Museum Pieces: Julian Spalding Argues That Museums Should Re-Evaluate Their Purpose and Practices. (Today's History)

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MUSEUMS AREN'T DOING enough to interest people in history. This might seem an odd claim to make. Do museums not exist to preserve the past? Are they not the stuff of history itself, and thus beyond criticism? But the fact is that they are not using their unique public platforms, many sited in the centres of the world's major cities, nearly well enough to promote a wider understanding of the past.

Museums are, like everything else, products of history. They have all changed a great deal over time and can change again. They need to. Museums spring, essentially, from the Enlightenment. The British Museum was founded in 1753, a century-and-a-half after Galileo, but a hundred years before Darwin. The rapidly accumulating collections in the world's first public museums were a by-product of the birth of modern science, when researchers made discoveries by building collections -- a devil's toenail, for example, entered museums as an object of wonder only later to be re-labelled as the fossil of an extinct oyster.

In our post-Enlightenment age, the visible world has lost much of its mystery (which is perhaps why we care so little for it). Collecting is no longer a key method of research. Nor might so many people have visited museums in the past if they had been able to hop on a plane to see a kangaroo for themselves, or buy a book of colour reproductions of Japanese prints, or watch, from the comfort of a couch, a computer simulation of a dinosaur sinking its teeth into its latest victim. Hence museum curators cannot go on running their museums as if the world hasn't changed. Yet many operate as if the last eddies of the Enlightenment still lapped through their galleries and stores.

To compete with all the other media today, museums have to use the genuine things that only they possess in order to increase people's appreciation and understanding of the past. They're failing to do this at the moment. Take the Louvre. It contains some of the world's rarest treasures, yet its labels communicate only the briefest and most mundane information, if you happen to read French. How many people shuffling past the Mona Lisa look at it with any understanding? It would be perfectly possible, given the Louvre's resources, to create a whole display that introduced you to Leonardo's times and life's work, and led you, by degrees, to the Mona Lisa, so that, when you looked at it, you caught a glimpse of Leonardo's mental effort as he tried to depict the soul. But as it is, visitors elbow each other aside to have their photographs taken standing with their backs to it, and then pass on without a second glance at one of the most remarkable achievements of mankind.

Museums around the world don't think they're responsible for what the public gains from visiting them. Little wonder, then, that many rival attractions have appeared on the scene. Science centres, children's museums and heritage theme parks have shown how it is possible to interest and entertain wide sections of the public in subjects that were originally the domain of museums but without using unique artefacts at all. All too often museum professionals have responded to these challenges by either adopting these new techniques wholesale (and relegating their collections to stores), or, in reaction, by putting as much of their collections as they can out on display.

The rift can be seen running down Exhibition Road in London. On one side, the Natural History Museum, which used to be packed with thousands of specimens, is now so full of interactive displays, reconstructions and computer simulations that there's barely an original object in sight. Across the road, the V&A has put as dense a display as it possibly can in its new British Galleries, which contain no fewer than 3,000 exhibits. This is fine, if you know what you're looking for, but bewildering for those who need an introduction to the subject -- especially necessary at the V&A, which begins its new displays with the statement: `After 1500, new styles of ornament, inspired by the architecture and decoration of Ancient Rome, were introduced into Britain from Italy and France', but never tells its visitors what was already there. …