I have just returned from a visit to Paris. There, I spent a Sunday morning visiting one of the world’s greatest art museums: the Louvre. As I walked around, with a fellow art historian, marvelling at the collection, we enjoyed spotting familiar works and discovering new ones. We looked at details, noticed unusual techniques and materials, discussed iconography and deciphered obscure classical and biblical references. We reflected on the museological strategies, contemporary and historical, of the Louvre’s various spaces and on the newest architecture framing the display of non-Western art. We both found objects with exciting implications for our own research and carefully photographed them. But we also noticed the crowds, the ‘public’ (of which we were, of course, a part) and their behaviour. Some, usually the lone viewers and quiet couples, were engrossed. Most, though, looked exhausted and bewildered. Footsore groups trailed behind harassed guides. Teenagers bristled with frustrated energy. Many, I am sure, were looking forward to the point when they could finally be released from the museum with its tiresome relics and into the gift shop with its twinkling souvenirs. It is a very human impulse and the vital fuel for the cultural economy of the museum. The relic and the souvenir collide spectacularly in what is, of course, quintessential Louvre experience – glimpsing the irrationally fêted Mona Lisa through the forest of iPads and camera phones, held aloft by those who, presumably, want a hasty image on a screen to remember and prove that she had been seen. Like many others, I suspect, I found myself smugly avoiding the throng, inwardly tutting over the incursion into the museum of the fickle cult of celebrity and congratulating myself on my more discerning approach to cultural consumption. I am, after all, just another anthropological ‘type’ of museum visitor.
None of this is new. In a famous essay, Theodor Adorno describes museums as ‘the family sepulchres of works of art’ and the Louvre as a place of dead visions, entombed, where ‘fatigue and barbarism converge’. Battling through these spaces of both proximity to and distance from these ‘marvellous treasures’, it is easy to agree with him (and with Paul Valéry, the French writer whose experience of the museum he was reflecting on). But: rather than complaining about it, surely this is an opportunity? As an art historian with an interest in and commitment to ‘external engagement’, my belief is that we have an opportunity to take part in a shared process of opening up the sepulchres of art (or at least getting in there together and having a good rummage around in even its dustiest corners). By getting out of the University classroom and away from the desk, we can and should help towards making the process of viewing visual art – from the Louvre and far beyond – one that involves active looking and thinking, discussion, honesty, curiosity, laughter… and an ability to exit, fulfilled, without visiting the gift shop.
Text by Dr Debbie Lewer, Senior Lecturer in History of Art.
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