The concept of an encyclopedic museum was born of the enlightenment, a manifestation of European society's growing belief that the spread of knowledge, promotion of intellectual inquiry, and trust in individual agency were crucial to human development and the future of a rational society. But in recent years, encyclopedic museums have been under attack as little more than relics and promoters of imperialism. Could it be that the encyclopedic museum has outlived its usefulness? With Museums Matter, James Cuno, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust and former president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, replies with a resounding "No!" He takes us on a brief tour of the modern museum, from the creation of the British Museum - the archetypal encyclopedic collection - to the present, when major museums host millions of visitors annually and play a significant role in the cultural lives of their cities.
Along the way, Cuno acknowledges the legitimate questions about the role of museums in nation building and imperialism, but he argues strenuously that even a truly national museum like the Louvre can't help but open visitors' eyes and minds to the wide diversity of world cultures and the stunning art that is our common heritage. Ultimately Cuno makes a powerful case for the encyclopedic museum as a truly cosmopolitan institution, promoting tolerance, understanding, and a shared sense of history-values that are essential in our ever more globalized age.
James Cuno is president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust. He served as president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago from 2004 until 2011, the Courtauld Institute of Art from 2002 until 2004, and the Harvard University Art Museums from 1991 to 2002.