Hoarding or Protecting?: The Sensitivities of the Storeroom
by Yuna Kim | 25 January 2022
Mustachioed male (marble bust) focuses attention on nude female (life-size marble sculpture) in a storage room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1953, photograph (Image: Wikipedia)
Consider a museum. A grand one, if you will. A painting on the wall that changed something for you forever, or perhaps a wing that just feels right when you hear the clacks of your shoes on its hard, cold floors. The white walls, the pristine sculptures, and of course, hundreds of people that boggle around and have ever boggled around in the same room. There’s a community in that density—in some shape or way, we all agree to share the same space and temporarily align to a certain code of conduct.
Now consider an alternate universe. A museum with a painting on the wall that might have changed something for someone, but never has and never will. A wing that only rings out with the clinks of something that has fallen off the dusty boxes after a slight shift from the wind or a mouse scurrying through. Picture a picture, with nobody to look at it. Now look down. That is not an alternate universe. What appears to be a dystopian scene of a dark colorless world is in fact a basement, likely every basement, of the museums that you conjured earlier in your mind. Sadly, this is not so much an alternate universe as an alternate reality—and it is a reality that exists so close to us not only in the literal sense (right below our feet), but in the figurative sense since we will continue to enforce this status quo as the next generation of curators, historians, and conservators.
In 1929, the president of the Metropolitan Museum’s Board of Trustees Robert W. de Forest published a paper suggesting burning as a very viable solution to inventory overflow. As horrific as that may sound, it must be acknowledged that the issue must indeed be very severe and well-kept under the floorboards from the general public (pun intended). In Mr. de Forest’s defense, the paper goes on to present a lengthy proceeding on the board’s continuous struggle to address the issue due to politics: most of the overflow comes from either important donors or as cultural gifts, both of which tended to be too awkward to return, too insensitive to pass on, and of course, impossible to decline. It certainly was not for lack of effort that such an extreme conclusion was reached—and daresay, a logical extreme solution that avoids hurting any influential feelings, nurturing any precedents of artistic hierarchy, or committing any ethical mishaps to instead leave things up to, as de Forester puts it, “Providence.” The reality is that in addition for that to occur without tilting the scales, subtraction must occur on the other end. However, we live in a world that is not devoid of emotion and thus we cannot help but tilt our heads at this proposition. So maybe it is not time for us to throw away our emotions, but instead our politics.
Ethics lies at the heart of this conversation. Is it ethical for a museum to deny any artworks? What if the artwork came from a traditionally underrepresented community, or if the artwork might otherwise become subject to less fortunate or safe circumstances? On the other hand, is it ethical for a museum to accept artworks only to have them never see the light of day? And if the museum accepts works that are gifts from donors, the works become inseparable from the partnership itself, affecting both the present and the future. When it comes to political sensitivities, there is no end to the possibilities, speculations, and perspectives. Be that as it may, museums need the money that comes from these political relationships. So perhaps we need a novel solution to an age-old problem: what if the public were to get involved? What better than the art lovers to save the art? Large museums such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the British Museum in London are no doubt cultural institutions that are received with global appreciation and trigger millions of dollars worth of tourism -related efforts. As admirable as it is to have the experts stressing in a meeting room for hours on end, it might be worth having museums take advantage of its large fanbase, so to speak. If museums boards moved in a more democratic direction to involve sectors of the public, they would at least be able to lessen criticism. There could be efforts made towards establishing a system of a triannual or quinquennial inventory check and voting system, including hundreds of voters from various scholarly fields as well as public museum members narrowed down by raffle or some similar method. If a tycoon’s tirade or a community’s backlash were the museum’s concern towards movement or sale of inventory, widening the target of backlash could be the first step towards destigmatizing the emptying of storage rooms. The implementation of such a system would also serve as potential opportunities for fundraising for the institutions, which would lessen the need for donor involvement in the first place. As entities that claim to serve the general public and ethos of humanity, free from the ties of capitalism and politics, museums should at least consider such outlandish solutions before settling back comfortably within the realms of tradition and profit.
The pandemic brought in an era of museum “deaccessioning,” or participation in the art market. It may be more accurate to say that it normalized deaccessioning, with associations temporarily ceasing sanctions and penalties to save museums from closure. The lesser evil, so to speak. Why it has to be the lesser evil is the question. It is a rather conservative, and even less ethical, notion to see art as something only to be held in the hallowed halls of some major, privatized institution in a major, cosmopolitan city. This is the very line of reasoning that continues to plague the conversation around imperialism and art, and why some countries struggle to repatriate historically significant objects that a larger institution feels that they can better care for. If a buyer-- or if that very label is something worth arguing about, a new owner- - presents him or herself as a capable and feasible individual for possession, it would be less problematic for the museum to dust off whatever sculpture, oil painting, fresco, jewelry, metalwork, woodwork, glass or ivory they have sitting at the bottom of a crate and place it into a pair of outstretched hands. It might be difficult to part with the view that museums will always care for objects better than any individual might and be even more so for ones that were created by significant artists or born from significant movements. But we have to admit that such a turn of events would serve the art, and the people, better than to have things “accidentally” burn.