Wednesday, December 5, 2007

How do museums "own" the past? - by Maureen

Museums own the past in at least two ways: 1) as guardians of the physical objects and 2) as tellers of the objects’ stories. And thank goodness!

Although I am critical of some aspects of how museums realize their missions, I think that there are good reasons why museums should not (if it were even a question on the table!) stop possessing collections in the way.

First of all, the public can’t be trusted. People have rarely proven reliable agents in the protection and public sharing of treasures. (Look at the destruction of the Bagdad Museum. Look at the thousands of priceless treasures that have disappeared underground, often illegally into private collections.) The museum, like the library, is an institution founded on with dual purpose of safekeeping and sharing humanity’s collective past.

Furthermore, not just anybody can unlock some of the most interesting stories which objects hold. Some stories can be told with the help of special skills and training, such as scientific technology for dating pottery and curatorial methods for establishing the authenticity of a painting. Many museums provide the infrastructure necessary to conduct this research. Most museums privilege these stories, because they contribute to the collective wisdom of humanity.

You might find fault with a museum’s preference for the specialist’s story (and many museums try to counter this tendency), but there is no denying that an archeologist of classical Greece will read a Grecian urn in a different way than a 14-year old first-time visitor. To me, this difference is worth preserving.

I do not meant to say that the 14-year-old’s story is devoid of interest to the museum or public, but it would be a shame to assume the two stories were interchangeable. This treatment would inflate the value of the teenager’s story and devalue the stories of the specialist who has invested time in acquiring the training and base of knowledge from which to pursue a clearer understanding of the past.

In my mind, Museums are important in so far as they probe (and lead us to probe) the questions: “Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?”

Having spoken in defense of the museum, I would like to emphasize that it is wrong-headed for anyone, including a museum professional, to assert that there is one true story about an object and that specialists hold the key. Many museum professionals would be the first to agree and some have worked hard to modify their museum’s philosophy concerning board composition, accessions, exhibits, labeling, and programming.

Insofar as a museum fails to behave consistently with a belief in the object as vehicle to many, diverse, perhaps irreconciliable stories, it fails to conduct Gauguin’s inquiry and, in my mind, it fails to fulfill the museum’s dual mission as steward and story teller.

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