Advice from the Past

September 29, 2015

Art is a fine large word. This shares with liberty the task of serving as an excuse for many crimes.

                        —John Cotton Dana (1906)

I noticed this quote in the email signature of a colleague. While I usually do not pay attention to such details, this quote caused me to mull over the words for several moments. Who was the person behind this provocative statement? A quick search online revealed that John Cotton Dana received his law degree from Dartmouth College in 1878. After relocating to Colorado, he was appointed as the first librarian of Denver and soon later served as director of the Denver Public Library. Dana advocated for libraries to implement an open stacks policy so patrons could browse books independently, without the assistance of staff, and he imagined libraries as active spaces for the general public. More importantly, Dana believed cultural institutions should be relevant to the community and the everyday lives of citizens rather than limited group of patrons.[1]

Dana’s vision for the libraries at the dawn of the twentieth century was revelatory and ahead of its time. It speaks to the issues many museums confront on a daily basis over a century later. Who is our audience? Who determines what art or culture is in the 21st century? With so much visual content available at our fingertips, are museums relevant? Am I, a curator, even necessary in an age when simply culling a group of items together receives the tag line “curated by…”? I wrestle with these questions constantly. Yet, in reading about this radical librarian from yesteryear, I am reminded why these questions are significant. I passionately believe in museums and cultural institutions as a public place where visitors can discover something—an object or idea—that satisfies or provokes curiosity. This ideal aligns with Dana’s own progressive thinking about not succumbing to the notion of museums or archives existing as cultural graveyards. However, we will likely succumb to this fate if we neglect to address the needs or interest of our public.

It is profound that a person from a legal background fostered the idea of cultural institutions as flexible, accessible environments for the public. The law facilitates our everyday movements and rituals. Yet, as Dana’s quote suggests, art is one of the few things that can (or should) push the boundaries of law or the norm.  It’s easy to develop complacency under the law, and it’s often artists who first call attention to or confront its flaws. This dialogue is crucial regardless of whether or not we agree with the outcome. As such, museum professionals should be aware of and even participate in these debates between divergent voices and various publics, a sentiment at the core of Dana’s vision.



[1] “John Cotton Dana.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. 8 May 2015. Web. 7 September 2015. <>