Forward to Heritage: The Future of the American and British Art Museum in their Communities

Zachary Marschall

Advisor: Michael G Malouf, PhD, Department of English

Committee Members: David Kaufmann, Dina Copelman

Enterprise Hall, #318
April 11, 2019, 09:30 AM to 11:30 AM


The modern American and British art museum evolved during the mid-Victorian period and have been sites of competing cultural practices since the early 1900s. A tension exists between the institution’s traditional function to collect, preserve, and display sanctioned works, and external pressure to make curation inclusive, representative, and accessible. That dynamic has been characterized in scholarly and governmental discourses as a binary between elitism and populism. The state has often compelled the art museum to satisfy populist expectations through its arts agencies and cultural policymaking, which rely heavily on attendance tracking to measure the institution's capacity to attract the highest number and most diverse range of visitors possible. Consequently, cultural authorities attempt to innovate the traditional museum experience through initiatives such as community outreach, new technology, and branding to individuals they consider non-stakeholders of the institution. Yet attendance-oriented conceptions of success have led the institution to utilize such innovation in cyclical growth-based strategies — spectacular buildings, commerce, blockbuster exhibits, new staff positionings, and a wider range of programming — that aim to (re)attract visitors, but actually increase the costs of operation and the financial imperative to generate higher attendance rates. Although heritage curation is one aspect of the art museum’s traditional function, it is foundational to the institution’s appeal and capacity to execute community outreach in market economies. As such, heritage reveals the misapplication of these success metrics as well as the generative — and not problematic — nature of the tension between elitism and populism. This project uses four 2018 cases studies to consider the future of the art museum through the lens of site-specific heritage and the historical tension between elitism and populism: the Whitney Museum of American Art, Tate, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Wedgwood Museum. Heritage curation provides a pathway for art museums and cultural authorities to reorient definitions of success away from individual and monetary metrics, and toward the institution’s relationship with its local community. With deeper community partnerships, there’s opportunity to make a more diverse set of visitors active participants in the life of the institution, which would satisfy populist expectations for the museum experience in a sustainable and meaningful manner.