Museum Mayhem: Trouble in Paradise at Three of America’s Cultural Institutions.

Museum closings are not a strange topic these days. COVID has forced many museums to close their doors temporarily or permanently. Recovery for museums closing their doors can mean many things, and safeguarding their collection can be a challenge from a few different points of view. Unpacking a museum’s history, their ties to the community, and their responsibility to their donors is not a small task. Yet it is one that is often overlooked in the heat of legal battles to keep museums open, preserve their collections, or retain their property. The relevancy of this topic could not be more pressing. As museums reopen their doors to the public, some are staying closed. 

During the pandemic, over three quarters of museums reported to the American Alliance of Museums that their operating income fell by an average of 40 percent. Furthermore, 15 percent of museums surveyed reported that there was a significant risk of closure in the next six months (“Museum Recovery Expected…”). Museums can fail in a variety of ways, as we will soon see, and not every museum should stay open.  Weighing the importance of the museums’ collection, their history, and their community are all considerations that need to be taken in. The global environment has been tumultuous, with financial crises, global warming, and new and exotic viruses coming to bear on the worlds population. Together with these issues is an erosion of our cultural norms, a breakdown in our political landscape, and an uncertain future for many different industries, brought on by increasing digitization (McLean 291).

In this shifting and kaleidoscopic landscape, the three museums that we will take into consideration in this paper are the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC, and the Philadelphia History Museum. All of these museums underwent difficulties which led to their closure in the last ten years. These closures led to challenging questions about what to do with their collections, their property, and what would become of their legacy once they were no more. This essay will examine each of these museums in turn, drawing on legal reports, magazine articles, press releases, and news articles to determine what happened, why it happened, and what might have been done differently in order to save the museums.

Each of these museum closures has a different story to tell. In each case there is something that might have been done to keep them open. Sometimes this has to do with renovations and relevancy, as in the case of the Higgins Armory, sometimes it has to do with partnerships as opposed to transfers, and sometimes it just comes down to market competition and strategy. In each of these three cases, there was a protest from members of the museums’ constituency, staff, and the public, in favor of preserving the museum. In order to tell the full story, this paper includes these voices, and analyzes the argument from a counterfactual standpoint. 

The Higgins Armory closed its doors to the public in 2013, and much of its collection was moved to the Worcester Art Museum. The Armory was home to thousands of pieces of arms and armor from John Woodman Higgins’ personal collection, and had been in operation for over 83 years (Donnelly and Colinvaux “Integration”). The mission statement of the Higgins Armory read as follows:

To found and maintain an institution for the promotion of the study and investigation of arms and armor in a broad cultural context from antiquity to circa 1800…The intention of the incorporators is to form a corporation for the benefit of the public, devoted to scholarly and educational purposes. (“Petition for Approval…”)

A lofty aspiration, the problems arose for the Armory starting in the 1970s. By 1979, maintenance expenses and upkeep of the Armory building caused the board of trustees to first consider merging with the Worcester Art Museum. Some of the main financial issues moving into the 21st century were energy costs at the Armory (“Petition for Approval…”). In the 2000s, various improvements were made to the building, but at great expense, and by 2010, the annual deficit was at approximately $450,000 (“Petition for Approval…”). 

The Higgins Armory began to search for a strategic partnership in order to ensure the survival of their collection. Reaching out to organizations in the area, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Worcester Art Museum, the Armory sought to both keep the collection together, and to have it displayed to the public (kept out of storage). Eventually the Higgins Armory Trustees concluded that the Worcester Art Museum would be the best choice because of their commitment to display the entire 2,000 piece collection, because of their location in Worcester, and because of the strength and compatibility of their own (the Worcester Art Museum’s) collection (“Petition for Approval…”).

Finalized in November 2013, the transfer, as a gift, of the Higgins Core Collection of arms and armor, the Higgins Library and Archives, and certain other collection related assets and funds to the Worcester Art Museum waited to be accepted. On March 29, 2014, The Worcester Art Museum opened the exhibition entitled “Knights,” showcasing the Higgins Armory collection in all of its glory (Loos, “Dismissed”). The Higgins was lucky in that the importance of their collection as a whole necessitated that it all go to a single benefactor and, as we will see, other museums were not so fortunate. 

The Higgins suffered from a ‘paradigmatic challenge.’ Underfunded, and lacking modern collections exhibition, display, and documentation capacity, the Higgins lacked a contemporary flair to its collection, and was hence dissolved. This idea is drawn from Fiona Cameron’s “Museum Collections, Documentation, and Shifting Knowledge Paradigms” (225). While a valuable collection, the Higgins was unable to capitalize on the modern shift that swung museums into new “knowledge environments” and brought to bear current trends in emerging technologies for the analysis of museum artifacts (Cameron 224-225). 

