It is an irresistibly attractive idea to think that art develops much as do living things, through an inevitable cycle of growth, maturity, and decay. This is stylistic evolution, as first proposed by the German antiquarian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768) in his History of the Art of Antiquity (1764). To the eighteenth century this was a shockingly radical idea. But to us the shocking part of his treatise is the object he identified as the world’s greatest work of art: that pious platitude in marble, the Apollo Belvedere. Winckelmann regarded this second-century Roman copy of a Greek bronze from half a millennium earlier as the pinnacle of ancient perfection. Having reached that apogee, classical beauty had nothing to do but slowly shrivel and die.

Having reached its apogee, classical beauty had nothing to do but slowly shrivel and die.

There is a poetic symmetry in Winckelmann having placed an image of Apollo at the summit. According to the ancients, it was Apollo alone among the immortals who understood the will of Zeus—that is to say, who understood the fabric of reality. The nine muses, over whom he presided, represented all the branches of knowledge and experience, not merely art. Thus the classical museion, the building devoted to their sacred labors, was a cultural multiplex, a combination academy-library in which sculptures and painting were merely a pleasant adjunct. It is the library that we remember as the principal feature of the great museion at Alexandria.

There had been earlier museums before Winckelmann made possible the idea of the modern museum. The word was revived as early as 1539 by the humanist Paolo Giovio, who spoke of his collection of portraits at Como as a “Musaeum.” The term did not catch on immediately, and for a time it even seemed that the name for the new institution would be antiquarium, as Albert V designated the structure he built in Munich in 1569. Whether museum or antiquarium, these sixteenth-century projects were not freestanding and purpose-built buildings but rooms, or suites of rooms, inserted into existing palaces. The happiest solution was a long passage with windows or openings along one side, a space that was called a gallery, a word that has subsequently been promoted to a synonym for museum.

These early museums, unlike those of today, disposed their objects according to pleasing decorative principles rather than any overarching didactic scheme. Their walls were thickly cluttered with paintings, frame touching frame in that textile-like weave that charms us in paintings like Johann Zoffany’s celebrated Tribuna of the Uffizi in Florence. When more formal grouping became the practice during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this was invariably done according to national schools. Such an arrangement was installed by 1781 in Vienna in the Upper Belvedere, which grouped its Venetian, Bolognese, Lombard, Florentine, and other schools into separate galleries.

All these early collections, from the humblest Danish Kunst- und Wunderkabinett to the Vatican’s mighty trove of statuary, were compendia of distinct and discrete objects. Winckelmann changed this. His concept of stylistic evolution instantly linked every object to every other object in a precise and interlocking relationship. Unlike conventional cataloguing schemes, such as the Dewey Decimal System, which were simply abstract systems of order, the idea of stylistic evolution made every work of art a component of a larger and vital whole—a living tree, whose every leaf was inextricably bound to every other leaf. After Winckelmann, a museum could do more than merely display the leaves, as it were; it could depict the tree itself. A linear chronological arrangement offered a coherent system of thought, nothing less than a scale model of a civilization moving through time.

Winckelmann sought to systematize only a small segment of historical knowledge, the sculpture of classical antiquity. But his notion that this sculpture evolved in response to changing social conditions, and might rise and fall with them, had immense consequences for thinking about history. History was not to be understood in cyclical or mythical terms, nor simply as so much shapeless and endless turbulence, but history progressed, cultures and civilizations moved forward according to patterns that could be described meaningfully and traced by the products of those cultures. This doctrine, pried free from the context of ancient sculpture, could be applied to any period or culture.

To turn this concept into a museum was no great task, for an array of objects arranged in linear sequence is itself an architectural plan. And the first great collections were installed in Baroque palaces planned on the enfilade principle, in which suites of formal rooms were placed on axis, their doors precisely aligned, so that one moved in stately procession to rooms of ever greater importance. (This is the implied hierarchy of the linear chronology, the presumption that one is moving to some final destination, the throne of some prince, or the throne of the present.)

A convergence of factors ensured that the first modern purpose-built museums were in the German states, and not only because Winckelmann was German. The Thirty Years’ War greatly retarded Germany’s economic and cultural development, and the Industrial Revolution came later than in England and France; only at the start of the nineteenth century was it beginning to catch up. But by modernizing late, it was able to modernize systematically and direct progress from the centralized state. There was also an acute consciousness of being at the periphery of the ancient classical world, which brought with it the outsider’s enthusiasm (the Germans became and remained the principal excavators of Greek antiquity). Finally, the Napoleonic occupation and seizure of German collections wrought a strange transformation: it was the private property of princelings that was carted off to Paris, but when it was returned in triumph to Berlin and elsewhere, it was now the common possession of the German nation.

