Art Objects, Damage, and Resonance

The essay “Resonance and Wonder” by Stephen Greenblatt touches on many key issues relating to the ways in which museums chose to display their art objects and the effects those display methodologies have on  viewers’ reactions and understandings of the objects. In his essay, Greenblatt discusses how often times museums try to erase the history of the art object, which may include contextual and historical factors as well as physical damage to the works themselves. Greenblatt also describes how museums function as “monuments to the fragility of cultures,” and how the fragility of art objects themselves can have resonance. Greenblatt’s discussion of these themes made me think about a trip I took to the Cleveland Museum of Art this summer and a statue, The Thinker by Auguste Rodin, I saw at the museum.

In 1970 an unknown anti-government group detonated a homemade bomb at the Cleveland Museum of art that blew out the bottom portion of The Thinker. The sculpture was severely damaged. The Cleveland Museum of Art’s The Thinker, is a great case study for some of the issues that Greenblatt discusses in his essay. The physical damage inflicted upon the art object can be seen as a testament to the fragility of the culture of the United States and to the ideologies and values tied to the United States government. The damage to the bottom of the sculpture also generates its own resonance through an added historical and contextual connection between the sculpture, the location, an era and a moment in time.

The Thinker also presents a way to look at how Museums make decisions about damaged works and present the history of objects.  After considering several options, the Cleveland Musuem of Art decided not to restore the The Thinker and return the damaged sculpture to the entrance of the museum. They added a small plaque, which described that the damage had been caused by a bomb, to the base of the statue. The history of the object now is inseparable from one’s understanding and appreciation of the sculpture on display. One can no longer view the art object without considering its history. According to Greenblatt, this is a somewhat rare occurrence, as most museums attempt to remove historical context from art objects on display.

One thought on “Art Objects, Damage, and Resonance”

  1. Wow, that’s such a powerful stance for the museum to take. Museums, as often-revered cultural institutions, are in a unique position of influencing the public’s viewpoint on any given issue, based on what they display. By presenting the damaged sculpture, the Cleveland Museum of Art shows the public that the attack did not phase it, which disempowers the terrorist(s) and renders their action futile. If the museum had chosen to repair the piece or to stop displaying it, they would’ve sent a completely different message to the public.
    I think, in a lot of cases, the history of an object can be just as interesting than the object itself, if not more so. I appreciate that the museum made the choice it did.

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