“Having a narrow subject matter made it easier to develop a cohesive interpretive plan” argues Kary Pardy, but with the “loss of both its founder, [John Woodman Higgins] and PRESTEEL [(the metal manufacturing company)], the museum inevitably lost its early emphasis on metalwork and craftsmanship” (37). Moreover during the time of their founder’s loss in the 1980s, the Museum’s leadership planned to establish the Armory in a more modern sense, parleying the role of armor in modern warfare to their audiences. This too missed the mark. 

The museum could have instead expanded its offerings of armor, drawing on other collections and exhibitions of modern military equipment, and offering their collections to travel to other museums in turn. At times the museum did do this, but it was limited in scope and local in character. Keeping the exhibitions relevant to their visitors was something that the Higgins repeatedly failed at. This, sadly, was an example of a museum whose time had come, and with grace the Higgins merged with the Worcester Art Museum. In this case it is difficult to argue the necessity for the Higgins to remain open, as the limited visitors and overbearing cost of renovations will attest. 

When the Corcoran Gallery of Art closed in 2014, it had already endured much financial uncertainty. Staff at the gallery had been unhappy for years with the management of the institution, and the plan for a needed $130 million addition met opposition in the form of unwilling donors. Attendance had fallen precipitously in recent years, and in 2011 the museum posted a $7.1 million shortfall in their budget. A plan to move the Corcoran’s collection to a suburb outside of Washington met with even greater opposition (Mullins, “Crisis at the Corcoran”). 

Established in 1869 by William Wilson Corcoran, the museum was focused on American art and also housed the Corcoran College of Art and Design (“History”). For years, competing with the Smithsonian institutions took a heavy toll on the Corcoran. Even so, by the 1970s the Corcoran was at the height of its popularity. Although beloved by many in Washington, the museum couldn’t seem to keep itself afloat. By the 1990s this all came crashing down (Mullins, “Crisis at the Corcoran”). Financial troubles started, and while the museum was able to turn itself around for a time in the later half of the decade, they struggled to sustain their momentum. The failed addition to the museum, which was cancelled in 2005, resulted in a $17 million loss, further undermining the confidence the public had in the sustainability of the museum (Mullins, “Crisis at the Corcoran”). Year after year, the loss of donors hurt the museum and its reputation flagged. Many staff were also unhappy with the Corcoran’s leadership and with the mismanagement of its facilities. 

The fight for the Corcoran centered around museum ethics. The board of trustees of any museum needs to have open dialogue with its staff and administration (“AAM Code of Ethics”). This responsibility falls not only on the director but also on the board. After the failed addition to the museum, the new leadership’s attempt to run the Corcoran “like a business” alienated the staff and students at the museum and at the art school (Levy, “The Corcoran’s Former Director…”). In his Washington Post article, David Levy pointed out that the Corcoran’s leadership consistently failed to take advantage of periods of great opportunity (Levy, “The Corcoran’s Former Director…”). Jayme McLellan, the founder of the “Save the Corcoran” campaign said: 

The Corcoran had everything that an art scene kind of needs, an art scene needs a place to exhibit work, it needs curators and scholars, students making work, faculty teaching artists, connections to the community, the rich history, and central location, the Corcoran had all of that. (Smithsonian Anacostia)

The coalition of artists opposed to the sale of the Corcoran cited distrust for the leadership of the museum and distain for the board of trustees, whom it believed were complicit in the mismanagement of the museum and school. 

The plan was for continued use of the building with ongoing exhibitions, yet the Corcoran would be no more. In the turmoil that led to the dissolution of the museum in 2014, the decision was made to transfer the building as well as the College of Art and Design to George Washington University. The Corcoran School of Arts and Design is alive and well at the George Washington University, renovations to the Corcoran building have taken place since 2015, and the George Washington University departments of Fine Arts & Art History, Museum Studies, Music, Theatre & Dance, and Interior Architecture have joined with the Corcoran School. According to the new Corcoran School website, George Washington University is “laying the foundations for a new cultural hub at [George Washington University], and for Washington, D.C.” (“History”). The collection of the museum was distributed to 22 institutions in DC, as well as accessioned by the National Gallery of Art. Of the total 19,493 pieces in the Corcoran collection, 8,631 pieces went to the National Gallery and the rest went to other institutions. Recipients of the collection included American University, Howard University, The National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the U.S. Supreme Court (Corcoran Board of Trustees).

