A museum is typically an institution that takes on the responsibility of caring for and for conserving collections of artefacts or objects of historical, artistic, cultural, or scientific significance. An art museum or art gallery in particular is a space, building or institution for the exhibition of visual arts.
Private or public, museums are established with an intent to showcase objects or artefacts of artistic significance or inclination. Though paintings are the most commonly displayed art form in the museums, the collections are known to house collections of sculpture, decorative arts, furniture, ancient textiles, period costumes, different forms of art like drawings, pastels, watercolors, collages, prints, or photographs, and installation art.
The prime intent of the art museums is to provide a space and a conducive environment to showcase works of visual art. However, the galleries at the museums are known to have played host to other activities of an artistic or creative inclination including performance art, music concerts, or poetry readings.
Private collections of art and rare artefacts belonging to wealthy families, individuals, or art institutions, often displayed in their wonder rooms or curio cabinets were the earliest forms of museums as we know them today. Ennigaldi – Nanna’s Museum dating from 530 B.C. is the oldest such museum known to exist. The access to such museums was often possible only for the elite mostly depending on the whims and fancies of the collection owner.
Creating collections, becoming a collector and showcasing them to a select audience was a means for the elite to raise their social status. Putting their private collections in a museum was a means of gaining a higher social status and a way to sort and organize the empirical explosion of materials that wider dissemination of historical and cultural communication and exchange has produced. The concept here was to consume and gather as much information and knowledge as possible, to put all that is collected and collated into displays.
The oldest of public museums were opened in Italy during Renaissance, with the majority of these opening during the 18th century.
The earliest of public museums were accessible only to the middle and upper classes and access to these institutions was often quite difficult. One of the major concerns these museums had was that large groups of visitors could damage the artworks. For example the prospective visitors were to apply in writing for admission and only smaller manageable groups were allowed into the galleries every day. It however became popular during the 19th century amongst all the age groups and across all social classes that visited it.
The Ashmolean Museum founded in 1677 and setup in the University of Oxford to be open to public is considered by some to be the first modern public museum. The Louvre Museum in France opened in 1793 during the French Revolution. It is this museum that made the French Royal collections accessible to people of all stations and status. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries an intense era of an intellectual and physical museum development and building was realized in America. “The Museum Age” or “The Museum Period” saw the development and emergence of many art museums with focus on the artistic legacy and heritage of North America while emulating their European counterparts. The modern form of museums today is open, accepting and accessible to the public across age groups, social classes and status of the prospective visitor.
The exhibitions or art exhibitions had quite a rigid beginning and in the 18th and 19th centuries played a crucial part in the art market especially for the new art. Some of the most influential exhibition galleries have had a strong impact in determining the reputation and the price of the artists of the day. The exhibitions held at Paris Salon (1737), Royal Academy, London (1769) and the British Institution (1805) received lengthy and detailed reviews in the press from respected art critics. This was the main medium for art criticism.
Success at these exhibitions was crucial for the future and career of an artist and a strong medium for him to get more commissions. “Salon of the refused” became an alternative means for the more liberal artists to escape the rigidity of the academic arts endorsed by Paris Salon. This led to the advent of a period where exhibitions were crucial in exposing and introducing the public to new developments in art.
The museums then started hosting loaned exhibitions of historic art in the 19th century. Slowly exhibitions evolved and branched out to take the form of art fairs that enabled less regarded galleries with an opportunity to meet with an international public.
Art museums have been around since the pre-historic ages when the early man used cave paintings for storytelling and documentation. These cave dwellings may actually be regarded as the earliest of art museums.
Art transcends all kinds of cultural, social, economic and physical barriers, taking the viewer across the globe and introducing in them a respect and tolerance for other cultures, rituals and communities. A museum that hosts these artworks are institutions or incubators of cultural wealth that brings together public from all walks of lives and unites them with the awe that one holds for these masterpieces.
The museums provide a glimpse into the unknown unchartered frontiers for the public and the goal for them is pleasure through enlightenment. Art museums due to the scientific and humanistic disciplines practiced in them, such as conservation, art history, archaeology etc. were deemed as preservers of the community’s official cultural memory. A strong social metaphor and as an instrument of historical representation, art museums are crucial indicators of social evolution.
