Museums – Where do they come from, and where are they going?

I am an avid world traveller and am infinitely curious about places, peoples, nature, and creativity, always asking the question “how did we get here and where are we going.” This naturally leads me to museums as part of my itineraries, and I've been to many, both big names and specialized, lesser-known local ones. They enrich my trip experience through their displays and provide explanations about many things.

How did museums come to be? How have museums evolved? From my observations, this is how museums changed over the past few hundred years:

It gradually dawned on me that museums themselves are statements, either explicitly through the way they narrate the displays, or implicitly, through the selection of objects they choose to put on display. So what do they say? Who wrote those narratives? What paradigm or perspective influenced those narratives? In short, are those explanations “correct”?

These questions are becoming more poignant as there is a growing challenge to the particular dominant stories in society. Museums play a significant role in this debate because they are an important conduit to convey those narratives, and they hold many of the artifacts which tell these stories. This brings up the important question of how we tell histories while questioning the idea of history as something written from the perspective of the victor. Museums will not be able to escape scrutiny nor challenges as a result.

Broadly speaking, the central question comes down to “what really happened in the past 500 years?” This was a period of human history with massive upheaval in a very short period of time involving mass migrations across continents, technological advances, radical societal restructuring, displacement of peoples including slavery and genocides, complete altering landscapes on a continental scale leading to an “anthropocene” era, and a shift in thinking about the relationship between man and environment. The follow-up question therefore is “where should we go next?” This is made more pressing because of global issues like climate change, geopolitical shifts in the balance of power, but also on a personal level as to what ways of living are possible to remedy widely-felt anomie.

To illustrate this through a concrete example, imagine that you had a museum and you had to create an exhibit titled “1492”. What would you put in that exhibit? What would your explanation placards say? One narrative could be that “Columbus set sail from the Port of Genoa westward into the unknown and discovered the New World and that led to a tremendous acceleration in the advancement of the world.” Another narrative and display could be “Lifestyles of the Arawak before they were wiped out – black earth farming and trading across the Caribbean.” Which one would you choose? Or would you try to incorporate both? What artifacts do you have to support your narrative? Either way, your hypothetical museum has made a statement using objects that may influence your visitors.

If we think of museums in a traditional way, as a place that possesses objects and puts them on display, then a good question to ask would be where they got those objects in the first place. Where did the objects come from, and how are they being used? What objects or artifacts are museums continuing to acquire, or repatriate, and how are they used to tell a story? How will stories change as museums repatriate their objects? Does the narrative change based on who tells the story, as well as where the museum is, and the museum’s mission? Who has access to objects based on what museum they’re in, and where the museum is located?

Thus, with the new narratives museums tell, new approaches to telling stories, and changing artifacts available to museums, we see broader societal changes reflected in museums, though actions and responses will depend on each individual museum itself, reflecting its own objectives, vision, and different forces, such as who is in charge and pressures for change. Put more poignantly, some will fight to defend their traditional perspectives, while others will be more forthright in bringing multiple perspectives while pointing these out to visitors through their exhibits, acting as a forum for debate and as a public third space.

These forces will continue to play out, likely even more strongly as we enter into post-COVID travel recovery, as well as deal with continuing pressures on museums towards online engagement. Narratives of history can never be neutral, and debating the present and the future means debating the past. Museums, their objects, and the curators who arrange the objects will be part of that debate.

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Norman Sung

I started my first solo backpacking trip right after school and I have never really stopped. The world is one gigantic onion, and I wander both on the surface and to the infinite layers beneath. Museums are the inukshuks that guide me through that immense beauty and fascinating richness, through time, by connecting places, and focusing on themes.

I have visited many museums, and these serendipitous experiences have left an indelible mark on me: the dazzling glitter of the Treasury of National Jewels and the fine craftsmanship on display in the Carpet Museum in Tehran; the engaging curation of the Smithsonian in both the American History and the Air and Space museums; the fascinating artifacts in the Anatolian Civilizations Museum in Ankara that traces the course of history from the Neothlic to the Bronze Age with cuneiform tablets detail treaties and invoices between the Hittites, Assyrians and other peoples far beyond; the MoMA in New York in which modernist designs from 80 to 100 years ago remain elegant and avant-garde today; the outstanding collection of bronze works in Shanghai Museum that reflect Ancient Chinese history; Topkap? where the East meets the West; the National Museum where I saw Lucy and the Ethnology Museum just up the road in Addis Ababa with masinkos, water-tight baskets and beekeeping history that shaped the Highland Cultures of Ethiopia; the Gold Museum in Bogotá and the Anthropology Museum in México City that tell the other side of the story of the richness of the Americas...these are just a few of the many top of mind. But many smaller, lesser-known museums can be equally fascinating in immersing me in the place, such as the Anthropology Museum in Azapa, Chile that displays the world's oldest Chinchorro Mummies and the evolution of the region into part of the Tiwanaku federation high in the mountains, or in-situ museums such as the abandoned nitrate mining town of Humberstone in Chile and how resource extraction and rigid class structure shapes Chile till this day.

I will undoubtedly keep adding to the list. Many more miles, many more museums, yet to go. Virtual is a helpful brochure, it is not a substitute for the immersiveness of the physical. Go everywhere in the onion.