The root system of the modern museum is extensive and tangled. The Enlightenment’s spirit of encyclopedic curiosity and the impulse to teach and to learn drove the founding and flourishing of the British Museum and the Louvre, the first two truly public museums, respectively about 250 and 200 years ago. But imperial aspiration and national sentiment also played their parts. And these complex motivations were in turn grafted onto the primal urge not just to classify and contemplate but also to amass and display, and often, in the process, to self-aggrandize. Our public museums evolved from the private Kunst-, Rüst- and Wunderkammers of preceding centuries.

Another century or so later, the Fricks, Gardners, and Morgans of America’s Gilded Age may have been fuelled by a further burst of pathological acquisitiveness, given agency by absurd wealth. But the result was to create another generation of enduring institutions of broad public enjoyment and education, and all at their founders’ behest and bequest. And there were many periods of enlightened exploration that preceded our own: other civilizations studied history through examining material culture, and collected for reasons other than triumphal acquisitiveness. Excavations of Ur in the 1920s found objects, carefully collected and classified, as ancient to their Babylonian curators as the Roman Empire is to us.

Extensive and tangled…Over £100 billion is likely to be invested in ‘cultural infrastructure’ globally over the next decade and a significant proportion of that is going to be spent on museums. This figure can be calculated by totting-up projects that are either under construction or that have some binding, or at least convincing, public commitment behind them. The majority of this activity is not in Western Europe and the United States but in Asia (especially China and South Korea), the Middle East, South America and post-Soviet states (but not, significantly, Russia, mired as it is in social and economic stagnation). The Art Newspaper regularly reports on announcements of plans and openings of new museums and wings, many in cities about whose location even its erudite and attentive readership are a little hazy.

£100 billion is a formidable figure by any standards, but especially given that the expenditure is not obviously driven by demand – by visitors clamoring for more museums, more opportunities for high-brow cultural pursuits and contemplation of material culture. Rather, four reasons are usually cited:

  1. Politicians and urban planners use the arts to give new or blighted urban areas more attractive identities – broadly, museums for daytime use; performing arts for night time use;
  2. States, cities and real estate developers use iconic arts buildings, their contents and the people drawn to them to create destinations that attract investors and affluent tourists and in the process generate jobs;
  3. Museums have taken on educational roles historically part of the formal education sector. This has been encouraged by governments and other funders looking to shed those obligations; and
  4. Increasing disparities in wealth distribution have created a global class of fabulously affluent private collectors that, facilitated by tax breaks, are transforming legitimate and illegitimate capital gains into public displays of philanthropy in a way they find more enjoyable than the alternatives. The second gilded age…

These chilly explanations are all what are known as ‘instrumental’: museums are fulfilling functions that in principle could be fulfilled by sports stadiums, theme parks, MOOCs (on-line classes) or donations to hospitals but, in specific instances, museums have somehow muscled their way to the head of the queue as the most effective policy ‘instruments’ for the purpose.

These rationales are clearly important. If in doubt, try making a grant application to a public agency or a foundation, or try to solicit a donation from a rich person successfully without underscoring the first three reasons repeatedly in every paragraph or breath. (The fourth reason is as unmentionable as it is incontestable.) But they don’t quite get to the heart of why museums appear so improbably robust today, and in unexpected places.

The biggest commitments to museums today are in societies that are experiencing transformative economic growth – not just growth of GDP but economic development of a scale that is bringing fundamental, sometimes convulsive, changes in the structure of society in its train. Museums, symbols of permanence, are at their most vital in periods of change and the western museum’s complex root system thrives and finds meaning in periods of change.

Museum professionals often look at today’s global museum boom askance, as some unseemly, aberrant and weakened strain of super-fecundity. Who is going to visit these super-sized behemoths in Abu Dhabi or Qingdao? What on earth is the collecting strategy for the Pingtan Museum, anticipated to be the largest private museum in Asia …? Aren’t all these new museums in Brazil just fancy tax dodges? How is the art going to stand a chance in those spaces in the Mimesis Museum in the South Korea’s Paju Book City, it’s worse than Denver…? We are sometimes reluctant to acknowledge that these new, expanded or programmatically ambitious museums are steeped in the same generative DNA as well-established Western museums.

The very real tensions between the honorable and the questionable genetic makeup of western museums are still manifest today in the allocation of resources between, say, glitzy new buildings and conservation; money spent on acquisition versus money spent on education; management time, money and emotional reserves devoted to scholarship versus the same frittered on the retail mix. The tensions are manifest in curmudgeonly institutional stances on issues like restitution and repatriation, and in museums’ complex relations with collectors… Our museums are vehicles for popular enlightenment and aesthetic delight, but they are also still symbols of civic and national bravura, and triumphal temples to acquisitive urges. There is a great deal of historic continuity in the competing and morally complex impulses that drive them forward. It’s what makes them such interesting institutions to observe and it’s what will make the next generation of institutions around the world just as compelling.

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