"Museum Skepticism" and the future of the Cleveland Museum of Art

Submitted by Evelyn Kiefer on Tue, 06/06/2006 - 12:01.


The Cleveland Museum of Art is difficult to recognize these days as it forges ahead with its major expansion and renovation project. One thing is certain, when the CMA reopens it will be a very different place. Will you miss the old museum and what are your hopes for the new, bigger and better CMA? What is the role of the CMA in Cleveland? and what does the CMA mean to you? Did you visit regularly before it closed last winter? Did you pay to go to the big special exhibitions? Do you visit art museums in other cities? If these are issues that interest you, you should read Museum Skepticism, a new book by Prof. David Carrier who teaches art history at Case. The following is a review that appeared on Case's homepage today.


When the Cleveland Museum of Art first opened, museum-bound visitors disembarked from the Euclid Avenue street car, walked around the lagoon and then ascended the museum steps as though entering a temple to be elevated out of ordinary life.

"The grounds were almost sacred," said David Carrier, Case Western Reserve University art historian and the author of the newly published Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries (Duke University Press).

"Today that has changed," he added. "Cleveland's museum and others have become entertainment destinations with special exhibitions, movies, concerts, cafés and stores."

Cleveland is an example of the evolution—and survival—of the public art museum.

In Carrier's new book, he raises the question of how the physical structure—or what is described as "the envelope" encasing museum treasures—changes how people view art work.

Museum Skepticism pursues the debate of the museum skeptic that believes "art cannot survive the metamorphosis taking place when it enters the museum."

Today's museum in Cleveland is much different from that under Sherman Lee's direction where he amassed a large collection of Asian art. Originally established by members of a burgeoning industrial community that wanted to channel its wealth to serve the public good, Lee, along with his education director Thomas Munro, set out to enlighten the public through its vast collections.

Lee's view of exhibiting works in hallowed spaces was juxtaposed against Thomas Hoving from New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, whom Lee abhorred for his determined populist's staging of art extravaganzas to create large and enthusiastic public audiences.

Carrier said in the end, Hoving's model has won.

According to Carrier, most major cities—as part of their identity—have an art museum. The concept of the public museum had its birth on August 10, 1793 when Dominique Vivant Denon's transformed the Louvre, the former Parisian palace of France's kings, into an art museum with plunder looted from Napoleonic wars and quests to symbolize power for a new democratic public.

Carrier jostles a range of theories from the Marxist, Hegelians to a middle ground view to look at whether art, taken from Greek temples or sacred altars of Italian churches and placed in a Louvre or Metropolitan loses, changes or can sustain its original meaning and purpose.

"Case studies are required to see how a work of art survives the changes of its envelope," writes Carrier, the Champney Family Professor of Art History at Case and the Cleveland Institute of Art.

He chose to study the art collections, starting with Denon and the Louvre, moving to Bernard Berenson and the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum; Ernest Fellosa's Asian art collection for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; Albert Barnes, a collector of modern art; Richard Meier, the architect for the J. Paul Getty Museum and Sherman Lee and Thomas Munro from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

"The focus on these institutions gives a perspective on the larger issue," said Carrier.

Some of those perspectives he offers are the decorative arrangement of art in the Gardner to art history in chronological order like the chapters in a book as seen in Cleveland and many other museums.

"As you walk through the museum you get an implicit narrative," said Carrier.

Carrier began research for Museum Skepticism as the next step after completing Principles of Art History about the rise of art history as an academic subject.

While at the Getty Institute as a scholar in 1999, Carrier said he thought about how Meier's contemporary "envelope" for the Getty Museum at a glance is deceptive of the museum's collection of ancient artifacts and European art up to the 1900s.

"The Getty is a peculiar sort of place—very new money, oil money, and southern California," he said.

"It is sort of the end of the line for museums," he said, adding that export of ancient art is being kept in native countries along with high export taxes and the skyrocketing costs for contemporary art now prohibit the movement and expansion of art museums.

"Now the interesting thing about museum skepticism is that it started out as a conservative view," he said, with the idea that things should stay in their own culture.

In his quest to understand the evolution of public art museums, Carrier takes the middle ground: "Museums are changing organisms. You see them growing step by step. They both preserve the past, they change it and then transform it by adding new things."

He stated that the museum offers a place for public discourse about art work, but yet enables the human mind to image the cultural context of the art work and the place where the art once adorn

an altar in a French church or was a mask worn by an African chieftain.


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... and museum skepticism, and lawns, and Eakins

Thanks again for sharing more of the amazing work of the great minds at Case. The professor who wrote about lawns was featured in the PD recently, I know Henry Adams wrote a significant book about the artist Eakins - is there any one place to find a listing all the books of Case faculty and staff? What about alumni? How about a book club? CIA is working on developing a more vibrant community around their "artists" including alumni - what about doing the same for "artist" writers that are at and come out of Case - it would help get them attention and sell more books and feel part of an intellectual and proactive environment, and allow the region to better recognize and appreciate one of our greatest assets.

The Case community produces some great books ....

A book club where people can discuss books written by Case faculty is a great idea.
I will check into how Case is promoting books written by their faculty. I don't know if there is one source where you can find out about all the books published by Case faculty. I agree there should be, but I think right now its largely up to the departments and authors themselves to promote their work. Ted Steinberg, who wrote the book about the American obsession with lawns seems to have a great publicist -- maybe his wife?

Planning Excellence Roundtable on lawncare

I'll host an excellence roundtable on lawncare and the environment at my parents home in Shaker and we can actually plan a better solution for that property as a model for the future. I'll ask Good Nature Organic Lawncare to lead the discussion and we'll see if we can get Steinberg to participate - details to follow as they develop... confirm interest

I'm interested in laudable lawncare

It took me a while to figure out where you were going here... I'm in. Will watch for more postings. I'm looking for a place to buy red wigglers. Anyone know a good local source for worms? Maybe Tori would do a rain barrel workshop at your folks house too...




Just put some garbage and leaves with a little topsoil and yard clippings mixed in outside under a tree or bush, keep it moist during the summer, and you'll have lots of red and other earthy worms in a month.  Enjoy!