The stuff of museums

A museum curator responds to Nizami Cummins' criticism of 'stuffy' museums.

Ian Walker

Topics Politics

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Nizami Cummins was frustrated at the V&A’s reluctance to consider the museum website a ‘core activity’ (1). This tale is actually the mirror opposite of what is taking place in the museum world.

In museums today, in areas like the web and ICT, marketing, education, retail, design and even social work, enthusiasts are constantly chipping away at what was once the unassailable position that the curator held in giving purpose and definition to the museum.

It is true that new methods of delivery and of interpretation, of fund-raising and display, as well as a decent education policy and programme, can play an important role in a museum’s work. But these things can never be at the heart of a museum’s raison d’etre.

The raison d’etre of a museum lies in the objects that it houses. The curators who preserve, classify and understand these objects will always be held to account by these things. While new methods of investigation, new discoveries and new theories may alter curators’ understanding of an object, for example, a sarcophagus, the material reality of the sarcophagus is the very thing that cannot be ignored. A sarcophagus is a sarcophagus is a sarcophagus.

It is the presence of material objects that both holds to account, and fuels, the curator’s attempt to define and understand some aspect of the material or natural world. Virtual reality, marketability, and the best design and architecture in the world, can never alter the fact that the sarcophagus remains a sarcophagus. And the same is true of a tablet of cuneiform text, pre-Colombian pottery, a Victorian bicycle, or any other object in a museum.

The investigation of natural and material objects can be more than the preserve of a curator’s narrow obsession. By investigating a lousy shard of Roman pottery, we can enter a world where we have to shape our considerations beyond the immediacy of our lives, and are expected to consider time, history, place, mortality, truth and humanity in all its aspects, and with all its drama.

Such are the pressures being brought to bear on museums at present, that this fundamental aspect of a museum’s work is being undone. The aforementioned enthusiastic characters in marketing and design, and so on, are slowly undermining the very reason for a museum’s existence.

The door has been opened to allow anybody to question what a museum is for. The DCMS is intent on turning museums in resources for social workers or teachers, market forces are turning museums into fun palaces, and cultural groups are trying to dismantle collections through repatriation (often motivated by staff within the institutions themselves).

While the new museum professionals insist that they are engaged in a vicious battle against the forces of conservatism, curators are on the retreat. This is a retreat which threatens the very existence of museums.

(1) Stuff stuffy museums, by Nizami Cummins

Read on:

Culture wars: Past tense, by Ian Walker

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Topics Politics


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