Some experts of the field like John Cotton Dana believed that museums should be community based institutions, while other took museum as a first step of creating a connect between the youth and the culture of arts and its dissemination. Additionally it is through museums that a sense of pride is induced in one’s own culture and heritage.
When a private collection is turned into a museum, dissemination of a chunk of historical information is facilitated. This information and relevant knowledge may never reach the society or experts when stored behind closed doors. It is from these artefacts that the experts find material for further research and increase the cultural knowledge of the community thus strengthening the roots of historical heritage.
TYPES OF GALLERIES
Galleries in Museums
The museums are essentially an institution that takes care of and showcases the cultural art heritage of the community or society. The galleries in museums are the rooms in the museums that are designed especially to showcase the artefacts or the artworks to the public. These may be named after some dignitaries or as per the collection that the gallery houses.
Contemporary Art Gallery
In most urban setups these galleries are found clustered together, may be solitary in smaller cities and there are different forms of such galleries in towns or even villages. Contemporary art galleries usually signify the privately owned galleries that are run for profit. These are usually open to the public free of charge and profit by taking a portion of art sales. Though the galleries often hold solo shows but curators are known to create group shows that are designed with a theme, issue, art trend or style, or a group of associated artists.
Galleries sometimes choose to represent artists exclusively and thus extend to them an opportunity to showcase regularly. This gamut also sometimes includes artist cooperative or artist-run space that often has a more democratic selection process and intent.
These are the galleries that charge the artists to showcase their works and make most of their money through this sum that they charge from the artists rather than the sale of artwork to the public. Some may charge a lump sum from the artist for a showcase, while others charge a regular membership fee from the artists in exchange for a regular showcase of the artists’ works.
These are an offshoot of cooperative galleries where the artists pool in their resources to pay for their exhibits and publicity. However, there is a major difference as the cooperatives carefully jury their members, whereas the vanity galleries would showcase anyone who pays money. Commercial art galleries stand to gain from the profit that the sale of the artwork, hence their process of selection is much stringent. The vanity galleries, however have already made their money from the artists and nothing to gain from the sale of the artworks, hence there is hardly ever any screening or scrutiny that the artist faces.
University art museums & galleries
These most commonly house collections of art that are developed, owned and maintained by schools, universities, and colleges. The origin of such collections is traced back to the art academies in the Western Europe but in the contemporary scenario they are housed mostly in centers of higher education. The prime intent of these galleries is to create and maintain a safe space removed from the pressures of the art market or commercial aspect of the arts for the students, faculty, artists, and curators to experiment freely in making, exhibiting, and even curating art.
As a result of the relationship between these galleries and academic institutions, topics that would be avoided, ignored, or censored may be explored without fear or judgement. The freedom of a student to study what they want and the freedom of a teacher or faculty to teach what they want are upheld in this setup. This has sometimes led to controversies on issues related to politics, gender, sexuality, and more.
Historically works of art have been commissioned by religious institutions and monarchs and were showcased in the places of worship and royal dwellings. These art collections were private but were open to viewings by an elite section of the public. In these times the religious institutions functioned as an early version of the modern day gallery where wealthy collectors often donated their prized collectibles to such institutions.
Towards the late medieval period, European castles, palaces, and other grand dwellings would often open to specific sections of the public to showcase their art collections. Some of these had dress codes while others through bribery. In Italy art tourism took on the form of a flourishing industry from the 18th century onwards as cities made efforts to make their key pieces accessible. In the form of cabinets of curiosities, private museums open to the public began to be established from the 17th century onwards, the first of which was the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford opened in 1683 that showcased the works of art donated by Elias Ashmole to the Oxford University.
Public Art Galleries
The second half of the eighteenth century saw the nationalization of many private collections and them being opened to the public. The Old Royal Library, in 1753 donated its collection of manuscripts and artwork at the time of establishment of the British Museum. Later many large scale collections were acquired or bought to be viewed by the public.
The Bavarian Royal Collection was opened to the public in 1779 (now in Munich), the Medici Collection in Florence opened to the public in 1789 and the French Royal Collection was opened to as The Louvre, a public museum. This marked an important stage in the development of public access to art as the ownership transferred to a republican state. In Great Britain, however, the corresponding Royal Collection remained under the ownership of the royalty. It was only in 1814 when the first public gallery Dulwich Picture Gallery was established, followed by the National Gallery in 1824.
