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Museum publications

Art history is fortunate to have two institutional bases, the museum and university, which enrich thefield in different ways. Curators may feel their authority infringed by the rising importance of education, development, anddesign departments, but one of the unequivocally salutary aspects of the exhibition boom that characterizes modern museum culture isthe growing collaboration of scholars from the museum and university worlds.

The increasing emphasis on temporary shows rather than collection publication has curtailed researchopportunities for most curators, although well-funded institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery ofArt, and the Getty Museum have continued to publish significant collection catalogues and curatorial journals.
The exhibition and its catalogue constitute a vibrant intersecting space betweenthe museum and the university, and the increase in the number of exhibition catalogues has created opportunities for academic arthistorians, who are often asked to contribute expertise and catalogue essays.

The remarkable and continuing growth of museum exhibitions with large audiences and handsomely produced cataloguespresents a singular resource for art historians and their publishers. Exhibition catalogues give scholars access to a widerreadership than is available with other scholarly publications, and their copious, full-color illustrations give substance and pleasureto close readings of art works. As Part I of this report indicates, exhibition catalogues have become a mainstay of some universitypress lists because, unlike the monograph with its dwindling sales, the catalogue comes with a good business plan: a publicationsubvention, guaranteed advance sales, free advertising, and fewer copyright issues, many of which were resolved in exhibitionplanning. (Fifty percent of the biggest university press art history list is devoted to catalogues.) Notwithstanding theattractions of catalogues to authors, publishers, and the public, the full potential of the genre has not been exploited.

It is important to recognize that catalogues serve two distinct audiences: the museumgoing public and thescholarly community of art historians and curators. Access to a large, intellectually curious public is one of the great assets ofart history, and the exhibition catalogue is the primary vehicle through which that connectionis made. It is worth asking if the catalogue best serves the needs of its two-part audience. There arevery good scholarly, educational, and business reasons for museums to continue to coordinate the publication of catalogues with theopening of the exhibit. Nevertheless, the limits such a schedule imposes on the scholarly potential of catalogues encouragerethinking how exhibition publications might better fulfill their potential as sites of collaboration between museum- anduniversity-based scholars.

One problem with the current system is that tight publishing deadlines driven by exhibition schedules requirecatalogues to limit or bypass the time-consuming process of peer review. Content editing often falls in the lap of an overextendedcurator preoccupied with the exhibition itself, and time constraints often preclude the developmental editing that normallyimproves manuscripts. Thus, although university presses publish these books, exhibition catalogues are fast-tracked and vetted lessstringently than most monographs. As a result, catalogues are inconsistent in quality, and academic scholars find that theircatalogue essays do not weigh heavily in tenure and promotion review. When asked if it is possible to extend the benefits of peerreview to museum-based publications, the answer is usually negative. Scholars, curators, and editors expressed keen awarenessof these drawbacks of exhibition publications. Junior as well as senior scholars would like top-quality museum publication to betaken more seriously in the academic review process. Such regard would be likely to follow if museum publications were moreconsistently peer reviewed.

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Source:  OpenStax, Art history and its publications in the electronic age. OpenStax CNX. Sep 20, 2006 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10376/1.1
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