If the Corcoran could have been open in their dialogue with members of the museum’s community, they might have been able to foresee the mistakes that caused the museum’s closure. The overwhelming evidence from protests and the “Save the Corcoran” campaign was that if the museum’s board had listened to their staff, students, and community, the Corcoran might have been saved. In this case, it seems, the Corcoran is an example of a museum that should have stayed open, if only to sustain artists and professionals in Washington DC’s vibrant and historic arts community.

Fast forward a few years and there is another museum, this time in Philadelphia, struggling with low attendance, lack of funding, and rising costs. The Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, founded in 1938, found its home in a beautiful Greek-Revival building in the center of Philadelphia. Steeped in Philadelphia’s history, the Museum’s mission was:

to collect, preserve, interpret, and provide exhibition and educational programs using its Collection to tell the important stories of Philadelphia’s past and to give context for its present. (“Atwater Kent Museum Revised Collection Transfer Plan”)

Holding more than 133,000 objects in its rich collection, the museum documented over 350 years of Philadelphia history. The museum struggled to implement its mission, and in 2017, the museum’s annual attendance was at 20,000 visitors, far less than the other museums in the city, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Franklin Institute, and the Liberty Belle Center (Haas, “Final Plans”). 

The museum struggled financially for many years before the decision to close. The board of trustees expanded the board to bring on more donors, instituted admission fees to sustain the museum, and hired a new executive director, planning to implement new programming and exhibitions to attract more visitors. Still the museum struggled with attendance. The board undertook a major renovation to the building that cost several million dollars, and they used a rebranding campaign to rename the museum and revitalize their mission (“Atwater Kent Museum Revised Collection Transfer Plan”). In the years of 2017 and 2018, the museum met with higher education administrators in Philadelphia to discuss developing a “Center for Philadelphia Studies” that would utilize the museum’s building to display the collection. 

Despite these sustaining efforts, the museum closed to the public in July 2018. The collections transferred to Drexel University where they are accessible for display or loan to other organizations or individuals in the region who would like to study works in the collection. A major aspect of the transfer was a digitization of the collection for online viewing, with the aim of expanding the viewership of the collection. With the purpose of “enabling people of all backgrounds to curate their own collection,” the online collection will uphold the memory of the History Museum, although not entirely to the public’s liking (Haas, “Final Plans”).

The alternative proposed for the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent comes from the case study of the Metropolitan Museum of Art found in “Caveat Venditor? Museum Merchandising, Nonprofit Commercialization, and the Case of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.” The solution to many of the Met’s longstanding problems was found first in blockbuster exhibitions which drew in visitors, tourists, and scholars, and second in retail and online merchandizing which drew on the exhibitions on display in the museum (Toepler, 107). It was exhibits such as “King Tut” at the Met which allowed it to grow its endowment and expand its building space in the mid 1970s (Toepler, 108). 

With little fanfare, the Philadelphia History Museum’s legacy faded into obscurity, while more modern museums with these so called blockbuster exhibitions stole the spotlight. A prime example is the Museum of the American Revolution which capitalized on Philadelphia’s history as the first Capitol of the United States of America (“Museum of the American Revolution”). Museums such as the Museum of the American Revolution are what the Philadelphia History Museum needed to be able to compete with in order to maintain their stature. By exploring alternative options for revenue such as enhanced merchandizing, and a revamped online website and store, the Philadelphia History Museum might have been able to stay afloat a little while longer. 

Kathleen McLean in her outstanding article “Do Museum Exhibitions Have a Future?” asks the poignant question: “As our visitors increasingly deal with the effects of religious and cultural conservatism, war and power politics, the effects of global warming and species loss, and deadly new viruses that can spread across the globe in a matter of days, will our exhibitions be enlightening, comforting, or useful to them?” (301). The answer is: not always. As museums shift, those museums who are not able to adapt are left behind. Sometimes, but not always, it is necessary for a museum to close. Relevancy of current collections and exhibitions plays a large role in the museums of today’s changing society. We can hope that the majority of those museums that do remain in business are enlightening, comforting, and useful. But more importantly, we can hope that they are places we can rely on, to provide a light, when all others go out. 

It is sad when a museum’s light goes out. It is clear that this brings pain to those people who were invested in the museum, and were a part of its culture, community, and heritage. Museums are places where people go to expand their cultural horizons, be inspired, educated, and informed, especially in today’s digitally mediated, post-truth media inspired, information cycle. Museums provide a reprieve from this incessant cacophony of stories, by allowing us to immerse ourselves in storied collections over and over again. In many instances losing a collection seems akin to losing a close friend or teacher. Perhaps it is time for a structuralist cartography of collections; mapping and documenting the locations and contents of varied and multi-accessible collections of museums around the country and around the world.

