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The Vanity Museum, a consideration


January 2010

American Lamborghini Museum        
-Closed Permanently

A great attempt was also made by one longtime Lamborghini enthusiast, to start a Lamborghini museum in North America. The Lamborghini Museum in Norman, Oklahoma was started by Ron Miller, an unparalleled Lamborghini enthusiast who owned one of every production model. He hoped to eventually acquire several one-off prototypes and every brochure the company printed. Those who had seen the nearly completed museum say Miller spared no expense, with a custom made lighting and sound system. Ron Miller’s passion for the raging bull will be sorely missed following his tragic death.

The nearly complete museum never officially opened to the public and was permanently closed. Vehicles from the collection have been sold off as a result of not being able to find an interested backer to continue the project.”

Every once in a while I read about the closing of a mostly obscure “vanity” museum and I’m never quite sure what to make of it.  Should I be sad because our cultural landscape is diminished?  Or should I wonder what in the world the founder was thinking when s/he created this institution?  Didn’t they know too few would share their interest?  Were they feeling generous, civic-minded, self-aggrandizing or simply some place north of delusional?  The stillbirth of the American Lamborghini Museum engendered such mixed feelings.  The closing of the Roy Rogers Museum by his son, and the current attempt to save it by an enthusiast, brings a similar response.


I would suggest that the definition of a vanity museum requires an individual who creates an institution to display his/her own private collection.  Some such institutions have thrived, outliving the founder; and many more have failed.  Some are just hanging on.  The Smithsonian includes five of the thriving variety: the National Gallery, which was founded by Paul Mellon but does not bear his name; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; the Freer Gallery of Art; the Sackler Gallery; and the National Museum of the American Indian (formerly known as the George Gustav Heye Collection).

More such important institutions founded by individuals to show their personal collections include the Getty, the Frick, the Norton Simon, and the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum.  What they have in common is that the founder was wealthy enough to endow the organization, thus ensuring some longevity, powerful enough to bend the will of governments on issues such as zoning and operating support, and well-connected enough to have the institution seen as a social good by equally powerful and wealthy friends who volunteered, donated objects and money and served on the board.

These founders, no longer living, are examples of the immensely rich who collected something (mostly art), competed with their social friends to establish institutions, saw philanthropy as a virtue  and created museums out of some mix of public responsibility and emulation of potentates. 

As a portion of the economic underpinnings of the institution was assured and, from the founder’s point of view, the institution provided a social benefit, consulting the public about its own interests was seen as irrelevant and unnecessary.  The public was expected to be grateful (and it often was and continues to be). However in today’s world life is not so easy for the potential founder.  I would propose that nowadays citizens feel a mixture of voyeurism and imposition instead of gratitude.  They organize to oppose the location, zoning and operation of these institutions even though the founder is offering a sizeable and valuable collection in the mix.  This resistance is going on currently about museums proposed by Eli Broad, Don Fisher and Ekhart Grohmann just to name a few. After wandering about there seems to be a new home for the Eli Broad museum with a signature building at Michigan State University.

The creation of museums, like the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn and the Freer, required behind-the-scenes deals struck between the wealthy and the politically powerful. The deals were memorialized in the governance structure and included terms for use or sale of the collections and rules of display. “Unfair privilege!” you might say on the one hand or/and, “How lucky for us all to have access to this private largess” on the other.

But most of the rest of this country’s vanity museums are neither well-endowed nor have first rate collections.  They are not like the Menil Collection and the soon to be opened Crystal Bridges museum, a project of Alice Walton

Nor are they the wonderful art installation piece like the Museum of Jurassic Technology created and run by David Wilson and representing a different profile of vanity altogether—an artistic obsession. (Check out Laurence Wechsler’s “Dr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder”.)

Most vanity museums are small and underfunded, founded by folks who have less access to civic help, are less influential than those outlined above but are no less enthusiastically launched.  The American Museum of Magic is an example of such a museum.  It contains arguably the best collection of magic artifacts in the United States yet is located in a small, largely unheralded city, Marshal Michigan, which was home of the founder who has since died, and the museum is barely visited.  It is currently run by serious, knowledgeable and committed volunteers but is struggling for visitation and sustainability. 


I would contend that founders’ motivations, no matter their position in society, are always similar. First there is interest in some topic leading to fascination, then acquisition of some special things, which morphs into near or actual obsession.  In some sense it is materialism run amok.

The desire to collect is, I believe, embedded in the genetic make-up of all of us.  We attach meaning to the things we collect. (See The Meaning of Things by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Halton.)

These founders have some combinations of additional personal motivational overlay which includes desire for social approbation, a hope to create a tangible personal legacy, a competitive sense of keeping up or surpassing one’s peers, an interest in control, and a large supply of ego. These interwoven motivations are complex and, like most things in life, each individual’s composite is varied and can be found on a continuum from unrealistic self-aggrandizement to true civic altruism.  Most founders collect more than can fit in his/her private space, take as good care of the objects as they can afford, dream of and finally succeed in opening a public venue. 

