Friday, August 17, 2007

Can the museum be a vehicle for social reform? - - by Maureen

Say “museum” and most people conjure up images of cramped rooms filled with dusty curiosities or sterile marble halls lined with glass cases locked shut. The adjectives “old”, “archaic”, “irrelevant” and “lifeless” leap to mind. With these associations, it seems laughable to suggest that the museum could be an agent for change.

I believe, however, that a viable museum is by definition a vehicle for social reform. What would have to be different for my ideal to prevail?

Museums would have to debunk the myth of history as the replication of the past and replace it with a contemporary conception of history as the collective reproduction of the past. Founded upon this premise, museums would be in a better position to participate in the creation of history on the edge of life, or what could be called "emergent history".

Many museums nowadays strive to produce emergent history. The Lower East Side Museum (LESM), for example, has a mission to promote tolerance and historical perspective about the history of immigration in Manhattan. Through its research, collections, exhibits, training programs and support services for the immigrants in New York City, the LESM has done a lot to spiff up the image of the history museum, but there is more work to be done to shake the dust off the museum in general.

One place to start is by reforming the language commonly used to describe museums -- such as the expression "museums are trustees of the past".

It is undeniable that museums have rendered an important service to humanity by keeping many cultural treasures out of harm's way. For instance, setting aside the question of where it belongs today, what would have become of the Parthenon frieze if there hadn’t been a British Museum to keep it safe from deterioration, looting and destruction? The comparison to a "trustee", however, is archaic and dysfunctional. Most people today reject the notion that the museum, or any other institution, should be entrusted with selection, conservation, interpretation, or presentation of the past. Moreover, few people believe any longer that history is a simple recitation of what-really-happened.

Many museum professionals would be the first to reject the notion of the museum as "the trustee of the past". They know that the museum's relationship to the past and to the public is much more complicated. Each day, museum employees are confronted with myriads of choices concerning acquisitions, restoration, interpretation, exhibition space, labeling, programming, scheduling, publicity, etc. which determine the range of possible representations which the museum can make of the past. Moreover, they know that the organizational structure and communications system of the museum set further limitations.

These observations about the limitations imposed on museums are not a criticism. They are a commentary on the nature of doing history. It's not possible to tell a story about the world that contains the whole world. Given a different location, curator or moment in time, the same museum working with the same objects would probably produce a very different exhibit. The new exhibit would not necessarily be more "right" than an earlier one; assuming the process was methodical, the interpretation could simply be different. Just as it is possible for an archeologist to tell more than one plausible story about the same set of pottery shards, it is possible for there to be different interpretations of the past.

A multiplicity of "right" readings of the past does not mean that all interpretations are neither right nor equally good. There can be "wrong" readings of the past, and there can be one reading which better satisfies a person's sense of adequacy than an other.

The essential point is the following: museums -- like all people, groups and institutions -- need to come to terms with with a contemporary conception of history as the collective reproduction of the past. The world of the Internet has changed people's expectations for information and images. In light of the threat these changes post to museums and the potential power of museums to serve the public as an organ of social reform, it seems to me that museums should embrace their role in the historical process, promote the new conception of history and restructure their organizations so as to fully participate in the reproduction of history on the edge of life.

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