From the Louvre to the Met—Should We Break Up Major Museums?
We cannot ignore the paintings in the attic forever. Many major museums have thousands of objects in storage that destinations around the globe would kill to display.
During the pandemic, when wealthy tourists could not travel, many cultural centers and cities suffered. Major European tourist destinations were nearly empty last August as foreign visitors stayed away. With restrictions loosening up, however, the situation is reversed. Thousands of tourists are streaming into Europe’s most popular cities desperate to see the sights. Medieval cities were not built to combat sudden invasions and now, with coronavirus variants still very much a threat, the most visited museum in Italy has a plan to spread the wealth and mitigate the danger.
The Uffizi Galleries, which houses what is undeniably the world’s greatest collection of Renaissance art, has developed the Uffizi Diffusi (or “Scattered Uffizi”) project. The project will take a mixture of important and lesser-known works of art out of the Florentine galleries and place them in newly developed venues around Tuscany.
This summer five temporary exhibitions will be unveiled in the area surrounding Florence, but over the next five years as many as 100 galleries will be established in small towns around the region. Many of these venues—which include convents, disused spas, and ancient monuments— had fallen into disrepair and will now take on a new life as permanent art exhibits.
The temporary exhibits are connected to high-profile figures and locations: the birthplaces of famous painters; the sites where battles were fought and immortalized on canvas by Da Vinci; and locations associated with Dante (timed to mark the 700th anniversary of his death). “Art can’t survive on big galleries alone,” the Uffizi’s director, Eike Schmidt, told CNN. “We need multiple exhibition spaces all over the region—especially in the places where the art itself was born.” An exhibition on the Island of Elba opened in May to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte (who was famously exiled there). Origins and context are important to Schmidt; in the past he has advocated for placing devotional art back in religious contexts and has advocated for the return of a Nazi-looted painting.
The decentralization of Florentine art solves a number of longstanding problems. The most prominent is overtourism, a pre-pandemic problem caused when too many tourists visit a particular destination. The problems are both economic and environmental. The fragile foundations of Venice suffer damage from the huge cruise ships that dock in the lagoon; wildlife is affected; local residents are pushed out by high rent prices; and narrow streets and roads are jammed with automotive and human traffic.
The problem isn’t unique to cities like Rome, Florence, or Paris; it also affects beaches and national parks and is fed by cheap airfares, the growth of Airbnb, and the day-visitors that arrive on cruise ships (cruise ships are a particularly parasitic form of tourism as those who arrive by ship often spend very little in the cities that they visit). It’s unpleasant for tourists as well: queueing for hours in the heat to visit the Vatican museums, the Louvre, or the Uffizi Galleries only to find one’s view of The Birth of Venus or Mona Lisa obscured by a landscape of cellphones is deeply frustrating.
By nudging tourists to beautiful towns and villages in the region, the Uffizi Diffusi project contributes to the broader economic development of the region and makes it possible for residents of Tuscany to have direct access to artwork they would otherwise have to travel several hours to see. For those tourists who don’t have the resources to stay in Paris or Rome it provides a less expensive alternative. It is also about equity: schoolchildren from small towns are placed on the same footing as their urban peers. Now everyone has access to arts in person. Seeing things online isn’t quite the same as it doesn’t give you a sense of the scale of artwork: Dali’s Persistence of Memory (the ‘melting clocks’ painting) is roughly the size of a small laptop. The iconic Lansdowne portrait of George Washington is life-sized. Until you see them in person, however, scale is easy to miss. Schmidt’s project wants to “ground culture in people’s daily lives.”
The Uffizi project is enabled by a little-known fact about major museums: the majority of their collections are in storage. The Vasari Corridor, the secret passageway commissioned by the Medici in the 16th century and publicized by Dan Brown, is packed with portraits that only a select few get to see. But this is nothing in comparison to the amount of material in climate-controlled storage and inaccessible to anyone but curators and researchers. Distributing artwork to satellite locations, said Schmidt, will not impoverish the Uffizi galleries—which will continue to exhibit 3,000 items—but will place “art that currently nobody can see in a calmer, more intimate setting.”
Tuscany, however, is a famously beautiful area of Italy and one of the most visited regions in the world. Could this model work elsewhere? Could the Louvre share her collection with smaller towns including less-visited cities like Le Havre? Could it work in the U.S.? Even objects on display suffer from the concentration of riches. No one can see the Met or the Louvre in a single day and this leads to a hierarchy in which remarkable artwork is overlooked in favor of star exhibits. Who is served when people push past Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks to get to the Mona Lisa? Is there a broader conversation to be had here?
