Why Are Museums Important


Why Are Museums Important? Essay, Research Paper

The Cambridge Dictionary Online defined museums as ?places of study, buildings where objects of historical, scientific or artistic interest are kept, preserved and exhibited?. To The Museums Association, a museum is ?an institution which collects documents, preserves, exhibits and interprets material evidence and associated information for the public benefit?. Since 1998, this definition has changed. Museums now enable the public to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society. Mike Wallace (1996) categorised museums into four distinct types, namely National Museums that hold collection of national importance, Armed Service Museums, Independence Museums and Local Authority Museums. According to Wallace, the importance of museums lies in their role as a nation?s memory bank. Personally, what matters most about museums is that they are the only source of ?living history? and perhaps an insight to the future world that lies before us. History should be displayed for study not only because it is essential to individuals and to society, but also because it harbours beauty.

Museums provide an ideal learning environment, whether it is formal or informal learning, active hands-on participation or passive observation (Hein, G. E, 1998). In The British Museum, each of the museums curatorial departments offers student research facilities, for instance Ancient Near East, Egyptian Antiquities, Japanese Antiquities, Medieval and Modern Europe and Prehistory and Early Europe. The Education Department even set aside ?Study days? to allow more intensive exploration of the cultural background to an exhibition or area of the collections and they usually include slide lectures and gallery talks. In addition, The Education Department provides a range of services for teachers to help enhance students’ experience of the Museum and about the cultures represented in the Museum’s collections. The 2000/2001 brochure, listing events and resources for teachers and students, is promised to be available soon. Majority of the other museums also provide such educational services to the public. The National Museum of the Performing Arts has an Education Department that runs an annual programme of activities designed to support teachers in the delivery of the National Curriculum and to trigger the interest of their pupils in the performing arts. These activities complement study programmes in a range of core subjects including English, Drama, Theatre Studies, Design and Technology, History, Art, Music and Social Sciences. A greater number of educators are looking to museums to help them attain their educational objectives. Howard Gardner has identified Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood as the perfect environment for stimulating the natural curiosity of a child. Furthermore, in response to demands for new educational approaches, older children are using museums to develop their critical facilities in art and design (Campbell, 1992).

Hooper-Greenhill (1994) places high importance in the role of museums as they offer many different opportunities of enabling children and adults to enter worlds where they may play out skills that are vital in the real worlds. With the rise of technology, museums are able to provide the mass with interactive education. The Clore Education Centre in The National History Museum has an ?Investigate? area which is a hands-on science centre. Visitors can experience hundreds of natural objects and investigate them further using scientific tools and instruments that are provided to encourage visitors to make observations, look for relationships and draw their own conclusions. The National Science Museum can be said to be one of the most interactive museums in Britain. Their large number of interactive galleries include The Launch Pad and Flight Lab, The Garden and a make-believe earthquake in a Japanese supermarket for visitors to have a first-hand experience of the turmoil of natural calamities. Technology advancement also aided museums in catching up with the cyber-savvy world today. Almost all the museums in Britain have found a home on the World Wide Web (MuseumNet). Not surprisingly, museums began to use the Internet as a medium in extending educational resources right to the homes of the people. On The British Museum website, one can easily download information sheets, resources, events, further reading list and web-links about more than thirty different cultures or topics, such as art history, Mesopotamia and textiles. The Science Museum site has an impressive range of online exhibitions about vast topics, for instance Life, the Universe & the Electron, Digitopolis (digital technology) and Exploring Leonardo da Vinci. The cyber home of The National History Museum houses ten online exhibitions, such as AntCast, Dino Directory and Eclipse. It also has the first online national woodlouse survey (Walking with Woodlouse), which is my personal favourite because other than providing interactive information, it allows for exchange of ideas via a flash-designed message board for fellow knowledge-hungry web-users. By employing technologies of the 21st century, museums are not only able to fulfil their essential role as an educational resource but also to make learning a fun and memorable experience.

