Debates about whether encyclopedic museums—institutions that collect and contextualize cultural artifacts across time and space—should act as more than mere repositories date back decades, but have taken on a new urgency as of late. Now, institutions are contemplating their futures while navigating critical questions about representation, diversity, and the decolonization of both their programming and collections. Scholar and critic Donatien Grau, the head of contemporary programs at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay (and the guest on Ep. 12 of our At a Distance podcast), tackled these topics through interviews with nearly 30 leaders, and compiled the conversations in a new book, Under Discussion: The Encyclopedic Museum (Getty Publications). We recently spoke with Grau about the future of institutions and the layered, ever-evolving narratives of the objects they contain.
What central issues do encyclopedic museums face today, and what prompted you to explore them?
There are significant questions related to those institutions, which gather objects from all over the world that could at times be considered pragmatic, not always problematic. I felt that maybe the debate had shifted, because the notion of an encyclopedic museum has shifted—there’s no better encyclopedia than the internet. And, of course, a number of questions have been raised about the provenance of objects and their identity, history, status, and the fact that they could have civil lives. There’s also a debate around the constituencies and the representativity of museums. But this discussion didn’t start two years ago. I think, for anybody who’s been involved in museums, it’s a debate that has [always] been part of the conversation. And rightly so.
How did you select the people you interviewed for the book?
I didn’t want it to just be a museum directors’ club. I wanted to open up this quintessential Western institution to a broad and diverse range of voices: people who had thought about encyclopedic museums and the [related] issues, but hadn’t been brought into the conversation. People like [British-Ghanaian philosopher and cultural theorist] Kwame Anthony Appiah, [Indian-English scholar] Homi K. Bhabha, and [Indian political scientist and anthropologist] Partha Chatterjee—really phenomenal thinkers.
In my research, I came across this extraordinary piece by Senegalese philosopher Bachir Souleymane Diagne on the objects in museums as “mutating objects,” which said that we should acknowledge that they have different lives. It’s really important to be aware of that.
Do you think museums are still relevant?
Every museum that exists is contemporary and of its time—that you can’t change. The question is, Are you aware of it, or not? Museums have extraordinary collections with an impeccable history on the one end, and a complicated history on the other. These institutions are still here, which means that they are, by definition, relevant.
But isn’t there room for a more plastic model? The fact that these museums need to rethink themselves, and that there needs to be room for others, doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for them.
How can institutions achieve that kind of inclusivity?
A museum is made of the encounter of two entities: a collection and an audience, or a public. They’re here to serve the public. Museums can now do research projects, big commissions, [create] digital programming, speak to pop culture, invite artists into the room—there are so many things to do. Being platforms, museums need to do it all.
The jagged spine of the Rocky Mountains is too beautiful to mar. Yet over the years, developers and builders have manageBuckminster Fuller, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eliot Noyes, and Eero Saarinen completed commissions in the Western United States, transforming it into a hub for architectural modRocky Mountain Modern: Contemporary Alpine Homes (Monacelli Press).
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Since 1915, New York Public Library users in search of visual information have consulted its Picture Collection. It consists of images cut from magazines, catalogues, and books, each glued to backings and organized into folders enc
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In Chicago, more than 10,000 city-owned lots currently sit vacant, concentrated within predominantly Black and brown comChicago Architecture Biennial in 2015. Now, as the latter biennial’s 2021 artistic director, Brown further expands upon his project, using it to info
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In 1983, French photographer Simon Chaput arrived in New York City for a weeklong trip, and ended up staying for nearly –1991) in California and Japan to “The Floating Piers” (2014–2016) in Italy. Along the way, in 1984, Chaput met the artist and sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who recognized Chaput’s love oNew York,” which he began in 1996, that chronicled the developing built environment of Lower Manhattan.
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For most of us, the urge to bring smartphones into our bedrooms is too strong to resist—even when science, and firsthandattest to the habit’s harmful effects. One way to curb the temptation: Loftie, an alarm clock designed to transform sleep spaces into phone-free sanctuaries. Calibrated for the digital age, the dev
Those visiting Japan’s beloved gardens during the winter might be struck by the sight of trees confined within mysteriouyukitsuri—the term for these intriguing rope webs—is a traditional Japanese gardening technique intended to protect trees’ long b
Design can be a powerful tool in times of crisis, when creativity is a crucial element for survival. At the start of theDesigners Against Coronavirus, and in the fall, took the project a step further by documenting 272 of the works in a book of the same name. Nearly all the resources to publish it, from the paper to securing the copyright for each image, were donated, and the
Formgivning, the Danish word for “design,” serves as both a thesis and a call to action in a new book, Formgiving: An Architectural Future History (Taschen), by the Copenhagen-born architectural practice Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). This is no project-by-project compe