Museums Hoist Their New Colours

Article excerpt

The last two decades have seen an explosion in the number of museums and a transformation of their place in society

Museums reached a turning-point at the end of the 1960s. They tried to smarten themselves up, to revive their job of teaching the public and to attract more visitors. Many new ones opened - more than half the world's 25,000 museums started up during the past 50 years. Even the idea of what a museum should be has changed considerably and given rise to a broad range of variations.

Museums were invented at the end of the 19th century as places to gather together and preserve the finest examples of human ingenuity and present them to the public. Early museums often lacked the resources to look after their collections properly and exhibit them attractively. They became dull, grey places which were cramped and increasingly dusty.

These days greyness is rare. In fact, I would divide museums into seven main categories and associate each one with a colour: orange for "interpretative" museums, green for those with an ecological approach, yellow for community-centred museums, blue for those which aim to share knowledge, gold for museums which go in for the spectacular, silver for business-oriented museums and mauve for museums of remembrance.

Interpretation - a watershed in museum history

The interpretative movement began in the 1950s in US national parks such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and the Florida Everglades and spread throughout the English-speaking world, from Canada to Australia via the United Kingdom, reaching as far as English-speaking countries in Africa.

Interpretation marks a watershed in the history of museums. It gives priority to a subject or theme rather than the exhibits themselves, which are considered as evidence from the past and not as the centre of attention. Interpretation means stimulating and surprising people, and challenging accepted ideas, without turning the museum into a classroom. Visitors are encouraged to refer to their own experiences, not just straight scientific knowledge, and to relate on equal terms to the heritage they are learning about.

In addition to national parks, hundreds of historic spots around the world have chosen this interpretative approach. Among them are Canada's Louisbourg Fortress and, in the United States, the town of Salem and the battlefields of the War of Independence. Since the late 1970s, this trend has involved new ways of presenting things based on the experience of the visit itself. Visitors explore the ambience of a place steeped in history and see what they can learn from it and what ideas it gives them. Interpretation confronts people with questions, theories and new perceptions of history. The settlement of the West in the United States, the slave trade and colonialism, for example, are put in perspective. Armed with this kind of critical approach, visitors come up with their own interpretations of the things they are presented with.

In Quebec, museums which take an interpretative approach have experimented a lot with the role of interpreter and critic and offer their visitors quite original places and experiences. The Chateauguay Battle Centre (commemorating Canada's defeat of an American invasion in 1812) has chosen to question the part played by heroes in our societies. The museum at Trois-Pistoles encourages discussion about the intensive whaling carried out by the Basques in the estuary of the St. Lawrence river in the 16th century.

A green revolution

In the 1970s, the popularization of museums was taken further with the development of the ecomuseum concept by Georges Henri Riviere, an imaginative French museologist who took a new look at the three basic components of a museum-the building, the collections housed in it and the people who come to see them. He favoured replacing buildings as the site of museums with a wider setting in which typologically classified collections would be replaced by examples of the natural and cultural heritage which could be observed in their normal environment. …