At that point the public gets to vote with its feet, and some of these institutions survive and even thrive and others linger out of continued enthusiasm of the founder until s/he can no longer afford it or dies. Sometimes after death a new drama unfolds as the heirs want access to the material benefit that the objects represent. At that point the museum closes.  The objects are dispersed to other entities (either private or public) or sold off to pay debt or bring financial gain to the inheritors. (i.e.  Raggedy Ann & Andy Museum Closes Doors Donates Collection to Strong National Museum of Play)  


The truth is surprising. Museums are not as permanent as commonly understood and close with some frequency.  Each closing is written about and mourned to various degrees. Sometimes the museum is saved.  Not often! The trajectory of the Heye collection followed the familiar pattern outlined above — the death of the founder, low attendance at the original museum located now in Spanish Harlem, outmoded exhibitions, inadequate collections care in the Bronx storage facility, an undernourished budget, caused the looming threat of closure for many years. But the personal collection of George Gustav Heye was deemed so important that the City and State of New York and the Smithsonian Institution negotiated to rescue it and, at the donated cost of millions of both taxpayer and private dollars the national repository of Indian material now known at the National Museum of the American Indian was created.

Unlike such august vanity museums, most others have the charming, slightly frayed aspect of high school science fair projects. When visiting, I always feel that I am entering a secret place and am both thrilled to be allowed in and appalled by the lack of appropriate preservation techniques and dismal attendance.  When I enter a for-profit museum usually appended to a retail operation and often used as an attraction, I remind myself that I am in that founders’ idea of a museum, very private and individualistic. And since the material is privately owned and the display is not incorporated into a charitable entity, the owner/founders are legally allowed to behave as they will. 

If the museum is a licensed charity, the personal whim of the collector should not permit destruction of the material through lack of experience, I muse and mentally start to rearrange the display and improve the care. And then I stop myself and think: This is none of my business”. My head swirls with ideas, arguments and counter arguments.  “Should everyone be allowed to have a museum if they want it? I ask myself in my best schoolmarmish tone.  “Of course!” my more liberal self answers.  I get mad and glad at the same time.   I remain ambivalent, delighted and appalled in equal measure.

The collection held by vanity museums are often a mixture of absolutely unique and important objects and dross.  The installations are uneven and collection management ranges from the perfect to the near criminal, often depending on the material wealth of the founder. Should we be grateful that the Motown Museum exists with its personalized collection of a time and place that changed the history of America’s music — but operated for a long time by the sister of the founder without professional museum standards? In this case, once inside, I am always won over by the actual place, heightened by amateur installation with an authenticity that has so much power. 

Should I be glad that the Cozy Restaurant, in Thurmont Maryland (near to Camp David), has a museum space illustrating how Barbara Walters, among many other journalists, stayed at the Cozy Motel while awaiting word from President Carter’s negotiations with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin — illustrated on fraying newspaper clippings held up by push pins?  I think so. Once inside, surrounded by the all-you-can-eat buffet and the very same old-fashioned Cozy motel next to the gas station just off the highway, I can just imagine how Barbara, used to much better accommodations, eateries and diversions, must have fared. 

The Cozy restaurant and museum is part of my family tradition, where reunions take place between grandchildren being returned home and their parents coming to pick them up.  We use the Cozy with its wonderful unchanging buffet as a teaching opportunity about Presidents and history.  And as a museum professional I think, “But they are using thumbtacks or Scotch tape or have no control on the light level.”  And then as a grandmother I think, “But this is the real place and we are really using it, combining real history and family memories in a powerful way that is often recalled later on”.…. More ambivalence and confusion in my head.

Among the vanity museums (amid other museums as well) that closed during 2009, The Roy Rogers Museum has closed and his son Roy Jr. has “thanked all those who had kept the family’s museum going for more than 42 years.”  Should I say “Thank you Roy and Dale for caring enough to collect this stuff.  Thank you Roy, Jr. for saving it.” Or “What was Roy thinking bringing all this stuff together? Did he really believe that fans would be interested forever? How could he have possibly hoped that it would continue to run after his demise?  I hope all the pieces find a home where they can make more sense to more people and are better cared for.”  And now I read that loyal old fans of Roy and Dale are organizing to save it.  Is this daft or touching? Will that actually happen, only to close again? I don’t know what I wish for.

I end where I started – ambivalent and unresolved.  I am both grateful and appalled that personal whim creates museums and that individuals have both the arrogance and perseverance to bring us stuff that we would otherwise have no access to or even have contemplated going to see before. (Take for example the Jehning Lock Museum)
For whatever their personal reasons for doing so, we have been let into secret (if sometimes wacky) worlds. If, like me, you are a museum professional entering will start your internal museological debate going.  It is a good debate.  One that brings more acceptance and less censure in my old age.  On balance amid the lack of museum standards I am charmed and grateful.  I suggest you go visit a vanity museum, any one, there will be one in your neighborhood, and it might close soon, and you will have missed it.