AMERICAN INTELLECTUAL LIFE: 1876-1926; \o7 By Steven Conn\f7 ;\o7 (University of Chicago Press: 302 pp., $32.50)\f7

THE HERMITAGE: The Biography of a Great Museum;\o7 By Geraldine Norman\f7 ; \o7 (Fromm International: 400 pp., $35)\f7

TOWARDS A NEW MUSEUM;\o7 By Victoria Newhouse\f7 ;\o7 (Monacelli: 288 pp., $45 paper)\f7

PORTRAITS: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre and Elsewhere;\o7 By Michael Kimmelman\f7 ;\o7 (Random House: 265 pp., $25.95)\f7

November 22, 1998|FRANCINE PROSE | Francine Prose is the author of "Guided Tours of Hell."

Sometimes, in sleepy Midwestern towns and Eastern European capitals, we may have the good fortune to wander into some melancholy collection of dusty artifacts or fossils and find ourselves transported back to the museums of our childhood: those stodgy, no-nonsense, deeply romantic institutions that have mostly vanished and reemerged, unrecognizably Disneyfied, interactive, child-centered and user-friendly. A dinosaur skeleton, a pottery shard lettered with spidery catalog numbers, an embarrassingly racist diorama of indigenous people at work or play--all evoke the atmosphere of those mysterious Victorian temples to knowledge, consecrated to the notion of human educability.

Four recent books invite us to consider the questions of what museums are and should be, of how and why they originated and of what they have become. These matters are addressed most directly in Steven Conn's study of--and lament for--the optimistic, democratic 19th century faith in an "object-based-epistemology," a belief "that the world could be understood through the collection, observation, classification and display of objects; and a certainty that this work served the higher purpose of illuminating God's plan for the world and humans' place in it."

Museums, argues Conn, were originally conceived not only as educational but also as research institutions charged with the dual task of producing new knowledge and communicating that knowledge to the masses. For most of this period, museums were laboratories for the study of the natural and social sciences, history and economics. By the early part of this century, this function was largely assumed by the universities, leaving museums to redefine their purpose. In support of his theory, Conn focuses on the evolution of some very different institutions: the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, Chicago's Field Museum, the now-defunct Philadelphia Commercial Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Art and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. He considers the ongoing debate about the manner in which objects are grouped (culturally or chronologically, for example), their skewed or accurate representations of history, and how museums have ceded their place on the cutting edge of knowledge, mostly to universities. There's something elegiac about this "narrative of failed hopes and reduced expectations" in this "rise and fall story" that, after we have read it, may partly explain the sadness of those deserted, out-of-the-way, provincial museums.

History's role in shaping the museum is documented rather more dramatically in Geraldine Norman's "The Hermitage." This study of St. Petersburg's magnificent collection provides an occasion for detailing the glorious excesses of the Russian monarchy, most notably Catherine the Great, who jump-started the museum with her "gluttonous"--to use Catherine's own word--acquisition of 4,000 Old Master paintings; her initial purchase in 1764 was a consignment of 225 master works originally intended for Frederick the Great of Prussia. In the late 19th century, the museum stagnated under the Romanovs and was used as a hospital during World War I.

Happily, the Bolshevik Revolution overlooked the museum's aristocratic origins, regarding it as "a precious repository of national culture which should be preserved for the enjoyment of the proletariat." But during the Stalinist era, "more than 50 curators were arrested and sentenced to internal exile, prison, labor camp, or execution"--all of them on trumped-up charges--and Communist Party leaders held a predictably dim view of any modern art that strayed from the dictates of Socialist Realism. Struck by 32 shells and two bombs during the Siege of Leningrad, which lasted from 1941 to 1944, the museum dispersed its holdings and offered sustenance to workers who staved off starvation by eating "the furniture glue which the Hermitage staff had learned to serve up as jelly--the large stock of glue laid in by the restorers just before the war was one of the principal reasons why any of the Hermitage staff survived. The restorers' drying oil was also used for frying appetizing morsels like potato peelings." After the war, the museum's exhibition space was increased to make room for the holdings, which were reassembled from their wartime shelters. In the last decade, we learn, the Hermitage's problems have become more like a severe version of the worries confronting the world's other major museums--funding, preservation, expansion.

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