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Cantor Arts Center: Defining the contemporary museum experience

Visiting Cantor is not just about viewing the objects on display, but also about joining different members of society in asking questions and starting conversations. (HOLDEN FOREMAN/The Stanford Daily)

The Louvre. The Museum of Modern Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. From Renaissance to Impressionism, the world basks in art of past and present, interpreting history and culture through ceramic and canvas.

But as time has passed, society has found more accessible methods of expression and understanding: social media, television, podcasts and more. And as Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center celebrates 125 years of existence, it stands in a hotbed of technological progress and diversity.

Susan Dackerman, Cantor’s director since 2017, believes a modern museum should break the exclusive mold of a 20th century museum, instead amplifying the more global perspective of the 21st century.

“What many people picture when they think of a museum is the product of the 20th century: a monumental structure, perhaps, with a low decibel level and a fairly narrow audience,” Dackerman wrote in an email to The Daily. “A 21st century museum … is an inclusive gathering place that presents diverse art and ideas through timely exhibitions, thought-provoking programming and imaginative delivery systems.”

Cantor collections employee Justin Muchnick ’20 said museums are no longer an instinctual source of information and entertainment. 

“In this day and age when you can just Google whatever you want to Google … our faith in institutions in general has declined over the past century or so,” Muchnick said. “The museum is no longer taken for granted as a space that people automatically trust, go to [or] enjoy.”

Working in the collections department, Muchnick said he can see Dackerman’s vision of transforming the museum experience come to life. Part of this unorthodox practice of museum development involves bringing in works that wouldn’t necessarily be deemed as art history.

One example is a project by Mark Dion, the 2019 Diekman Contemporary Commissions Program Artist in Residence at Stanford. At Cantor, Dion has been working to reimagine the Stanford Family Galleries, taking inspiration from cabinets of curiosities during the Victorian era.

“The collections embody the Stanfords’ love and sorrow for their lost son, but they also contain mementos of lesser-known figures encountered along the way,” Dackerman wrote in an email to The Daily. “The exhibition provides the occasion to tell those stories and to explore the conditions that made the museum, the university and all of Silicon Valley possible.” 

The exhibition, titled “The Melancholy Museum: Love, Death, and Mourning at Stanford,” opens on September 18.

Cantor student guide Lina Wang ’20 said her experiences at the museum have helped her curate works in a manner that reaches many different audiences.

“What goes inside a museum is essentially what we as a society, or as an institution, have decided what’s really important,” Wang said. “It’s really important that we don’t just put the artwork of one kind of person or one subset of person into the museum.”

Overall, Dackerman believes in harnessing the spirit of Stanford by seeking innovation to enable learning opportunities. Be it through free admission for all or installations and educational programs that spark conversation, she sees Cantor’s vision as one that is educational and questioning of contemporary issues and how we live.

“At the Cantor, we are creating an interdisciplinary hub of inquiry, discovery and transformation through encounters with art and artists,” she wrote. 

Contact Andrea Sun at andreatsun ‘at’ gmail.com.

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