Museums offer a storehouse of information about how people and societies behave through the ages (Hudson, K, 1987). We would not be able to understand the influence of technological innovations, or the rise and fall of the Qing dynasty, or the role that beliefs play in shaping family life, if we do not know about the experiences in the past. This, fundamentally, is the reason why museums are so important: it offers the only extensive evidential base for the contemplation and analysis of how societies function, and people need to have some sense of how societies function simply to run our own lives (Hudson, K, 1987). As Robert Crawford, Director General of The Imperial War Museum, so eloquently put: ?This is not a Museum of the distant past, but about people still alive today, their parents and grandparents. The wars of the twentieth century have affected each and every one of us in some way, and the Museum is here to tell all our stories. We cover all aspects of life in wartime – heroes, villains and the millions who are neither – and all human experience, at home and on the battlefield.? The past caused the present and the present would inevitably shape the future. Fairly recent history will suffice to explain a major development, but more often than not, we need to look further back in the realms of the past to identify the causes of change. This is where museums play a big part in our visual understanding of the world. Freud Museum documents the developments in the Psychology field while London?s Transport Museum is the place to be if one wishes to witness and appreciate the changes in transportation through the years. Their collection ranges from a spiral escalator to enamel signs. The Museum’s collection traces nearly 200 years of transportation development. There is no comparable collection of metro rolling stock anywhere in the world. To understand the one thing that drives the world round today, The Bank of England Museum traces the history of money and the Bank from its foundation by Royal Charter in 1694, to its role today as the nation’s central bank. Their displays include gold, evolution of bank notes and a reconstruction of the 18th century office. Only through studying history can we grasp how things change; only through history can we begin to comprehend the factors that cause change (Wilson, D.M, 1989) and only through museums can we see history unfold as a spectator.

Museums display evidential historical and present data about how families, groups, institutions and whole nations were formed and about how they have evolved while retaining cohesion. This provides a sense of identity for the visitors. Take for example The Jewish Museum, it opens a window onto the history and religious life of the Jewish community in Britain and beyond. Family and religious identity is established and confirmed. National identity for the citizens of London can be formed at the Museum of London where galleries use artefacts and images to display London’s rich and diverse history, from London children’s pastimes and experiences to the entertainment industries over the centuries. Museum exhibits that tell the national story, emphasising the distinctive features of the national experience, are meant to drive home an understanding of national values and a commitment to national loyalty (Alexander, E, 1979). Educating the public about various community groups also helps to promote cultural tolerance and understanding as it is in human nature to accept the familiar and shun the non. The African World exhibit at The Horniman Museum and Gardens aims to provide glimpses into the richness and complexity of Black cultures, both in Africa and elsewhere in the world. In addition, The British Museum displays artefacts from all over the world to illuminate the histories of various cultures for the benefit of present and future generations. Other than providing a sense of national, community and religious identity, museums also provide visitors with an identity of oneself. When one visits a museum of specific interest, such as art (e.g. National Portrait Gallery), cooking (e.g. The Museum of Culinary History and Alimentation) or sports (e.g. MC Cricket Museum), one would naturally meet people with similar interest and thus experience a sense of shared identity, embodied within the museum buildings.

On a more materialistic note, museums contribute significantly to the country?s revenue, as it is a source of tourist attraction. Despite the fact that most museums, like The British Museum, is funded by the government and Lottery and thus entry is free, these museums bring in visitors from all over the world on a yearly basis who generate flourishing profits for the hotel, food and retail industry. On top of that, there are museums that are not fully funded by the government and charge an average of ?9.00 for a single adult ticket for entrance. The Madame Tussaud?s Museum, The London Dungeon and Rock Circus are three such museums, to name a few, and they are among the most well-known places of interest in London, yielding millions of tourist visits per annum. These museums are generally aimed more towards entertaining than educating. One do not usually gain anything, other than a fun-filled afternoon, while rubbing shoulders with the wax celebrities at The Madame Tussaud?s Museum or being scared silly by the gruesome sights in The London Dungeon. Therefore, it is not surprising that such museums of tourist interest are accused of ?trivialising the past, playing with history, focusing on unworthy objects?. Critics of heritage claim that the museums? predilection for dressing up is thought of as childish, while its association with the holiday trades is almost by definition demeaning (Raphael, Samuel, 1994). Perhaps that is true, if one chooses to stick to the strictest definition of the function of museums, but from a personal point of view, it is no big crime for museums to give a fun twist to the concept of heritage. As the wise saying go, all work no play makes Jack a dull boy.

