Curiouser and Curiouser...

My Adventures in blogging, digital and Public History

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Some Thoughts on the Evolution of the Museum...

They lumber into the building. Some are speaking loudly, others touching things they ought not to be touching. They seem crass and boorish, some would call them Neanderthals. Behind the glass, a panel of experts observes these uncultured primates. Their goal: a civilising mission. Their venue: a museum.

A Museum? This may sound like a post-apocalyptic vision, but as Tony Bennett ( No! The OTHER Tony Bennett) describes in The Birth of the Museum, the social need that led to the creation of the modern museum was no less than a civilising mission. He cites Foucault’s theory that museums and prisons are comparable in their ultimate goal: social reform and order. It seems a strange comparison, yet when one looks at the history of museums and their present incarnation, there are some similarities. However, I would also say that the 21st century museum has a more practical vision, that being the enticement of a paying audience. And if this is the case, museums should, at least on some level, accommodate the interests of their audience.

The inception of the museum as a public space and one to be used as a ‘reforming’ measure for the masses began in the latter part of the 19th century. The idea was for the upper classes to model the behavior they wanted to see in the working classes. No more brawling in taverns and unruly demonstrations in the street. I would say to some extent the experiment worked. People in the 21st century go to a museum and they know how to behave. We browse the artefacts in an orderly manner, we speak in hushed tones. We know not to touch the ancient parchment or the priceless oil painting. And we certainly don’t brawl or create an unnecessary ruckus. But should we? I don’t really mean a brawl per se, but should we be questioning what museums are doing for us? After all, we follow their prison-like rules and we conform but if it weren’t for us, the public, museums would not even exist in the first place. They survive , at least in their present state, because we attend. We are the paying customer and I think it would be naive to suggest that exhibits are not designed to draw in the crowds. Government funding and private donations can only go so far.

In some ways , things haven’t really changed; some museums are designed to be the great equalizer in terms of social class. For instance, the glass and steel structure that is Centre Georges Pompidou is situated right in the middle of Paris. It is designed for one to see and be seen. I suppose, had it been around at the turn of the century , it would have been the optimal building for the “ clear inspection of artifacts and each other.”[1] Patrons of lower social classes would have felt on equal footing with those of the higher classes and would have felt the pressure to display the morals and manners of the upper classes. And today? I think it there are some definite similarities. As a foreigner, I think you feel some of the same pressures the working classes may have felt; you want to see the art and the culture of the city, yet you don’t want to stand out as an oddity yourself. You want to fit in because the idea of being a Parisienne, even if it is just for a little while, is romantic and empowering.

I think that on some level exhibits themselves still reflect a tradition of public spectacles, fairs, executions, and exhibitions; draw the crowds in with the oddities so you can keep them for the permanent collection which may, at first glance, not be quite as interesting or engaging for the general public. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. As I have said in previous posts, I think it is the job of the Public Historian to make history ‘sexy’ for the public. A museum setting offers the perfect opportunity because the historian has access to artefacts which automatically encourage interest; I think we would agree that a visual is always a better ‘hook’ than a written description.

I guess what I am saying then is that museums need to both keep their traditions and adapt to the changing times. We could probably do away with museum security hurrying people through exhibits like prison guards, but I like the idea that museums can create an accessible environment where any person can feel empowered by an exhibit . Bennett suggests that in the early days of the museum the idea was that culture would be used to transform the lives of the population.[2] I think in the 21st century this is still the case. However, rather than the social reform sought during the 1800's, our new museum culture should yield an intellectual and creative transformation for museum patrons.

1. Tony Bennett, “History and Theory,” The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, and Politics (London: Routledge, 1995)

2. Bennett, The Birth of the Museum.


Post a Comment

<< Home