By Stacey Ingram Kaleh, Blanton Museum of Art
Americans like any other people inscribe their histories, beliefs, attitudes, desires and dreams in the images they make. – Robert Hughes, 1997
In celebration of our Independence Day, I take a moment to reflect on what it means to be an American and how we form our national identity. What histories and concepts do we bring together to define our nation and the American spirit? How do we present, celebrate, and preserve this identity? Museums have been at the forefront of this conversation from their conception.
Many consider the Louvre to be one of the first public museums, as we know them today, opening to the public as the Museum Central des Arts with free general admission in 1793. Born out of the French Revolution, the citizens of France claimed the Louvre – once a palace for the king — and its royal collections for the whole of society. Early on, the museum became a place for the French public to enjoy the work of French artists, and take pride in the talent and imagination of the nation’s people. As the museum evolved it became a place where visitors, from France and beyond, could experience French works in the company of artworks from around the world, and admire both its singularities and connections to a global cultural heritage. Today, there are museums in more than 137 countries and territories worldwide, according to the International Council of Museums, that provide opportunities to display, simultaneously, a sense of nationalism and shared world heritage.
Museums in the United States also date back to times of political revolution. Soldier of the American Revolution and portraitist Charles Willson Peale is often credited with laying the groundwork for the United States’ museum system as the founder of the Philadelphia Museum, one of the nation’s first museums. An artist and collector of a variety of artifacts and natural specimens, Peale first displayed his own collections and portraits, which feature leaders of the American Revolution that he met throughout his travels, in his own home (1786). Before long, the museum captivated public interest and outgrew its space in Peale’s home, moving to the American Philosophical Society in 1794, and then to Independence Hall in 1802. According to a 2008 NPR interview that examined how the Philadelphia Museum helped shape early American culture, Peale believed that “By understanding nature, promoting innovation and showcasing accomplished people…” he could encourage economic independence as well as political freedom, which he viewed as necessary to the new nation. He developed exhibitions and presentations he felt would be interesting and relevant to a wide range of people, seeking to further this mission.
Today, visitors to the Blanton can engage with the concept of national identity when exploring America/Americas, an installation of the permanent collection grouping twentieth-century works created in North, Central, and South America that challenges longstanding museum methods that separate art by geographic region. The museum also champions a label practice that not only includes information about where an artist was born, but also where the artist lived and worked, acknowledging the nomadic lifestyle that became more common in the 1900s.
Museums are places where history lives and is learned, where it continues to speak to us in new ways and helps us understand ourselves within a greater context. They care for our national treasures and house centuries of ideas about America and its people as represented by artists, historians, and our ancestors, from the United States and across the globe. When we visit a museum, we see the things we value as a society and work to protect. We immerse ourselves in the narrative of a portrait, be it that of Thomas Jefferson or Farrah Fawcett, or in the timeless beauty of a Hudson River School landscape. When we want to explore what it means to be American, museums are a good place to start the journey.
Stacey Ingram Kaleh is the Blanton’s Public Relations and Marketing Coordinator and holds an M.A. in Museum Studies from New York University, where she specialized in museum theory and branding.