2016-12-21

Stewart Brand's Timescales of civilization - from How Buildings Learn

Institutional Liberation on e-flux hit me hard. It touches on public lack of identification with our institutions and the collective agency stripped from us by neoliberal-fueled individualism.

It made me ask, "what institutions do I identify with?" Which naturally lead to, "what is an institution, anyway?"

The denotation is an organization of people founded towards a shared purpose. An institution as crystallized ideology. This definition, however, fails to bring along the inertia and scale that the word "Institution" connotes. Institutions typically act on the "governance" and "culture" scales in Brand's breakdown above (the ordering of which I don't entirely agree with, but it's OK).

I suppose this is exactly the problem. Many institutions—think universities, large museums, ubiquitous multinationals, etc—are operating at a level of scale abstraction that makes them unintelligible and out-of-sync with the needs and desires of humans.

Nothing is possible without men, but nothing lasts without institutions. (Jean Monnet)

Just as the termite colony needs its members to exist but also sacrifices swaths of its population in times of need, our institutions are made out of people yet might not always value the identities of those constituents. One actor in the institution might not understand how its actions contribute to the whole. You could call an institution an ideologically-driven superorganism.

Now, again, which institutions do I identify with? I appreciate my alma mater but not enough to truly value its continued survival. (Schools like Black Mountain College, Cooper Union, and some of these Experimental Schooling Institutions are more inspiring to me.)

In Providence, I loved making regular visits to the RISD Museum. As a student and then, after I graduated, volunteer, I had free entry. In the case of the larger museum, free entry can completely change how you interact with it; I was happy to swing by for 5 minutes on my walk into downtown just to see the wooden Buddha. There was no guilt about getting my money's worth or otherwise.

Last year I gifted my mother a membership to the Phillips Collection in DC—a smaller, private museum, and much-needed respite from the insanity of the nearby Smithsonians. She can go any time without extra charge and make it her own quieter space. If you have the opportunity to become a member at a local museum, I recommend you take it.

In New York I love Mmuseumm. The idea that a museum can be tiny, easy-to-access, and in-touch with its membership is unfortunately rare, as the big ones continue to grow and diffuse (think the MoMA, the Met, the Whitney) and the mid-size shrivels. Can we not renew a focus on approachable, small-to-medium-scale museums and, more broadly, institutions?

Orham Pamuk agrees:

It is imperative that museums become smaller, more orientated towards the individual and more economical. This is the only way that they can ever tell stories on a human scale. The great museums invite us to forget our humanity and to accept the state and its human masses. This is why there are millions, outside the West, who are frightened by museums. This is why museums are associated with governments.

I have yet to get a grasp on the museum scene in Los Angeles. The Broad is too fancy, the Getty too big, LACMA too stolid. I'd like to find a museum I love and help support an institution working on a human scale.



Internet Topology: