I have just been sent a long and thoughtful review of my museums book which appeared last week in Hyperallergic by David Carrier, a philosopher who has himself written about museums in Museum Slepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries (2006). It suggests a dichotomy in the book between the historical narrative, which takes the story of museums from the Museum of Modern Art to the present and is, as he rightly says, generally optimistic about the role of museums and the ways in which they have changed and adapted to new demands; and the Concluding section, called Key Issues, which strikes a more pessimistic note.
Of course, he’s right. For most of their history in the last seventy years, museums have been confident in their sense of purpose – liberalising and modernising and attracting new audiences. But I added my final, more pessimistic Conclusion in April 2020, when it felt much harder to be so optimistic. I had not included much about restitution against the advice of my editor. I had lived through an era of generous philanthropy, but people were increasingly criticising the sources of such funding, although I never did make much headway in raising money from the Russian oligarchs. The confidence in the tradition western canon was being undermined.
I felt at the time, and have felt since, that I was describing the state of museums in a liberal, postwar, democratic era, when they were expanding their audiences through radical architectural experimentation and rethinking how collections should be presented and interpreted. But they feel less confident and more cautious now, as was so evident in the series of very good programmes about the Metroplolitan Museum on the BBC, where Daniel Weiss and Max Hollein exhibited not so much confidence as anxiety and guilt. And this seems to be the mood of the times.