Skip Navigation or Skip to Content

Museum Collections and the Stories They Tell

All museum collections are idiosyncratic, profoundly imprinted by the history and culture of their cities. Even as someone who has spent her whole life in museums, it took me some time to understand just how subjective and unique they really are.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has played a significant role in my life. As a child, I remember going to lunch with my mother at the restaurant then on its top floor. As a teenager, I went there with friends to stare at Pavel Tchelitchew’s Hide-and-Seek, as well as works by Ben Shawn, Jack Levine, and others, which are now rarely on view. (All the while, I was looking out the corner of my eye for the cute boys who were rumored to hang out there.) And as an adult, I was fortunate to have my first curatorial job in MoMA’s department of Painting and Sculpture.

I always assumed that MoMA held the definitive history of Modernism. The fallacy of that notion hit me when I took a job at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. While MoMA’s collection strongly emphasized French artists, LACMA’s Modernist history had Germany at its center. This, to a large extent, was due to the German artists, writers, directors, and other intellectuals who were lured to Hollywood after fleeing Europe during World War II. LACMA’s collection taught me that there are no definitive histories.

When I came to Pittsburgh, I encountered a collection with a still different story to tell. Andrew Carnegie was not an art collector; he did not supply his museum with paintings and sculpture, as so many other museum founders did. Instead, he ordered his team to hold an exhibition of the best in international contemporary art each year (currently the Carnegie International, happening every four to five years) and build their collection from it. This emphasis on the contemporary was unique at the time, and for a city at the forefront of industry, it may have seemed appropriately forward-looking.

But being future-oriented didn’t necessarily mean embracing radically new artistic expressions. The museum, for example, has very little European abstraction from before World War II. (We do better with prints and drawings than paintings and sculpture.) Today, we have pockets of excellence: Old Master prints and drawings, nearly 3,000 Japanese prints, Impressionism, the Teenie Harris Archive, our film and video collection and archive, and contemporary art from the 1980s to the present, along with iconic works from other eras. The collection doesn’t produce a single art-historical narrative; rather, it reveals the character and values of Pittsburgh, including a traditionalism that dominated throughout much of the 20th century. One positive outcome of that mindset is our Hall of Architecture. Museums throughout the West had cast collections at the beginning of the last century, but disposed of them as the display of replicas fell out of favor. Fortunately, our Hall of Architecture remains intact, a remarkable record of cultural values, and the state of the ancient and medieval monuments it replicates, from a hundred years ago.

At CMOA, we believe that the collection is the legacy of the community it serves, and we continually challenge ourselves to make it relevant to our visitors in this fast-paced world. This fall, we will launch an innovative exhibition and series of programs focused on the history and continued importance of our Hall of Architecture. In the next year, we will embark on an ambitious plan to develop new strategies for making our collection the dynamic entity it is meant to be. We’ll keep you posted.

Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world.