April 12, 2012

James Cuno defends the “universal museum” concept

Posted at 12:52 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

Getty Curator James Cuno has long been one of the biggest proponents of the Universal Museum concept, despite many arguments against this ideology. Fro this current lecture, it appears that Cuno has done little to revise his viewpoint since publishing his book on the subject in 2008.

From:
Zocalo Public Square

Enlighten Up
Getty Chief James Cuno Defends the Encyclopedic Museum

For Getty Trust president and CEO James Cuno, the starting point for understanding the importance of the museum is “the promise it holds to promoting tolerance and understanding difference in the world.” In his talk to a packed house at the Petersen Automotive Museum, Cuno took on the critics of museums, particularly critics of encyclopedic museums, who hold that museums are relics of imperialism or institutions that uphold hegemony. On the contrary, said Cuno, the encyclopedic museum is “an argument against essentialized national differences.” This is also the case Cuno makes in his latest book, Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum.

Cuno pointed to the first encyclopedic museum, the British Museum, which was founded in 1753, as an example not of patriotism or nationalism but of an interest in cultures and art from around the globe. Neil MacGregor, the museum’s current director, likes to say that what surprises people most about the British Museum is that there are so few British things in it.

Much of the discourse in the world today focuses on national differences and “the inevitability of cultural conflict based on these differences.” But, said Cuno, by bringing together “all the world’s cultures under one roof” in a “secular cosmopolitan space,” the encyclopedic museum instead enlarges one’s view of the world.

The encyclopedic museum’s origins are in the 18th-century Enlightenment. Like coffee shops, dictionaries, and newspapers, the museum was meant to bring the Enlightenment to the broader public. Taking inspiration from the breadth of a museum’s collection and scope, visitors from all walks of life could begin to ask new questions about the world, form new answers, and continually subject those new answers to further scrutiny and critique.

The corollary to the encyclopedic museum was the encyclopedia (also a product of the Enlightenment), which was considered a “dangerous instrument” at the time because it encouraged readers to think their own thoughts and draw their own conclusions about various forms of dogma that shaped their world. In 1759, Pope Clement XII was so concerned about the encyclopedia that he called for all Catholics to have encyclopedias burned by a priest or face excommunication.

Much of the discourse in the world today focuses on national differences and “the inevitability of cultural conflict based on these differences.” But, said Cuno, by bringing together “all the world’s cultures under one roof” in a “secular cosmopolitan space,” the encyclopedic museum instead enlarges one’s view of the world.

The encyclopedic museum’s origins are in the 18th-century Enlightenment. Like coffee shops, dictionaries, and newspapers, the museum was meant to bring the Enlightenment to the broader public. Taking inspiration from the breadth of a museum’s collection and scope, visitors from all walks of life could begin to ask new questions about the world, form new answers, and continually subject those new answers to further scrutiny and critique.

The corollary to the encyclopedic museum was the encyclopedia (also a product of the Enlightenment), which was considered a “dangerous instrument” at the time because it encouraged readers to think their own thoughts and draw their own conclusions about various forms of dogma that shaped their world. In 1759, Pope Clement XII was so concerned about the encyclopedia that he called for all Catholics to have encyclopedias burned by a priest or face excommunication.

Another audience member asked about the “chasm [that] divides First World museums in Britain and the U.S. and museums in Latin America, Asia, and other parts of Europe.” How do privileged institutions bridge this divide? We have to do as the British Museum did not do in India, responded Cuno. Museums must share and collaborate. That’s why the British Museum works with museums in Africa to give curators and museumgoers greater access, while the Getty Trust is involved with projects around the world, in places like Western China, India’s Rajasthan, and Egypt. Museums have a responsibility to share their resources and knowledge and to “encourage curiosity about the world” rather than staking claims to some narrow patch of land.

*Photos by Aaron Salcido.

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1 Comment »

  1. DR.KWAME OPOKU said,

    04.12.12 at 8:05 pm

    Readers may find it useful to read my detailed review of Cuno’s latest book at http://www.modernghana.com Cuno has not responded to any of the serious criticisms made against the views expressed in his previous publications. He seems to believe that through repetition his views might become acceptable.
    KWAME OPOKU

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