Schinkel preferred that the museum serve as an instrument of inspiration as well as instruction.

Leo von Klenze’s Glyptothek (begun 1816) in Munich was the first museum to render its floor plan as a continuous linear sequence that took the visitor on a didactic journey through the history of classical sculpture. Ludwig I, the crown prince and future Bavarian king, had personally acquired several pivotal works of Greek art, and they were installed so that one might stand before the severe archaic sculpture from the temple at Aegina while glimpsing the Hellenistic Barberini Faun at the end of the enfilade, which beckoned scandalously in spread-crotch glory. In what would become routine, the interiors were built and decorated in a historically sympathetic style, surely to the dismay of Klenze, who would spend his life serving up similar pastiches for Ludwig.

The trajectory of ancient sculpture could be captured in a single path, and the plan of the Glyptothek was nothing more than a square donut. It was more complicated when it came to painting, as it did in Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s brilliant Altes Museum in Berlin (begun 1824). What did one do with the bad art? Must a museum depict objectively all the currents of the history of art, even its loathsome back eddies (even such indigestible artists such as Vivarini and Crivelli)? The archaeologist Alois Hirt, who first drew up the plan for the museum, believed that there must be no censorship or pruning; the historical record must be presented as it was, intact. Schinkel, something of a Hegelian idealist, preferred that the museum serve as an instrument of inspiration as well as instruction; first delight, he declared, then instruct. But rather than merely consigning undesirable Mannerist and Baroque art to storage, he had the felicitous idea of grouping them together as a gallery of “abnormalities,” if only to serve as a warning example. The matter was never satisfactorily resolved, nor could it be, unless one declared that there was no such thing as bad art. Unfortunately, as will be seen, this also meant that there was no such thing as good art.

Immensely serviceable, satisfying as both plan and image, the neoclassical temple model of Munich and Berlin shaped museum design for a century. But by the time John Russell Pope designed the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. (begun 1937), it had run its course. But while Modernism might change the emblematic form of the museum and abolish the enfilade plan, it had no quarrel with Winckelmann’s evolutionary model of art. If anything, it insisted on it all the more vehemently. After all, the Modern Movement was predicated on the idea that the Industrial Revolution and the social and technological forces it unleashed were pushing artistic evolution with the same irresistible momentum as in Greek sculpture during the fifth century B.C. or in the great competition to build cathedrals in the High Middle Ages. And so the Armory Show of 1913 presented the rise of Modern art in a sequential fashion that Winckelmann would have grasped. Rather than a single thread, it traced three distinct lines of development: a Realist lineage from Manet through Toulouse-Lautrec (the “force of life”), a Classical lineage from Ingres to Picasso (the “order of life”), and a Romantic lineage from Delacroix through Odilon Redon (the “sensuous delight of life.”) Such was the concept of Arthur B. Davies, the principal mind behind the show.

A generation later, Alfred Barr instituted something much like it in the initial layout of the Museum of Modern Art, whose stacked stories permitted these multiple lines to expand grandly as they rose through the building, twirling responsively around one another in the manner of a double helix. This was the literal realization of his famous 1935 diagram of the evolution of Cubism and Abstract Art, a diagram of stylistic evolution converted to an architectural floor plan. If that plan no longer showed the linear hierarchy of a Baroque enfilade, it still pushed imperatively forward through time to an ever-advancing present. So the Enlightenment understanding of stylistic evolution was adapted to underpin Modernism and its belief in historic inevitability; no Johann Winckelmann, no Clement Greenberg.

This symposium levels a great many charges against the culture of the contemporary art museum: the vulgarizing effect of blockbuster exhibitions; the shift away from educating to entertaining; the increasing willingness to deaccession valuable art; the relentless dumbing down enforced by departments of education; and, hovering over it all, the paralyzing fear among museum directors of being thought of as behind the times, of being viewed as a kind of disappointed undertaker. All are true, but in the larger scheme of things these are mere flesh wounds. The museum has survived Napoleon, Stalin, and Hitler, and can certainly survive commercialization, vulgarization, and even the outsourcing of curatorial decision-making to online voting. I propose that the real peril comes from outside the museum world, and is nothing less than the one that affects every category of museum, and institution of higher learning, for that matter.

