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Is There a Future for Old-Fashioned Museums?

Some museum leaders quietly wonder whether the drive to make museums ever bigger and glitzier is a symptom of impending doom -- a misguided effort to compete with crass tourist attractions.

"There's a challenge ahead for a lot of places that have expanded their physical plants," says Maxwell L. Anderson, CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He foresees "huge energy costs and security costs, without even mentioning the expense of programming." If you have "a large tourist market, a big endowment and a great permanent collection, build away. If you're missing one or two -- or three -- it's wishful thinking."

The problem, Anderson says, is that museums can't even agree on what constitutes progress. In 2004, Anderson asked if art museum leaders had a clue. His influential broadside, "Metrics of Success in Art Museums," came out of his work at the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton.

"The root of the problem is that there is no longer an agreed-upon method of measuring achievement," he wrote. "Half a century ago, art museums were largely measured by a yardstick comparable to that applied to libraries of the time: the size and importance of their collections." But today, he argued, art museums increasingly "are to their detriment places that privilege entertainment over learning."

This year, in the journal Curator, he argued, "The message has been conspicuously entrepreneurial: we can be compared with theme parks, so we matter."

He calls for measures of success that focus on the visitor's experience of the "resonance and wonder" of artworks -- "an intangible sense of elation -- a feeling that a weight was lifted."

In other words: the magic.

Wired in the Brain

In 2004, curators of the Louvre created a white-laser virtual model of the Mona Lisa. It captured details at a resolution of 10 microns -- a 10th of the thickness of a human hair -- in three dimensions, brush strokes and all.

This marvel came courtesy of the unexpected vistas opened by the half-century-long exponential increase in computing power that continues unabated. It is only a matter of time before our computers display the entire content of every museum on Earth -- plus everything in their warehouses -- with the kind of wraparound accuracy far beyond the capabilities of photography, that 200-year-old technology.

Under these circumstances, will there ever again be reason to pack yourself into an 800-passenger jet to Paris and be jostled by hundreds of Japanese tourists while viewing the bulletproof shrine that contains "La Gioconda"?

"I've been there to see the 'Mona Lisa,' " says AAM head Bell, "and there were a lot of Japanese tourists and it was hotter than the hinges of hell, and they were all taking flash pictures even though the sign said no flash pictures. But somehow, despite that, I stood there, in the eighth or 10th row of people, and thought, 'I'm looking at the very thing that Leonardo himself painted.' It stimulates something inside you."

Our brains may indeed be wired to respond emotionally to what can be found in some museums, says Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California and the author of "The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness."

"It is an emotional response that is related to the fundamental makeup of primates -- which has to do with curiosity, exploration and a sense of discovery. It produces reward when something is found," he says. "That is why we have eyes the way we do -- to scan the horizon, looking for potential food, danger. . . . If you find something that's good, you are rewarded for it, automatically, internally, with an emotion that produces pleasure. That's why you keep doing it.

"So you turn a corner in a museum, and encounter something you've heard about or looked for -- or have never heard about, but is very beautiful. That element of surprise is part of the trigger.

"It would be stupid not to use every means of recording we have," Damasio says, referring both to the past of his beloved jazz and classical music and the future of museum image capture. "But that doesn't mean to say it's a substitute for the firsthand experience. Just different."

If this is true, there may be reasons for guarded optimism about the future of some museums -- especially the ones that produce an extraordinary experience, ones that fire a hormonal cascade like none other, a shiver, a euphoria, a buzz.

The ones that survive may be the ones that deliver presences from other worlds and self-satisfactions, like all good temples. They would be the ones that prove that Duchamp was right when he said the painter makes only half his picture, that the viewer completes it. That if you get turned on by a Titian nude or grossed out by a Goya atrocity, or experience beauty, you've had a visitation that even the godless sense.

And maybe in the age of the networked computer, some museums will thrive because, as Paul Saffo, the veteran Silicon Valley technology forecaster, says, "I think we're just big dumb crazy squirrels that like to collect [stuff].

"There's three things that motivate us, that scratch the itch: the desire to tell stories, the desire to be useful and the desire to collect [stuff]. I challenge you to find anything a human does that doesn't scratch one of those itches."

A good museum, of course, hits the trifecta. It does all three.

Staff writers Paul Richard, Philip Kennicott, Blake Gopnik and Jacqueline Trescott contributed to this report.

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