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Museums, Expansion

Eastern arts, Treasures of Tutankhamun, Paul Getty Museum, Sackler Gallery, National Museum of African Art

The increased importance placed on art throughout the 20th century helped fuel a major expansion in museums. By the late 1960s and 1970s, art museums were becoming aware of their potential for popular education and pleasure. Audiences for museums increased as museums received more funding and became more willing to appeal to the public with blockbuster shows that traveled across the country. One such show, The Treasures of Tutankhamun, which featured ancient Egyptian artifacts, toured the country from 1976 to 1979. Art museums increasingly sought attractions that would appeal to a wider audience, while at the same time expanding the definition of art. This effort resulted in museums exhibiting even motorcycles as art, as did the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1998.

Museums also began to expand the kinds of art and cultural traditions they exhibited. By the 1990s, more and more museums displayed natural and cultural artifacts and historical objects from non-European societies. These included objects ranging from jade carvings, baskets, and ceramics to calligraphy, masks, and furniture. Egyptian artifacts had been conspicuous in the holdings of New York's Metropolitan Museum and the Brooklyn Museum since the early 20th century. The opening in 1989 of two Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., the National Museum of African Art and the National Museum of the American Indian, indicated an awareness of a much broader definition of the American cultural heritage. The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., maintain collections of Asian art and cultural objects. The 1987 opening of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, a new Smithsonian museum dedicated to Asian and Near Eastern arts, confirmed the importance of this tradition.

Collectors and museums did not neglect the long-venerated Western tradition, as was clear from the personal collection of ancient Roman and Greek art owned by American oil executive and financier J. Paul Getty. Opened to the public in 1953, the museum named after him was located in Malibu, California, but grew so large that in 1997 the J. Paul Getty Museum expanded into a new Getty Center, a complex of six buildings in Los Angeles. By the end of the 20th century, Western art was but one among an array of brilliant cultural legacies that together celebrate the human experience and the creativity of the American past.

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