Civilization and Its Museums; A View from the President's Chair

Queen's Quarterly, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Civilization and Its Museums; A View from the President's Chair


In 2000, Victor Rabinovitch became President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation. Here he discusses with Queen's Quarterly the history of the public museum in the modern world, and he looks at the future of the institution both in Canada and around the world.

QUEEN'S QUARTERLY: You are at the helm of some of the most important Canadian museums. Before we talk about the specific institutions you oversee, what do you view as the primary goal, of the museum in general? Is it to collect and store beautiful objects? To extract historically significant information from artefacts? Is it to attract and entertain visitors? Or to make statements about the roots and cultural contributions of communities and nationalities?

VICTOR RABINOVITCH: I think one of the important things about museums - and I'm using museums in the more generic sense of museums and public art galleries - is that their function, their main activity in society, has evolved quite rapidly in the last thirty or forty years. In fact, it had always evolved over time. What you now see within this field of museums and galleries is a series of competing functions. And a lot depends on the state of public mood, the state of private mood, the state of the staff, the state of the trustees, to help determine the primary and the secondary roles that are being played.

So one function of museums - going back even earlier than Napoleon bringing all his war booty from the Italian and Egyptian campaigns - was the museum as a place to store beautiful objects, objects that exemplify wealth, skill, and beauty. The display of these objects was really an expression of possession. I possess these objects. My state possesses these objects. My family possesses these objects. And through possession, we demonstrate our power. Through possession, we demonstrate that we have control over this beauty - and in a sense, therefore, that we have the good taste and the intelligence to have acquired these objects of beauty.

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A second function is one that is much more knowledge - based. This is when we look at these objects and say that they possess intrinsic knowledge about the past - past peoples, past methods, past ways of living. So the objects in a museum are much like documents being held in a public archive, or books being held in a public library. Clearly artefacts recovered through archaeology fit into this category because the methods of archaeology, both the uncovering of the objects and the study of the objects, are ways for us to understand a past society, a past people. So that would be a shorthand way of saying that the museum is the possessor of knowledge and a distributor of knowledge.

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A third activity - function - is very much a modern one, and appeared over the last forty years. If I were to put a date on it, I would say that it came on the scene just after the opening of the Guggenheim in New York in 1959. Since then, the museum and the gallery took on a new role as a place of attraction. And in the early 1970s we saw the extraordinary Tutankhamun exhibition in London, which then came to New York, at the Metropolitan. And then we have this explosive development of the museum as a place for mass intelligent entertainment.

This third function sees the museum as showplace, as attraction, as destination for the tourism experience. And all of this is taking place during the huge expansion of jetliner tourism. What do you do when you go to the great cities of Europe? Well, you go to see the major sights, and you go to see the museums. I have half an hour for the Louvre; I've got one hour for the British Museum. The museum itself becomes the destination.

The fourth function is one that emerged powerfully in the late nineteenth century, the period of the modern nation state. But it's certainly one that's emerging again. …

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