LEGALITIES & REGULATIONS
ASPECTS & IMPACT
Art museums have known to be designed with a cultural intent and inclination and have from time to time been subjected to political intervention. In both democratic and non-democratic nations, the national galleries are designed to induce strong feelings of nationalism.
The position of art museums in the community has been viewed by some as essentially elitist institutions and by others as institutions with great potential for social education and evolution. The traditional art museum was seen by some experts as frivolous with focus on fashion and conformity. The vision for experts included a wider variety of artefacts, making it better suited to an industrial world. The culture of lending exhibits to educational institutes added to the knowledge of the students and to aid cultural development of the individual members of the community.
It was in the 1970s that political theorists and social commentators began to draw attention to the political implications of art museums and social relations. It was pointed out that though there was an apparent freedom of choice in the arts, the people’s artistic preferences were heavily connected to their social status. The cultural capital proved to be a major influence on the social mobility, hence the argument was that art museums were inclined to perpetuate elite and high class archetypes of taste ignoring the under privileged segments of the society. It was thus inferred that the fine arts propagate social inequality by increasing an intellectual gap across social segments. Certain art galleries that are situated in building of considerable emotional impact, like The Louvre in Paris is located in the prior Royal Castle which is known to create feelings of suppression, further mystifying the arts and reserving it for the elite.
The architectural form of the gallery or museum as we see it was established in the year 1817, designed by Sir John Soane. The form essentially consisted of a series of interconnected rooms with uninterrupted wall space that could be effectively used to display paintings by hanging and other works in cases. The lighting was largely indirect through skylights and roof lanterns.
The architecture of the cityscape came to see a boom in building of public galleries as a cultural feature in Europe and America in the late 19th century. As a part of the municipal drive for literacy and public education art galleries mushroomed as did museums and public libraries, thus finding an apt space in the city’s architectural silhouette.
With evolution in architectural styles there was an associated evolution of architecture styles of the galleries and museums to be replaced with more modern styles. Though there has been criticism of the fact that the style of these galleries or museums of taking the eye away from the artefacts due to their dramatic interiors.
Art museums store, preserve and showcase works of art. The artworks from any period is a reflection of all that was relevant to the society at the time. The heritage is preserved and carried on through these institutions that pay homage to and disseminate information and awareness about the cultural heritage that the community belongs to.
A sense of belonging, an understanding of where we come from and a feeling of pride in the cultural capital of the community or society is incited through this discourse that the museums offer. It is important not just to preserve our heritage but also to disseminate the knowledge that it holds within, about the historical significance and legacy of the community.
Museums with a strong web presence
With the expanding virtual world, the art community and the world of museums has also spilled on to this lucrative and convenient medium with ever expansive scope. Most art museums have limited online collections. However, some of the museums, some libraries and government agencies have already developed extensive online catalogues. Among the museums and libraries that have established a strong online database are the Library of Congress with several million entries of prints and photographs, the British Museum with an extensive online collection and many such more like The Metropolitan Museum of Art with over 400 separate galleries, the Louvre with a great collection of images and drawings to name a few.
Online Art Collections
Apart from the online museum galleries there have emerged a number of online art catalogues and galleries that are independent and have been established without any support from the museums. Many of these are developed with a focus on the academic, encyclopedic or historical aspect of artworks and collections and some others focus on making their profits through sale of contemporary artists’ works.
The bigger names in the art world, like auction houses tend to maintain an exhaustive online database of artworks that have been or are being auctioned. There is another kind of online library like Bridgeman Art Library that serve as a chief source of reproductions of artworks. However, the access to these is limited to museums, art dealers and other professionals in the world of art.
Folksonomy is essentially is a user generated classification and categorization system that organizes online content into relevant classes with the use of electronic tags. Online art galleries with a focus on categorization of art have been developed in collaboration with museums and galleries. The stakeholders in such ventures come together because of their common interest in the potential use of folksonomy within museums and the needs for post-processing of the tags or keywords that have been congregated. This is done with an intent to test their utility and to explore and employ them in the most efficient of ways.
One of the prime examples of such ventures is the Steve Museum that has experimented with this kind of collaborative philosophy, where the participants include Guggenheim Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Art.