Museums, Society, Inequality

By Richard Sandell | Go to book overview

8

Remembering ourselves in the work of museums: trauma and the place of the personal in the public

Gaynor Kavanagh

Calls for museums to become inclusive, to contribute to the enhancement of the quality of life of individuals and to broader social change are growing stronger. Whilst there is a growing body of literature to attest to the positive impact that museums can have on individuals’ lives, there is also need to consider the responsibilities and ethical issues that accompany the museum’s social role. This chapter explores these issues through focusing on the museum’s relationship with personal memory.

Most museums aim to be tidy, highly organised places. They operate through systems and structures designed to maximise their ability to reach set goals. The study of museums seeks to buttress this, being substantially devoted to the examination and, wherever possible, increase of their effectiveness. Neat theories, succinct strategies and diagrammatic logic offer forms of salvation. Enlightenment is held out in whatever new idea is current. In this, museums are not dissimilar from many other forms of public institution. But there is a major problem here. In all that they do, museums are people dependent; yet they have difficulty predicting with a high degree of accuracy how people really respond. It renders them vulnerable in their relationships with staff, visitors, donors and the people with whom they work in a research or outreach capacity.

Much of the available thinking rests on broad notions of people in social groups, cultural categories or definable communities (compare for example, Davies 1994, Hooper-Greenhill 1997, and Merriman 1989 with Rosenzweig and Thelen 1998). But such broad ideas are constantly disrupted in day-to-day practice by the anomaly, the variant, the essential unwillingness of people to conform to stereotypes established by others. As individuals, we have the ability to be everything we are expected not to be, leading to actions and reactions that confound the best-laid assumptions. This is not to argue against the substantial influence of cultural structures and socio-political conditions on fundamental ways of being and believing. It is however to make the case for the recognition of highly complex personal worlds and their engagement with museums. When museums, even quite sophisticated ones, are unwilling or unable to provide

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