Under Discussion: The Encyclopedic Museum., Ed. Donatien Grau, 2021. Los Angeles:Getty Research Institute, 256pp., Paperback USD $35.00, ISBN 9781606067192

Museums are facing a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, their number seems to follow a continuous growth, with an apparently endless appetite to dedicate them to wide-ranging themes, or to build them as tourist destinations all around the world.1  On the other hand, some museums have faced unprecedented pressure to rethink their sponsorship, their display and interpretation, and their audience strategies. In particular, encyclopaedic museums are sometimes seen to crystallise some of the historical imbalances in collection acquisition and Weltanschauung inherited from the Enlightenment.

Donatien Grau’s book results from a mission given to the author by former Getty Research Institute Director Thomas Gaetghens ‘to question and to assess the meaning of the encyclopedic museum’ (p. vi). In so doing, it follows on from James Cuno’s Museums Matters: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum (2011) which argued their case, while Grau’s publication is more open-ended on the subject. Grau’s methodological toolbox is quite extensive, built on his background as ‘normalien’, a PhD in classical philology and since May 2022 his position as ‘Advisor to the Presidency for contemporary programmes’ at the Louvre after a four-year spell at the musée d’Orsay as head of contemporary programmes.2

The present book uses a similar template to some of Grau’s previous publications, such as Living Museums (2020) and to a lesser extent Potential Museums, the special issue of Paradis magazine (2014). Both publications were conceived as polyphonic platforms with insights from thought and cultural leaders from across the museum/ art world to answer ‘big’ questions about the future of museums.3  Grau also co-edited a book entitled, The Transitory Museum with Emanuele Cocia which explored categories between traditional understandings of exhibitions through a Milanese ‘concept store’, a title which recalls Francis Haskell’s seminal The Ephemeral Museum (2000).

The 28 interviews gathered in this book were collected over several years (2014 to 2020), and in some cases, individual respondent’s perspectives were returned to over several years. They are further framed by an introduction by Donatien Grau and an afterword by Mary E. Miller, director of the Getty Research Institute. Grau avoids the authoritative single-voice perspective, which is replaced by dialogues with a broad range of thought and cultural leaders across three main areas of reflection: historical ‘Origins and practice of encyclopedic museums’; geographical ‘encyclopedic museums around the world’; and finally methodological ‘methodologies and potentials of the encyclopedic museum’. Grau’s approach to the encyclopaedic museum is to gather views to articulate its history, terminology, challenges and potential future iterations. In his own words, he found that the ’encyclopedic museum was an archetype and therefore did not necessarily relate to an institution as such’.4

Pride of place is given to the United States of America with thirteen of the interviewees based there, with prominent positions in the academic, and art world. It is no surprise to find successive directors of the Metropolitan Museum: Philippe de Montebello, Thomas Campbell and its current director Max Hollein, but in his former capacity as director of the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco. Also interviewed are Keywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Michael Govan, CEO and director, LACMA. Professors from Columbia University (Bachir Souleymane Diagne), Harvard University (Homi K. Bhabha) or New York University (Kwame Antony Appiah) lend their perceptive voices to the complex discussions on encyclopaedic museums. Amit Sood, director, Google Arts and Culture, offers an interesting, if slightly tangential, exploration of ideals of digital encyclopaedia.

Nine of the interviewees are based in Europe and the United Kingdom. Interestingly, only Henry Loyrette, director emeritus at the Louvre, belongs to the museum world, and wished to underline the historic conceptual discrepancy between ‘universal’ museums such as the Louvre, and ‘encyclopaedic’ museums, mostly built in America. Other interviews include Irina Bokova, former UNESCO Director General; Grayson Perry, artist and Trustee of the British Museum; architect Jean Nouvel; Benedicte Savoy, professor at the Technische Universität in Berlin; Marc Fumaroli, professor emeritus at the College de France (now deceased unfortunately) or Krzysztof Pomian, director of studies emeritus, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. It is surprising not to find more voices from the British Museum or from Berlin’s Museum Island in a discussion on encyclopaedic museums.

The rest of the world is compacted into the remaining six interviews, including the Hermitage Museum’s director Mikhail Piotrovsky; Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director general at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, inaugurated in 1922 as the ‘Prince of Wales Museum of Western India’, whose main nucleus was provided by the Tata family (118); George Abungu, archaeologist and former director of the National Museums of Kenya; or Zaki Nusseibeh, current Cultural Advisor to the President of the United Arab Emirates and formerly part of the Board of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Tourism and Culture, which oversaw the Louvre Abu Dhabi project, inaugurated in 2017 as this book was under preparation. It is particularly interesting to hear these perspectives on encyclopaedic museums, as they greatly vary in their approach and conclusions. World contributions to this debate are essential and should be encouraged further. Unfortunately, they still feel piecemeal in this book, with no cultural leader from Australia for example, or no discussion of the concept of ‘cultural encyclopaedia’ initiated by Nana Oforiatta-Ayim in Ghana.5

In summary, what can be learnt from such a world-kaleidoscope of opinions and positions? From its most severe detractors to some of its defenders, encyclopaedic museums seem both fit and unfit for a globalised world. Some of its conceptual origins and intellectual legacies are questionable by today’s standards, and their location (generally) in Western countries contribute in some cases to fanning the flames of discontent. Grau’s book is a valuable document from that perspective, as crystallising some early 21st century views on an historic yet hotly debated approach to museology. It provides an existentialist snapshot, albeit incomplete, of cultural and thought leaders, some of whom unfortunately passed away since then; and it highlights, if need be, that debates on encyclopaedic museums are far from over.

  1. For example, the Grand Egyptian Museum, announced in 2002, is currently scheduled to open in 2023 (https://grandegyptianmuseum.org/opening/); while South Korea has reportedly embarked on a ‘museum boom’, https://www.ft.com/content/137b72ce-dfee-458a-a283-4b6308990f3c
  2. La Gazette Drouot, 2 May 2022, https://www.gazette-drouot.com/en/article/louvre-donatien-grau-named-advisor-for-contemporary-programs/34645.
  3. Other authors have favoured this decentralised type of publication: for example Andras Szanto’s The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues (Hatje Cantz, 2020); or Museum of the Future: Now What?, eds Cristina Bechtler and Dora Imhof (jrp/ les presses du reel: 2021).
  4. Alain Elkann Interviews, 7 August 2022, https://www.alainelkanninterviews.com/donatien-grau/
  5. https://www.culturalencyclopaedia.org/

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