David Gill reviews James Cuno's book, Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum (The University of Chicago Press, 2011) in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of The Journal of Art Crime. Dr. Gill is Head of the Division of Humanities and Professor of Archaeological Heritage at University Campus Suffolk, at Ipswich, Suffolk, England. James Cuno is president and CEO of The J. Paul Getty Trust.
Cuno is passionate about the contribution of the encyclopedic museum to the cultural landscape of our cosmopolitan world. The implicit statement of his title is a change from the earlier questions that he has raised: Whose Muse? (2004), Who Owns Antiquity? (2008), and Whose Culture? (2009) [see reviews by Gill in JAC 1, 1, Spring 2009, 65-66; 2, 1, Fall 2009, 99-100]. The four core chapters on the Enlightenment, the Discursive, the Cosmopolitan, and the Imperial Museums had their origins in the 2009 Campbell Lectures at Rice University.
Cuno avoids turning his attention to the issue of antiquities. Yet they lurk on the periphery of his text. As I walked around the Greek and Roman galleries of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (a good example of an Encyclopedic Museum) in the first weeks of 2012 I had Cuno’s words in my mind as his imaginary viewer engaged with objects on display: “why it looks the way it does, how it might have been made, by whom and where, and what purpose and meaning it may have had for the first people who saw it and all who subsequently came into contact with it before and after it entered the museum’s collection” (pp. 3-4). Signatures of statue bases as well as on Athenian figure-decorated pots may point us to artists of both high and low status. The iconography may provide insights into Athenian social values and indeed myth. Residual paint on funerary stelai reminds us that not all marble was brilliant white. But what about the viewers? How can we understand the reception of such ancient objects when their contexts have been permanently lost? And so often the pieces have no declared collecting histories that will trace their passage from the ground (or even their archaeological context) to museum gallery.