Since its earliest beginnings, the concept of displaying art has been one fraught with discussion about power, purpose, and effect. Which art to display—and to whom to display it? For what reason? And how?
Prototypical museums included shrines filled with spiritual objects, fascinating oddities, and opulent displays of power. Even in its earliest iterations, the “museum space” was one of awe and wonder, one to be understood as a place to see things usually unseen. Museums, ideally, could document and catalog invaluable objects related to the history of not only art, but of technology, religion, science, and culture.
Of course, like all places with cultural significance, the museum space was easily wielded as a tool to assert racial and class disparity. Today, despite the substantial evolution the concept of a museum space has undergone, questions of equity and ownership inherent in art museums are constant points of contention.
Today, it is necessary for the function of a museum to be more flexible. An art museum space, as we understand it currently, can and has evolved far past one of exclusion—exclusion not only of communities but also one of experiences. Long gone are the days in which an art museum is limited to objects meant for observation. In an increasingly online world, where we can instantly see just about anything we want, the physical art museum must progress quickly to keep up.
Museums can and should become a space of gathering, education, fulfillment, and above all, social health. In a time in which not a single person is spared from a drastically different world than we knew pre-COVID, community wellness has been on a sharp decline. But museum spaces have potential to serve their communities by utilizing the healing potential of art in a way that museums have never had such a dire need to do ever before.
Art is a practice of social dialogue, and has the power to not only communicate, but also to soothe. Not to pacify, but to comfort a community reeling from constant, devastating shock. There is a reason why our earliest ancestors made art—it served a vital purpose of mental gathering, and a loving acknowledgement of human existence in a world that is dangerous to navigate.
By understanding places in which we preserve and catalog art also as places to preserve our strength and tend to our community’s health, we can begin to form a new type of art museum, one that involves not only the experience of viewing art but also of feeling joy, relief, and solidarity. The museum space must now involve a conscious decision to care for ourselves and others, and to acknowledge art’s purpose in the future of our community. Art and the museum space may not have the physical power to change things alone, but the comfort of witnessing ourselves and feeling part of a whole certainly can.