The New Orleans Museum of Art has opened a mobile version of itself to draw more people to the art experience. Reporting this news for the online arts magazine Hyperallergic, Erica Rawles writes that the novelty of an exhibit hall pulled by an SUV like a food truck, not only is “transforming how people see art,” but also “challenges elitist narratives about who museums are for.”

Making a grand entrance

Rawles contends that “art museums have historically been tailored to the white and wealthy” and asks, “How can a museum’s physicality influence the way people engage with it?” My answer is that a welcome wagon is not the way to go.

To further respond to her question, I'd start with what the actual New Orleans Museum of Art looks like. Originally a plantation building, it looks the part – an antebellum-style house with a tree-lined approach -- not unlike Scarlett O'Hara's home Tara in Margaret Mitchell's popular novel “Gone with the Wind.” The entry is a grand staircase leading to a six-columned Greek front that Rawles calls “more intimidating than inviting.

A place of peace and quiet

In 2016, the president of the American Association of Museums Directors talked to members about why the institutions they direct matter. He recalled that in the days after 9/11 art museums became a place of solace and reflection, “celebrating humankind’s greatest artistic treasures, challenging us to see the world in a vision unobstructed by rhetoric.” In that sense, you need a structure that imparts the idea of a treasure house.

Which is why the Charles Wright Museum in Detroit was a good choice for fans to mourn Aretha Franklin at a public viewing of her open casket.

Befitting the Queen of Soul

The Wright interior is a 100-foot diameter rotunda crowned with a magestic glazed dome. The regal setting befitted the Queen of Soul. Wright Museum board member Kelly Major Green told the Atlanta Georgia News that the goal was to “create a dignified and respectful environment akin to a church.” Shades of France's minister of cultural affairs, Andre Malraux, calling America's museums its cathedrals.

Clearly, to shelter treasures, you need some degree of awe.

Remembering the past

What's more, words matter. If you want to display art in a food cart, don't call it a museum. The word stems from the Greek mouseion, meaning home of the Muses -- the daughters of the goddess of Mnemosyne – Goddess of Memory. Museums, then, are places with a long memory.

The New Orleans art treasury boasts many Old Master greats like Tiepolo, Tintoretto, and Fra Lippo Lippi. And if you're in the business of illuminating history for present and future generations, museums need to stick to business and let populism live where it was born – in the glare of neon lights.

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