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Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries

by David Carrier
Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2006
328 pp., illus. 22 b/w. Paper, 14.95
ISBN 0-8223-3694-4.

Reviewed by Alise Piebalga
University of Plymouth

One of the most serene moments of my life was one I experienced during the visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. I was sitting on the sun-terrace eating ice cream with strawberries, drinking espresso, and reflecting on the collection I had seen. The worlds of the Medici, Botticelli, Filippo Lippi and Michelangelo seemed that much more real than the four hours I spent waiting to gain access into the collection. David Carrier’s Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries breathes life back into such memories. This book examines the historical determinants that contributed to the rise, continuous metamorphoses, and the unavoidable demise of these institutions. It highlights the experience of seeing art in public spaces as site-specific, shaped by architecture, history, and the curatorial decisions.

The author begins by asking: "What is it to lead the life of a work of art," drawing parallels between the characters of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, who undergo drastic changes while retaining some of their original essence and art. Can a religious artefact from a distant culture survive as a work of art in a modern museum? In order to form a theory that would explain such metamorphoses and address museum scepticism, Carrier introduces the concept of an envelope——the ever changing theoretical and interpretative dimension of a work of art, identifying the bond between an object and its morphing theoretical setting. Museums, thus, are institutions that present art objects within a certain theoretical setting, depending on the content, the display, and the implied narrative of the collection as well as the architecture and the history of the building.

The author illustrates this notion by examining the developments of various museums and their collections, with particular attention to the conversion of private estates to public spaces. One of the most illustrious examples is that of Louvre, having morphed during the Revolution from the symbol of the social elite and personal power to the national pride of the Republic. Carrier highlights that much of the modern experience in Louvre is still indebted to the first director of the museum-Dominique Vivant Denon and his attempt to bring ‘a character of order, instruction and classification’ (p.22) to the collection. These personal marks of the directors, collectors, and art writers are visible in other museums and collections. For example, the Isabella Stewart Gardner’s museum in Boston is an illustration of not only the eclectic and the idiosyncratic taste of the collector, but also the insight and the vision of Bernard Berenson, the connoisseur, who contributed greatly to the sourcing and the acquisition of the works of art.

Connoisseurs and art writers such as Berenson and Ernest Fenollosa, according to Carrier, had a direct influence on the growth of the public museum to include art of non-European nations and eventually contemporary works within some formal, historical narrative. However, the author proposes that this expansion, now complete, has contributed to the unavoidable demise of this public institution, signifying the end of art history. Highlighting that the story of the public art museum almost had a sad ending, Carrier concludes that the disintegration of our historical distance from the works of art and the development of true interdisciplinary dialogue can ensure the successful metamorphoses of the public art museum and its fuller integration into the modern praxis of life.

Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries certainly delivers, what it promises-a valid and convincing theory that answers the question: "What is it to lead the life of a work of art?" It offers a glimpse into the lives of several iconic public art museums and the personalities that contributed to the development of these institutions and their collections. However, the lack of any upfront pragmatic suggestions for the future of the public art museum lets the book down. It would have been interesting to read what the author suggests should be done in order to truly democratise these institutions. Even though the book lacks this pragmatic dimension, it has a valid place within the modern discourse of art theory. With its passionate tone and accessible language, it should be part of any art student’s library.



Updated 1st November 2006

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