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Should museums help us live better lives?

By January 30, 2011 No Comments

Alain de Botton is an object of dismay to many philosophers because he doesn’t comply with the ritual behaviours of professional philosophy.

But for all of us who don’t consider the publication of peer reviewed articles in academic journals as the fundamental purpose of philosophy, his comments on current human affairs are often refreshing and thought provoking.

A while ago he suggested, in his weekly column in BBC News, that arts and humanities departments should consider offering people guidance how to live, rather than just provide tools for critical thinking. The commentators were divided into those who thought he was in principle onto something and those who thought he was just insane.

Last Friday, de Botton did the trick again, now on the topic of museums. His point of departure for this column is the widely spread suggestion that museums (i.e., art museums; he doesn’t mention other kinds of museums) function as our time’s secular version of temples and churches.

However, in one crucial aspect, museums seem to refuse to play the role of secular temples: they seem to be incapable of linking their exhibitions and objects to “the needs of our souls”:

They don’t do enough with the treasures they have because they present them to us in bland academic ways that fail to engage with the real potential of art, which is — I argue — to change us for the better.

Drawing on Hegel, who defined art as “the sensuous presentation of ideas”, de Botton suggests that “good art is the sensuous presentation of those ideas which matter most to the proper functioning of our souls, and yet which we are most inclined to forget”. Which, in his understanding, helps us answer what a museum should be, viz.:

a machine for putting before us pictures, photographs and statues that try to change us, that propagandise on behalf of ideas like kindness, love, faith and sacrifice. It should be a place to convert you.

At first sight, it looks like de Botton has become a religious convert. But that’s not the case (he claims he’s “a complete atheist”) and that’s not the point of his argument. He’s just “curious”, he says, about the approach churches take towards art — i.e., “not to put pretty things in front of us, but to use pretty things to change us”.

Accordingly, de Botton suggests that the modern secular museum might allow itself to be inspired by a secular version of the Christian approach to art: “What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose — to make us good and wise and kind — and tried to use the art in their collections to prompt us to be so?” What if museums gave up their neutral, distant stance and asked visitors to “look at this image and remember to be patient”, or “use this sculpture to meditate on what you too could do to bring about a fairer world”?

In short, de Botton wants museum curators “dare to reinvent their spaces so that they can be more than dead libraries for the creations of the past” and to “co-opt works of art to the direct task of helping us to live: to achieve self-knowledge, to remember forgiveness and love and to stay sensitive to the pains suffered by our ever troubled species and its urgently imperilled planet”.

I can easily imagine how many of my museum colleagues might think Alain de Botton is really insane (or at least outlandish, retro and generally embarassing). Isn’t a critical museum the true aim of a reflective and theoretically well-informed curatorial profession? (Cf. my earlier post on Piotr Piotrowski and the notion of ‘the critical museum’). Isn’t Alain de Botton just a reactionary crypto-Christian who want to turn museums back into a didactical regime worthy of the old GDR?

Well, maybe de Botton is a crypto-Christian. But even so, he has a point, and I think this point is valid, also for other kinds of museums than art museums.

Now, some kinds of museums do already live up to the call for edification. Many natural history museums, for example, more or less explictly see it as their aim to teach their visitors to take care of nature, help protect fauna and flora, help stop species extinction, and save the planet from climate catastrophies and ecosystem destruction. Such museums have more explicit educational and edifying aims.

So what about history and culture museums? Most such museums are probably more like art museums than natural history museums. They try to avoid being seen as didactic, educational and edifying. True, most such museums want to be critical in one way or the other — of racism, sexism, nationalism, capitalism, consumerism, militarism, Western cultural hegemonism, etc. etc — but they rarely present explicit positive alternatives of how we can negate the negative -isms and live better lives.

But is a ‘critical museum’ devoid of any explicit edifying ambitions the only alternative to a traditional nationalistic and high-culture agenda for historical and culture museums? Here Alain de Botton asks the right question, I think. How can we make exhibitions and display our artefacts in a way that change us and our society for the better? Without degenerating into teaching institutions!

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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