There are curious parallels between museums of science and museums of art. Both are products of the Enlightenment, and that driving Enlightenment compulsion to systematize knowledge. Winckelmann’s work was contemporary to both Diderot’s Encyclopédie (1751–1772) and Carl Linnaeus’s Systema Naturæ, whose tenth edition (1758) codified the classification system of plants and animals with the double-barreled genus and species names that we still use today. Like Winckelmann, Linnaeus also offered a coherent system for organizing knowledge, and early museums of natural history organized themselves according to his taxonomic categories. These didactic presentations recalled those eighteenth-century art museums that grouped their art according to distinct national schools. The Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphia is a rare living fossil of one such installation.

Darwin’s theory of evolution posed an amusing challenge to the science museum, which could not depict biological evolution with the same linear elegance as Winckelmann’s stylistic evolution; the ramifying increase in diversity of species would have yielded a museum with one entrance and an infinity of exits. Instead, Darwinian museums discovered the diorama as a means of illustrating case studies of evolution, where the intense pressures of unusual habitats pressed animals to develop distinctive adaptive features.

In many ways, the manner in which natural history museums accommodated the insights of Darwin parallels how art museums accommodated Modernism: by finding architectural solutions and didactic installations that continued to present their contents as a coherent system of thought, a simulacrum of one aspect of the universe. Each took for granted that this was their role. This can no longer be taken for granted. Two museums in Paris, neither of them devoted to art, illustrate what happen when the stewards of a great collection cease displaying their objects as part of the positivist project to describe reality, and in effect revoke the Enlightenment itself.

The National Museum of Natural History in Paris was massively remodeled in 2003 when its late Victorian Hall of Mammals was reinvented as a Museum of Evolution. The grand skylighted gallery was stripped of its orderly taxonomic array of specimens to make way for a massive parade of African animals—elephants, lions, zebras, all thrown together—who thrust across the grand hall in strange, urgent procession. The spectacle is dazzling, as was intended, but also alarming. Although this is nominally a museum of evolution, the animals do not move in any orderly Darwinian nor even in Noah’s Biblical procession of two of each kind. Instead, the animals jumble together with abandon, a kind of anarchic stampede, and it is not at all clear if these animals are marching to some distant revelation or simply racing lemming-like to environmental apocalypse.

The Quai Branly turns its back on what made the modern museum possible.

The Quai Branly does something similar with its ethnographic materials. The museum originated in 1995 when it was decided to consolidate several anthropological and ethnographic collections in Paris, which had come to be seen as the embarrassing trophies of colonialism. The architect Jean Nouvel, recognizing that he had a non-Western collection, determined to house it in a defiantly non-Western building.

But what is non-Western? There is not one non-Western art or culture but many. All that they have in common is the prefix non-. And to be sure, he made an ostentatious show of negation (no parallel lines, no palpable shapes, no uniform materials); as Nouvel’s rambling philosophical statement of his design principles made clear, affirmation was not his intention.

In a place inhabited by symbols of forests and rivers, by obsessions of death and oblivion, it is an asylum for censored and cast off works from Australia and the Americas. It is a loaded place haunted with dialogues between the ancestral spirits of men, who, in discovering their human condition, invented gods and beliefs. It is a place that is unique and strange, poetic and unsettling.

This formal incoherence is of a piece with the museology of the Quai Branly. Objects are sprinkled in loose clusters, and with minimal explanatory material. There is no cumbersome taxonomy of axe-heads here, for example, but detached sprinklings of objects, emerging out of the darkness to be struck by single spotlights. Nervous at treating these objects as anthropological artifacts, they have created a spurious Tiffany’s showcase. It is not clear why this is less condescending than the original system of display, which valued these objects for their aesthetic value or workmanship, and viewed them as deserving of being preserved, measured, recorded, and studied.

In the end, the Quai Branly turns its back on the Enlightenment doctrine that made the modern museum possible, the doctrine that knowledge was a positive good, and that we were moving incrementally to an ever truer understanding of the universe and ourselves. It was only to be expected that the Quai Branly would be met with fashionable acclaim. For The New York Times, it was nothing less than “an act of dissent that forces us to feel the world again.” And it is only to be expected that it and the new French Museum of Evolution should emerge in Paris, where only a few miles away philosophers such as Foucault were arguing that any claim to present a coherent understanding of knowledge was an attempt to project political power.

Winckelmann swore by Apollo, and in so doing gave us the modern museum. “I swear by Apollo” is also the first sentence of the Hippocratic Oath. The real danger to the contemporary museum lies not in its internal temptations and insecurities, but in those of the larger society that sustains it. This society has grown nervous about the notion of a coherent system of thought; before it can heal the museum it must first regain its confidence in such a system. In the meantime, the stewards of the great collections must bear in mind that other injunction of the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 4, on page 36
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