MUSEUMS AND HISTORY
By Alex Werner
The main function of museums has traditionally revolved around collecting, preserving, researching and displaying objects. In the last 50 years, a greater emphasis has been placed on exhibitions, interpretation, learning and audiences. Furthermore, the number of museums has grown dramatically in this period, with an incredible range of themes and subjects covered. Displays are still constructed essentially around objects, thus making material culture a key constituent of most museum interpretation narratives.
History consumed in museums is closer to what might be termed ‘public history’ than the history that circulates within the academy. Despite the rapid expansion of museum collections throughout the last century historians have preferred to research in the familiar comfort of the archive and the library rather than in the museum object store. Recently, historians have become more engaged by objects as new technology has resulted in digitized collections being made available through the internet. They have also become more involved in the development of new museum galleries and temporary exhibitions. The history of museums and of collecting has become a specialist field all of its own.
Any discussion of museums and history has to begin with the British Museum. What this museum says directly about the history of Britain is difficult to gauge and problematic? It is not a national history museum as such, unlike the National Museum of Scotland that tells ‘the story of Scotland, its land, its people and culture’. However, it does have displays that place British history in a European context, earlier periods treated in more depth than later ones. Other London museums provide further historical context to the modern age including the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in its permanent displays (with its central founding premise that it is about history rather than art), the Science Museum in its Making the Modern World gallery (which aims to set out the cultural history of industrialisation from 1750 to the present day) and the Victoria and Albert Museum(V&A) in its British Galleries (national design and decorative art history from 1500 to 1900).
More recently, the British Museum has set out its stall for the 21st century as a ‘museum of the world’. Its collections are ‘worldwide in origin and intended for use by the citizens of the world’.(2) In 1998, the relocation of the British Library to a new building at St. Pancras left a void at the centre of the museum. The spectacular Great Court, billed as the largest covered public square in Europe, has transformed the old reading room and its surrounding space. This is an example of museum ‘statement architecture’, very much a feature of the age.
Today, museums are viewed in many different ways. They are seen as businesses, storehouses of collections, exhibition and display venues, educational establishments, research organizations, communal spaces and places of memorialization. Museums are often driven in new directions by national and local government policy. Curators continue to curate exhibitions and displays, shaping the main historical narratives and object interpretation alongside their colleagues involved in what is now called ‘learning’. In larger museums, curators have been downgraded in organizational terms over the last 30 years and frequently have no direct input into their museum’s top-level strategic planning.
The future direction of historical interpretation in museums is uncertain. ‘Hidden’, contentious and diverse histories are becoming mainstream. On one level, the displays created in 2007 to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade reveal some of the current broad practices.(7) Developed through consultation and partnership, a co-production with a range of organizations, communities and academics, and backed up by funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the exhibits highlight present-day issues, giving the main historical narrative of slavery and the slave trade contemporary relevance. Museums are encouraging history to be viewed where possible from multiple perspectives, catering for different learning styles and providing a space for dialogue and debate. They are not the only place in the public sphere where history is consumed but they do provide a unique environment for historical enquiry through their galleries, exhibitions and collections.
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