The Museum Year In Review: 2016’s Most Important Museum News

This year has been unique for many reasons. One could interpret the numerous items of news from the past twelve months in any number of ways. As this blog is museum-focused, however, I have chosen to examine the six developments from this year that have had or will have the most impact on the museum field. Some are related to art, while others focus on the future of science. All, however, will undoubtedly have a lasting effect on museums and how they are built and maintained.

The National Gallery Opens to the Future

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Katharine Fritsch’s “Hahn/Cock,” courtesy of Bill O’Leary, The Washington Post

The National Gallery of Art was established in 1937 with a superb donation of works and a large endowment from Pittsburgh art collector Andrew W. Mellon [1].

In 1967, architect I.M. Pei was selected to design the East Building, which would expand the museum’s ability to display items from its collection. Construction was completed in 1978. By 2013, however, the building was sorely in need of renovations that would further increase display space and provide more access for visitors.

After an extensive interior and exterior overhaul lasting three years, the East building was reopened to the public on September 30th of 2016 [2]. Displayed in the renovated building are modern works by masters such as Alexander Calder and Mark Rothko, as well as works by contemporary artists. The building is much more accessible to all types of visitors, and allows for more works to be displayed than ever before in the museum’s history.

Museum Building Boom Analyzed

A 2016 study of 85 different museum building projects throughout the world between the years 2007 and 2014 determined that United States experienced a museum building boom, despite the fact that the economy was in recession. According to a report prepared by The Art Newspaper, U.S. museums spent nearly $5 billion on building and expansion efforts [3]. Those who measure museum success on visitorship were surprised by this development, as adult visitorship to art museums has dropped nearly 10% since 1993.

Smithsonian Magazine notes that according to the study, particularly in difficult economic times, exciting building projects are what attract big donors and grants the most [4]. This explains museums’ tendency to begin large scale building projects rather than opting for the expansion or improvement of smaller, less prominent parts of their organizations and collections.

Libyan Antiquities Crisis

According to Ramadan Shebani, a Libyan archeologist, artifacts and archaeological finds are being excavated, removed, and sold illegally by the thousands in the absence of substantive governmental archaeological protection or enforcement. Particularly in danger are antiquities from Cyrene. Policing of the illegal smuggling and sale of these items has resulted in the apprehension of several important artifacts thus far, but is not sufficient to stop the smuggling efforts.

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Ancient Greek and Roman ruins in Cyrene, courtesy of Goran Tomasevic, Reuters

Political unrest has severely diminished the Libyan government’s capacity to prevent unsanctioned excavation. While multiple unsolidified governments attempt to restore peace to the war-torn country, two different chairmen of antiquities wrestle with one another to create policies while artifacts pour out through the borders.

In addition, although both UNESCO and ICOM are implementing efforts to stem the tide of illegal artifact removal, much of the focus on antiquities conservation and safeguarding have become focused on Syria and its world heritage sites. Thus, plans to adequately protect Libya’s archaeological treasures has yet to solidify [5].

Passing of Pioneering Female Architect Zaha Hadid, 65

Zaha Hadid’s death shocked the world of architecture. Her pioneering methods of designing improbable and unbelievable spaces using a mix of imagination, engineering and algorithms that “elevated uncertainty to an art” [6]. In 2004, she won the highly coveted Pritzker Prize for architecture.

Hadid derived inspiration Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitzky, and the artists of the Russian avant-garde. She made a significant impact on museum architecture. Her museum work included the Sackler Gallery in London, the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, The Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany, the Opera House in Guangzhou, China, and the Maxxi Museum in Rome, Italy. Her loss will be severely felt for decades throughout the world of modern architecture and the innovating global design community.

The Flint Water Crisis Changes the Conversation

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National March in February for Clean Water in Flint. Courtesy of Bill Pugliano, Getty Images, from NPR website

In Flint, Michigan, key officials’ decision to change the city’s water supply to the Flint River has had a devastating impact on the community which may never be fully mended. Hoping to save money, city officials decided to stop using water from the Detroit water supply and temporarily pull water from the Flint River as a temporary measure. This decision led to a state-wide water quality crisis that exposed gross negligence on the part of the city of Flint and privately contracted water quality consulting firms.

According to a run-down of the crisis created by NPR, as a result of this state-wide health crisis, museums in Michigan have been reshaped by the community need for education on how to water is made safe, and how its safety is properly maintained [7]. It also highlights the continued need for community organizations and institutions to hold local government responsible for supporting and upholding human rights.

Existence of Gravitational Waves Confirmed

The final museum-changing story of 2016 comes from outer space. Ripples in the fabric of spacetime, as predicted by Albert Einstein in 1915, were officially detected for the first time. The ripples were caused by the collision and subsequent merging of two black holes several billion years ago, but the ripples have just reached us this year [8].

Gravitational waves are created from the massive energy generated by the collision. They were detected by the LIGO labs at both Caltech and MIT [9]. According to LSU professor of physics and astronomy Gabriela Gonzalez, “This detection is the beginning of a new era…” [10]. Particularly for museums that focus primarily on science and technology, the implications of this discovery are unprecedented. The discovery begins an entirely new chapter in human understanding of space and time.

Featured image: Maxxi Museum, designed by Zaha Hadid. Courtesy of Iwan Baan, ArchDaily

Endnotes

[1] http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/about.html

[2] http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/press/2016/eastbuilding.html

[3] http://theartnewspaper.com/reports/year-in-review-2016/the-year-in-museums-the-building-boom-and-the-expanding-canon/

[4] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/museum-building-booming-united-states-180958711/

[5] http://theartnewspaper.com/news/looters-exploit-the-political-chaos-in-libya/

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/01/arts/design/zaha-hadid-architect-dies.html

[7] http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/04/20/465545378/lead-laced-water-in-flint-a-step-by-step-look-at-the-makings-of-a-crisis

[8] https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/news/ligo20160211

[9] https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/

[10] https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/news/ligo20160211

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