On a small scale university museums have developed similar schemes. In 2008, after losing their first building to a flood, the Stanley Museum of Art at the University of Iowa developed a program—Legacies for Iowa—in which they sent exhibitions across the state. Lauren Lessing, director of the Stanley Museum, told The Daily Beast that as university and college museums “function very much like libraries,” so collection-sharing and alternative pathways to access are especially important.
A similar scheme, the Art Bridges foundation, was launched by the Terra Foundation for American Art in conjunction with philanthropist Alice Walton. True to its name, the Art Bridges serves as a bridge between large museums and smaller rural museums. The purpose of the enterprise is to “get art out of storage and into communities.” Successes include loans from the Smithsonian American Art Museum to smaller partners in Boise, Reno, Eugene (Oregon), Salt Lake City, and Bellingham (Washington). In addition, Art Bridges is building its own collection to loan on a long-term basis to regional museums. Walton, the enterprise’s founder, stated the mission succinctly: “Outstanding artworks are in museum vaults and private collections, let’s make that art available to everyone.”
In 2016 the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) entered a long-term agreement with the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation and the Center of Science and History to establish a long-term exhibit in Columbus, Ohio. The project, which gives people in Ohio access to stunning exhibits (including a life-size Tyrannosaurus rex model), benefits everyone, but children in particular. For those who care about scientific literacy, sharing educational resources with institutions in areas where evolution is less understood and taught is especially important.
Sharing, of course, presents a number of financial and logistical problems. Moving artwork is expensive, insurance costs are high, and not every museum has state-of-the-art climate control or adequate security. Maintaining artwork, the AMNH’s associate director of travelling exhibitions operations, Leif Fortlouis, told me, is a logistical and practical challenge that involves auditing physically disparate facilities on an ongoing basis. Just moving the art, said Lessing, involves custom crating, uncrating, installation, deinstallation, tracking, and curating: “Funding is a major concern.” The AMNH scheme, for example, cost $7 million. We should also note that many of these projects are just long-term loans that, while renewable, do not permanently alter the landscape of the art world. Perhaps, however, they offer proof-of-concept for larger institutions that have, thus far, not participated in such schemes.
Since antiquity the collecting of art and books has always been about the exercise and display or wealth and power. Even the first libraries and book collections were, as University of Arizona history professor Stephen Johnstone has written, “a political project which links amassing books with power.” Somewhat ironically, given the Uffizi project, no one has done this better than the Romans. Part of the imperial project of conquest and subjugation involved the appropriation of the religious and artistic heritage of other peoples. The Pantheon in Rome, one of the city’s tourist hotspots today, was once a crowded mass of artifacts taken from others. As Princeton ancient historian Dan-el Padilla Peralta has observed, Roman cultural imperialism violently “uprooted and displaced local knowledges.”
Nowhere is this form of cultural imperialism more in evidence than in the founding of London’s British Museum. As James Delbourgo has written in Collecting the World, a biography of the British Museum, the institution was founded by Hans Sloane, a man who participated in and profited from the Atlantic slave trade and “collected” items taken from enslaved people. At the time his vision that anyone from around the world could visit the museum was broadly understood to mean scholars and dignitaries, not ordinary people. Confronting this history, Delbourgo argues, is an important task for the modern museum.
It is noteworthy that projects—including that of the Uffizi Galleries—that seek to contextualize artwork in the “place it was born” are often distributing national heritage. For institutions like the British Museum, the Louvre, and the Smithsonian, opening up and decentralizing their collections would mean confronting a dark past. From antiquity to colonial theft to more recent robber barons, collecting has been about power and acquisitive greed. The billions of dollars of artwork and cultural heritage that currently sit unseen in vaults are symbols of that greed, but they also present those institutions with an opportunity for redemption. There are many practical issues to consider and weigh here, and museums are changing, but we cannot ignore the paintings in the attic forever.
Even in antiquity, hoarding was seen as a moral problem. The second century A.D. satirist Lucian condemns a wealthy Syrian book collector not just for his inability to read the books he bought, but also for his unwillingness to grant others access to his collection. By sharing works of Renaissance-era Italian art with locations tied to the genesis of those pieces, the Scattered Uffizi project not only broadens access to their collection and tackles the problems of overtourism, it also participates in a bigger social justice project. It is part of a broader trend that attempts to decentralize the concentration of (often violently acquired) cultural knowledge and financial power that currently resides in particular countries, urban centers, and institutions. For the Uffizi model to survive and expand on an international scale, there are dozens of hurdles to cross. These projects need considerable funding from government agencies, private individuals, and philanthropic organizations. There have to be permanent commitments from larger powerful institutions. More important, however, everyone involved needs to care more about access and education than ownership and status.