This past Saturday, I went to NYC's Metropolitan Museum of Art for the poetry workshop class I'm currently taking. I had been to the museum once before, as a freshman, but that was just for fun. This visit included the obligation to keep my eyes a bit more peeled when it came to the artifacts I observed. I had a fruitful experience with the writing activities I did, and I am glad (what with my combined sense of apocalyptic horror at time running out and eschatological joy in fulfillment) to have returned to the Met early in the first semester of my last year at Fordham.
When I was in Buenos Aires this past spring, I visited the Museum of Latin American Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Sívori Museum, a nice little place not from the apartment where I was living. (I also visited the museum of the International Borges Foundation.) When I was in high school, I participated in a student docent program at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. I haven't forgotten, by the way, that the Walsh Library on Fordham's Rose Hill campus houses a museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art.
Museums are like public libraries. (Except, of course, public libraries, being free, are superior.) They are, in secular society, sacred spaces analogous to holy ground in religions. Bombing a museum or a library would be an abominable act. Without forgetting that all knowledge is inevitably mediated, and that in many cases this can include one viewpoint suppressing another (after all, someone has to direct a museum or library), something clearly seen when a museum possesses objects that were essentially stolen from foreign (or not-so-very-foreign) peoples, museums can be indispensable stepping-stones towards the expansion of horizons. I once read (in an introduction to Shakespeare's Othello) that the past is, to the people of the present, a foreign country. I think that this is very true.
Museums, putting objects that originally belonged to other peoples and other epochs on display, can certainly be criticized as fetishizing the Other. Insofar as our efforts can eradicate this behavior, museums can serve a function that is indispensable to a human being fully alive, a function served by all art: they open unto us other worlds contained within this one. Now that is really something worth living for.