Viewing without Art Historical Baggage

As a child–and even a college student–I relished art museums as places where I could step away from day-to-day life and encounter other cultures, ideas, and beautiful objects. Since I began working in the art world, in my early twenties, this conception has steadily evolved. Where I once saw art museums as repositories for aesthetics (and could turn a blind eye to their inner workings), I now experience them as loaded places, filled with very distinct commentaries on public and private collecting, taste, and ongoing cultural agendas. To see museums as a series of definite calculated choices makes the art recede at times, and every time I visit a new art museum, the vista is no longer one of awe, but one of questions: Why did they acquire this and hang it here? Who donated to this exhibition and why? What is this museum’s overall collecting strategy?

To see art museums this way is not a bad thing, but it is a different thing. To regain some of that childlike wonder–and to remember why people love museums so–I occasionally have to go to a different type of museum altogether.

The American Museum of Natural History, in New York, always refreshes me. It reminds me of my childhood, when visits to such museums were a frequent enterprise, and it reminds me that aesthetic beauty can be found beyond the art world and in animals, plants, and everyday objects. More importantly, its collections are often so disconnected in style, subject, and approach that I do not even try to find the overarching theoretical agendas at play within the museum walls. I know that museums like AMNH are just as complicated as the art museums I visit all the time, but for some reason, the experience is just enough removed from my daily life that I can relax and suspend my questioning mind. I do not let myself focus on the ramifications of showing tribal art as ethnographic study material, and instead absorb the experience for what it is: a series of seemingly random displays of cultural, natural, and geological phenomena that, as a visitor, are a joy to discover. Below are a few of my favorite things at AMNH, spotted on a recent visit.

photo 2

photo 3

photo 4

photo 5