4.609 | Spring 2014 | Undergraduate

The Art Museum: History, Theory, Controversy


Course Meeting Times

Seminar: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session

Course Description

Art museums are powerful and contested institutions. They are also innovative sites of architectural and artistic practice. From the exhibitionary complex of the nineteenth century to the experiential complex of today, this course investigates the art museum from historical and contemporary perspectives, striking a balance between theoretical investigation and case studies of recent exhibitions and museum buildings. Where and why did the concept of the public art museum emerge, and how have its functions changed over time? How do art museums continue to shape our definitions of what art is? How have they responded to recent critiques of the self-described ‘universal’ museum and to claims for the ethical display of ill-gotten artifacts or the restitution of such objects as Greek vases and bronzes looted from Benin? And why is the Euro-American art museum so compelling a model that it has spread around the globe?

To address these and other questions, we will also go behind the scenes. Visits to local museums and discussions with curators are an essential component of the course.



Required Books

  • McClellan, Andrew. Art Museum from Boullee to Bilbao. University of California Press, 2008. ISBN: 9780520251267.
  • Duncan, Carol. Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. Routledge, 1995. ISBN: 9780415070126. [Preview with Google Books]
  • Serrell, Beverly. Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach. Altamira Press, 1996. [Preview with Google Books]


Participation 20
3 response papers 30 (10 each)
Final project (includes preliminary proposal and short presentation) 50

This class is a discussion based seminar. Your participation (in class conversation and during our offsite visits) is crucial and is weighted accordingly. Please come to each class meeting prepared to discuss all assigned readings for that week. Fieldtrips are not optional; they are an essential component of the course.


1 Introduction  
2 Museum, Nation, Citizen  
3 Guest Lecture: Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath. Tea with Nefertiti, or How the Arts Shape Culture Lecture of interest: Matthew Rampley, “Museums and the Construction of Identities
4 The Museum as Arbiter: Episodes in Exhibition History  
5 Destination Museum: The Bilbao Effect  
6 Western Museums and the Rest of the World: The “Primitive” and the Global International Project proposals and preliminary bibliographies due
7 The Artist as Curator: A Discussion with Arlene Shechet on Meissen Recast Visit to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)
8 Looting and Restitution, or, the Universal Museum Reconsidered Due: Response paper on repatriation
9 The Private Museum

Visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Tour and discussion with Anne-Marie Eze, Associate Curator of Collections

10 Beyond the Nation: The Americas Galleries at the MFA

Visit to the Museum of Fine Arts.

Due: Response paper to the Gardner Museum

11 Lightning Talks In-class: Lightning talks of ongoing research projects
12 Museums and Money In-class: Additional lightning talks if necessary
13 Sneak Preview of new Harvard University Art Museums with Elizabeth Rudy, Theodore Rousseau Assistant Curator of European Paintings Final projects due

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2014
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments with Examples