Do Museums Still Matter?

I recently visited a museum that will soon close – the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, which opened 30 years ago to celebrate the memory of Walter Liberace, the first pianist to make a highly lucrative career of parading the stage in ostrich feathers and sequins and who made the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s highest-paid pianist, earning $55,000 per week in the 1950s.

Walter Liberace

I found it a sad experience, especially as only through the museum did I learn that this easily-mocked man – best-known for outrageous costumes, and who died of AIDS in 1987 – also created a foundation that has given away some $5 million to arts students.

But the museum’s attendance fell from 450,000 a year to 45,000. Located in an empty shopping plaza, its name in glossy bronze letters and its windows covered with lacy white metalwork, it screams 1970s.

Its time has come. Now his exquisite antique pianos, rhinestone covered cars and a jewelry collection that includes an opal the size of a baby’s fist will, maybe, be seen only through touring exhibits.

A museum with few visitors becomes another word that starts and ends with m – mausoleum — a dead, cold place most people avoid.

I’ve been going to museums since I was very small and living in London, where my mother often took me to the Tate. I think it’s a habit you need to create and sustain, or museums become one more boring building to ignore, not a tempting trove of treasures.

A museum can create a coup de foudre with one of its objects – like Giacomo Balla’s “Dynamism of a Dog On a Leash”, the amazing 1912 painting of a black dachshund I saw in Buffalo’s Albright-Knox decades ago and never forgot – or the Hieronymus Bosch panels at the Prado in Madrid. Or the massive totem poles at the Royal Ontario Museum or the carnation-painted Hungarian shield at the Met or the legendary tapestry of the Lady and the Unicorn at Paris’ Musee Cluny…

But what’s a museum for? To honor and celebrate? To educate? To amuse and entertain? To keep a few curators employed, duking it out for their competing visions of what defines culture?

Many curators today fear that any space not filled with buzzing, beeping interactivity can’t possibly draw in, and engage, younger visitors, those with limited attention spans. I fear they may be correct in this assumption.

On a visit to the Metropolitan Museum in August I reveled in the impossible wealth of its riches, wandering aimlessly and happily from Roman sculpture and gold jewelry to pre-Columbian pottery, 15th. century armor, cloisonné and pietra dura tables. It offered a dizzying, dazzling form of time travel, the beauty created centuries, even millennia, apart sitting, now, mere steps from one another.

I coveted, badly, a pair of tiny, exquisite gold earrings made about 2,000 years ago, cherubs riding doves. Sweet, funny, charming – they’d easily sell today. But they are not for sale, only for contemplation.

Is that enough for us now?

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