Wednesday, January 28, 2009


In Situ has gained media attention! And by media, I mean my grad school colleague and friend Richard's blog, on which it is proclaimed "Blog of the Week." We're talking the new, independent media here, folks. So, welcome to any of Richard's readers, and I'll try to moderate the nasty things I say about Classicists. Sort of.

Meanwhile, in the traditional media, the New York Times reported today that Brandeis University plans to sell off the entire collections holdings of the Rose Art Museum, consisting mainly of paintings from the second half of the twentieth century. The decision appears to have been made by the university's president and trustees, independent of any oversight or knowledge by the museum's director and board. The president's statement cites a low endowment, and the university's "priority" of teaching and research, as reasons for the sale.

Now, first and foremost, as is brought up in the article, now is a terrible time to spell expensive artwork at auction. Duh. Second, museums and their collections are data mines for research in art, history, anthropology, psychology, etc, so to argue that museum collections do not fit into a university setting of teaching and research shows not only a lack of understanding what museums are, but also an utter lack of creative thought.

Finally, and perhaps what bothers me most about this situation, is that the article states that due to a low budget, most of the 6,000 pieces of artwork were donated to the museum. No one - no one - donates to a museum intending for their object to be sold back into private hands one day. People give expensive, important pieces to museums so that their contributions may be ensured survival and access. Museums, as holders of the public trust, have no right to violate that tacit agreement, whether it was legally defined in the donation documents or not.

When I worked at the museum (you know which one), the collections department had an ongoing fight with administration regarding the value and sale of our collections. To administration, the collections were worth money, and therefore could be sold if the museum needed extra funds. Even in difficult economic times of the present, we as a society cannot mortgage our past - and future. Museum collections are not like government bonds or stocks. They are not an investment. They are a documentation of who we are as a culture.

And that is worth so much more than whatever a painting can fetch on an auction block.

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