After all that I have said in favour of the importance of museums, controversy still remains. Like Mike Wallace (1996) said, museums constitute a site of struggle, a struggle between what gets remembered and what gets forgotten. Exactly who gets to make that decision? The state, ordinary people and corporate interests contributes money to the museums in the form of taxation but ultimately, national memory goes to those in power. Behind the critique of heritage lies residues of that conspiracy theory according to which historical change engineered by ruling elites, and popular taste is at mercy of what 1960s and 1970s radicals took to calling the manipulations of ?the media? (Raphael, Samuel, 1994). History well told is beautiful. When displaying history, one must respect the importance of dramatic and skilful re-telling, as well as accuracy. However, those in power of deciding the contents of a museum are faced with the temptation of selective amnesia. That is, conveniently leaving out the down periods of history and emphasising on glorious moments to give an idealised version of the past. Take for instance the Holocaust exhibit, James Young argues that when reading museum exhibitions of the Holocaust, we must not mistake artefacts from the past, the remains of historical events, for the events themselves (Richard, Crownshaw, 1999). Kushner (1997) lays blame on the museum for presenting the Holocaust, and in particular Belsen concentration camps, from the point of view of the British liberators rather than the Jewish majority of victims and survivors. Other than inaccuracy in the reflecting of reality, critics also expressed concerned in the paradox between preserving artefacts and catalysing the decay of culture. As Adorno (1995) argued, ?wrenched from their original surroundings, cut off from the living culture of which once they were an organic part, artefacts, when placed in the museum, ?are in the process of dying?.?

In conclusion, I would like to reinforce my stand in that museums are still of high importance in society. There is no reason to think that people are more passive when looking at old photographs or film footage, handling a museum exhibit, following a local history trail, or even buying a historical souvenir, than when reading a book (Raphael, Samuel, 1994). People, even children with parental guidance, are generally able to make appropriate decisions and analysis about museum exhibits instead of just blinding believing in what is laid in front of them. On the whole, museums are able to provide a real grasp of how the world works. Whether one is studying history, appreciating the present or anticipating the future through museum exhibits, it encourages habits of mind that are vital for responsible public behaviour, be it a national or community leader, an informed voter, or a simple observer in life.

ReferencesAdorno, T.W. (1995). Valery Proust Museum: Prisms. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Alexander, E. (1979). Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums.

Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood: http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/bethnal/Cambridge International Dictionary of English: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/Edson, G. (ed.) (1997). Museum Ethics. London: Routledge.

Freud Museum: http://www.freud.org.uk/Hein, G. E. (1998). Learning in the Museum. London: Routledge.

Hooper-Greenhill, E. (1994). Museums and their Visitors. London: Routledge.

Hudson, K. (1987). Museums of Influence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Imperial War Museum: http://www.iwm.org.uk/lambeth/lambeth.htmJewish Museum: http://www.ort.org/jewmusmKushner, T. (1994). The Holocaust and the Liberal Imagination: A social and Cultural History. Oxford: Blackwell.

London’s Transport Museum: http://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/index.htmlMadame Tussaud?s Museum http://www.madame-tussauds.com/site/london/index.htmMuseumNet ? UK Museums Knowledge Base: http://www.museums.co.uk/Museum of London: http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/MOLsite/menu.htmNational Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/live/index.aspRaphael, Samuel. (1994). Theatres of Memory: Heritage-baiting. London: Verso.

Richard, Crownshaw. (1999). The Media in Britain. Ethnic Identity and Cultural Heritage: Belsen in the Museum. Edited by Jane Stokes and Anna Reading. Macmillian Press.

The Bank of England Museum: http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/museum/index.htmThe British Columbia Museums Association: http://www.museumsassn.bc.ca/The British Museum: http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/The Horniman Museum and Gardens: http://www.horniman.demon.co.uk/The London Dungeon: http://www.thedungeons.com/en/dungeon.asp?gotof=top&lang=enThe Museum of Culinary History and Alimentation: http://www.mocha.co.uk/The National History Museum: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/The National Museum of the Performing Arts: http://theatremuseum.vam.ac.uk/The National Science Museum: http://www.nmsi.ac.uk/The Science Museum: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/Wilson, D.M. (1989). The British Museum: Purpose and Politics. London: British Museum Press.

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