For more than two centuries since the Louvre went public, the museum has hardly changed. I am shockingly aware that such a statement may sound like a provocation, as many respected professionals from the museum world and academia alike—Kenneth Hudson and Eilean Hooper-Greenhill among them—think just the opposite: that “museums refuse to stand still” and that “change has been unprecedented and extreme.”
Imagine now the first peasants, pimps and prostitutes who visited on August 10, 1793, the day the Louvre first opened to the public, being catered around like ignorant cattle but fulfilling their inalienable revolutionary rights to the “ouvrages maintenant appartenants à la nation française”, while they stared in awe at voluptuous gods, satraps and nymphs.
Fast-forward to today, we see visitors in the same Louvre running about freely and loudly while they try to crowd together in front of the Mona Lisa or MoMA’s The Starry Night by Van Gogh to take a selfie in the same superficial aesthetic mood as in the past.
Whilst awe has certainly given away to irreverence, the citizen-spectator continues to be no more than a passerby looking at the “top of the pops” and fatally assuming a passive condition in the face of what the ‘nanny museum’ has decided is convenient for you to see (or what Jacques-Louis David incisively labeled as a “vain assemblage of frivolous luxury objects that serve only to satisfy idle curiosity”).
Unlike Germany around 1900, where the art world argued about whether or not to collect contemporary art, and the equally fascinating debates in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, which focused on downplaying bourgeois ideology and the deification of the artwork, the American-Eurocentric art world has never had such heated discussions in its search for a different museum model.