In this essay we have outlined the history of the closure of three museums which closed in just the last ten years. We concluded that the Higgins Armory was right in closing, the Corcoran should have stayed open, and the Philadelphia History Museum might have tried harder to remain open. More museums will undoubtedly close in the future, but in the end we can only hope that they won’t. 

Works cited

“AAM Code of Ethics for Museums.” Aam-us.org, 2000, https://www.aam-us.org/programs/ethics-standards-and-professional-practices/code-of-ethics-for-museums/. Accessed 26 Jul. 2021.

“About the Corcoran.” Corcoran.org, 2018, http://www.corcoran.org/about. Accessed 24 Jul. 2021.

“Atwater Kent Museum Revised Collection Transfer Plan.” Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent, Nov. 2019, http://www.philadelphiahistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Collection-Transfer-Plan-2019.-11.-13.pdf. Accessed 25 Jul. 2021.

Cameron, Fiona. Museum Collections, Documentation, and Shifting Knowledge Paradigms. In Reinventing the Museum: The Evolving Conversation on the Paradigm Shift, 2nd ed. Edited by Gail Anderson, Alta Mira Press, United Kingdom, 2012, 223-238.

Corcoran Board of Trustees. “Where Does the Art Go?” Corcoran.org. http://www.corcoran.org/sites/default/files/Corcoran-Art-Distribution-News-Release.pdf. Accessed 24 Jul. 2021.

Donnelly, James C. Jr., and Catherine M. Colinvaux. The Higgins Armory Museum and Worcester Art Museum Integration: A Case Study in Combining and Transforming Mature Cultural Institutions. In: Legal Issues for Museum Professionals, Rowen & Littlefield, 2015.

Haas, Kimberly. “Final Plans To Transfer Philadelphia History Museum Collection To Drexel University Unveiled.” Hidden City, 12 Sept. 2019, https://hiddencityphila.org/2019/09/final-plans-to-transfer-philadelphia-history-museum-collection-to-drexel-university-unveiled/. Accessed 25 Jul. 2021.

“History.” Corcoran.gwu.edu, 2021, https://corcoran.gwu.edu/history. Accessed 24 Jul. 2021.

Levy, David. “The Corcoran’s former director on the gallery’s long history of mistakes. To survive, the Corcoran should have been more elitist.” Washington Post, 21 Feb. 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-corcorans-former-director-on-the-gallerys-long-history-of-mistakesto-survive-the-corcoran-should-have-been-more-elitist/2014/02/21/7be62e8c-9b0d-11e3-9080-5d1d87a6d793_story.html. Accessed 26 Jul. 2021. 

Loos, Ted. “What Comes Next, After the Troops Are Dismissed.” New York Times, 19 Mar. 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/20/arts/artsspecial/what-comes-next-after-the-troops-are-dismissed.html. Accessed 23 Jul. 2021.

McLean, Kathleen. Do Museum Exhibitions Have a Future? In Reinventing the Museum: The Evolving Conversation on the Paradigm Shift, 2nd ed. Edited by Gail Anderson, Alta Mira Press, United Kingdom, 2012, 291-302.

Museum of the American Revolution Website. Museum of the American Revolution, 2021, www.Amrevmuseum.org. Accessed 25 Jul. 2021.

“Museum Recovery Expected to Take Years Due to Devastating Financial Losses, New Survey Reveals.” American Alliance of Museums, 1 Jun 2021. https://www.aam-us.org/2021/06/01/museum-recovery-expected-to-take-years-due-to-devastating-financial-losses-new-survey-reveals/. Accessed 22 Jul. 2021. 

Mullins, Luke. “Crisis at the Corcoran.” Washingtonian, 27 Nov. 2012, https://www.washingtonian.com/2012/11/27/crisis-at-the-corcoran/. Accessed 24 Jul. 2021. 

Pardy, Kary. “An Institutional History of the Higgins Armory Museum and Its Relationship with Worcester, Massachusetts.” University of South Carolina Scholar Commons: Theses and Dissertations, 1 Jan. 2013, scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=3523&context=etd. Accessed 27 Jul. 2021.

“Petition for Approval of Transfer of Charitable Assets.” Supreme Judicial Court, https://www.nemanet.org/files/9314/1518/9498/Higgins_Armory_Court_Documents_FINAL.pdf. Accessed 23 Jul. 2021.

Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum. “Jayme McLellan, Founder of ‘Save the Corcoran’ campaign.” Youtube.com, 25 Aug. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-env9WKp2E. Accessed 26 Jul. 2021.

Toepler, Stefan. “Caveat Venditor? Museum Merchandising, Nonprofit Commercialization, and the Case of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.” Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, Vol. 17, No. 2. June 2006, pp. 99-113.

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