By Tiffany Jenkins

OUP (2016) h/b 369pp £25.00 (ISBN 9780199657599)

The chances of finding out what museums are for, amongst the professionals at least, are pretty remote. Michael Ames, anthropologist and museum director, argues ‘Representation is a political act. Sponsorship is a political act. Curation is a political act. Working in a museum is a political act.’ And his point is…? J., however, concludes ‘The mission of museums should be to acquire, conserve, research, and display their collections to all’.

What is certain is that in an age of apology, atonement and reparation, museums are in the firing line. Just look where all their stuff came from! The pressure to do the right thing, and here we are talking largely about repatriating objects, is immense and extremely attractive. But J., without adding anything new, elegantly lines up the arguments and provides careful, balanced and well-considered responses. Fifth century Athens is not the same as Greece. The history of an object adds up to more than the circumstance of its origin. Who owns culture anyway? Encyclopaedic museums add value to national displays. Not all national museums will stand up to political scrutiny—it is so easy to rewrite history. Consider the merits of a separated Parthenon collection—one in a topographical context, the other in a (multi) cultural one.

The rise of the ‘identity’ museum, dedicated to a single culture and presenting it as its ‘owners’ would have it presented, has been seen as one of the ‘right things to do’. It restores dignity and identity, draws objects from collections worldwide (mostly willingly), and so on. But how does such a mission square with the ideals of disinterested research and display? And of course, when we get to human remains, the questions of research, display and repatriation (ever since Theseus’s bones were returned from Skyros to Athens) become so much more touchy.

J. is quite clear about what she thinks museums are for, and worries that relatively new preoccupations are damaging the fulfilment of that mission. But it is difficult to see anything like an agreed resolution to the questions thrown up, because the two sides are arguing from wildly different premises: it is logistics versus emotion. The pro-repatriation lobby talks of ‘national pride’, ‘self esteem’, ‘dignity…ancestors’, ‘motherland’, ‘the beating heart of modern Greek identity’. We are told that ‘just as people have souls…so do…monuments’. Try as you will, these arguments will always be sexier than those regarding the greatest good of the objects.

Will 3D printing be a game-changer? What, then, about authenticity? It is a fair guess that things will roll along as they are, on a case by case basis, producing a core of precedents that can be drawn upon as it is thought right. It is also a fair guess that the agenda and arguments will change.

J. has less to say about the role of us punters, but what she says is good: ‘(Other) objects hold the interest of people beyond both that usefulness and sentiment—there is something about them that appears truthful or special to people who are unfamiliar with their original context…….that show how human beings lived, loved and understood their world, in a way that others can relate to.’

At this point your reviewer becomes personal. As a child I would get on the train and travel thirty miles into Cambridge to visit the Fitzwilliam. The experience was always extraordinary. The armoury was a favourite, and I could wander around the cabinets of curiosity less concerned about how ‘correct’ my experience of the objects was than about the experience itself. I remember seeking out parts of the museums that scared me, excited me, puzzled me, without the dead hand of over-explanation, without being shouted at by acres of ‘interpretation panels’. The memory of a suit of medieval Japanese armour still haunts me. I really don’t want to wake up and see that at the end of my bed, but contemplating the possibility is oddly exciting.

I am not arguing for ignorance, but rather for what this kind of over-interpretation has driven out. By all means make the information available; just don’t let it dominate the show and relegate real objects to a secondary role. My heart sank when I visited the Leonardo exhibition at the Laing in Newcastle recently and found the space dominated by yaddah. I retrieved the experience for myself by ignoring it in favour of the drawings. But I guess this malaise was inevitable within the orthodoxies established and underlined by museums courses, and virtually every curator will have gone through that mill. So the experience comes to be about input, not search for meaning. The museum is the end, and no longer the means to an end. Of course, that makes it so much easier to get it right … but the loss!

And this doesn’t let the heritage industry off the hook—far from it. I followed the development of the Beamish outdoor museum in County Durham from conception through to realisation, and have never felt other than disappointment with the experience, if that’s what it is, because, unlike the cabinets of curiosity, it never really engages the imagination or initiates the search. It doesn’t give you anything to do. The rebuilt streets are the end, not the beginning of an experience. What Beamish is trying to achieve is available only in the pages of, say, Dickens, where you are free to wander, see, hear, taste and smell, or in the moving images of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, as you wonder again and again at Leonard Rossiter’s dance at the country fair, and share the embarrassment of all the others there. This kind of imaginative experience is not available at the heritage sites because they are so solidly finite. This is not an argument for treasure hunts or paper trails, by the way: they are just another way of submitting to interpreto-terror.

So what do we do about it? When I was first taught how to write open- and distance- learning programmes, the main emphasis was on identifying, agreeing and meeting the expectations of the learner. Of course there will be a need for knowledge and understanding. The question is, how do you get the learner to engage, make it their own, willingly and actively embark on the quest, work for it, if you like, because if the learner/ visitor makes the investment, then they will get the return. I’m now thinking primarily of groups visiting museums – schools, tourists, interest groups (individuals must, I fear, be responsible for their own motivation).

Take the real case of a visit to a collection of Roman inscriptions. The group should be helped to establish their own expectations, which can be done through a process of dialectic. What are inscriptions for? Why do people set them up? What categories do they appear in—public, private, political, religious, rhetorical? Do they work? How? What do inscriptions tell you? How do they make you feel? What do you understand because of them at the end of your visit that you didn’t before that? Does this affect your life in any way? How? Do you walk down the street in the same way as you did before? Do you look in the same places? Do you remember the same things after a walk? What is evidence anyway?

If this is done in the right way, you avoid telling them what you’re going to show them, showing them, and telling them what you’ve shown them. You are opening up a whole range of possibilities for their own quest and making possible a range of sensations and experiences that are personally meaningful and enjoyable, just as with the cabinets of curiosity. Each visitor tailor-makes their own visit, and in the twenty minutes or so it takes, there is the opportunity to transform the experience. Museums can do better than one-size-fits-all.

Adrian Spooner


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