Should Guns be in Museums or Private Collections? (Video)

Guns in museums get condemned to a purgatory behind glass. Guns in private collections get shot and broken. What are we to do?

As it happens, I have spent the last two days in museum gun collections. Monday in the Smithsonian Institution’s gun room and yesterday at the NRA’s National Firearms Museum. As a result I have been thinking about how an ideal gun museum would be set up…

The Smithsonian is an excellent example of how not to do it, at least from the perspective of a person seriously interested in guns. The military history exhibit in the Smithsonian’s American History Museum is designed in the model style of museum exhibits – meaning a sparse selection of actual artifacts coupled with large pictures and contextual text. The could be good, except that (as is typical) the explanatory sections are aimed at a lowest-common-denominator of visitor knowledge/interest. A visitor who has never heard of World War II would get a great introduction to it by visiting the exhibit. Of course, they could be just as well served by reading the Wikipedia entry on WWII instead. For a person who has a moderate or advanced understanding of the war, the exhibit offers little opportunity for learning anything new.

I recognize that this is a balance and choice that must be made by museum designers, and that the uninformed are going to be a larger segment of the audience and thus it may make more sense in some ways to focus on them. On the other hand, doing so wastes the potential of a massive collection of artifacts and resources of a place like the Smithsonian, leaving them boxed up in warehouses and inaccessible. Case in point; the Smithsonian’s extensive gun collection is locked up away from visitors and can only be seen by special appointment. Only the most basic of guns are actually displayed to the public, while things like an HK G11, prototype early ARs, and all manner of historically and mechanically significant pieces sit unseen by anyone but a few museum staff.

The NRA’s National Firearms Museum is a stark contrast after seeing the Smithsonian. While the majority of the gun collection is still locked away in vaults (because of space limitations), a couple thousand guns are on display, well organized by time period and theme, and accompanied by excellent dioramas and accouterments. There are, in fact, so many guns that they have given up on using printed cards in the displays to identify them, and instead have a series of computer terminals with photos and descriptions of everything, indexed by item number and display case number.

Even with this system, though, it is a bit disappointing how little information is available. The descriptions are typically a couple sentences at most, which means there is no real background given; no “why” questions answered.

What I have been pondering (while sitting in the Robert E. Petersen gallery of the NFM, in fact) is how one might design a firearms museum to truly exploit the full potential of such an all-encompassing physical collection. How could you have hundreds or thousands of guns accessible and actually provide deep contextual information on all of them?

I think an ideal museum would be able to teach these things:

  • Basic mechanics – how does something work?
  • Designer – who made it?
  • Practical application – where and when and how was it actually used?
  • Predecessors and successors – how was it influenced by what came before, and how did it influence what came after?
  • Design intent – what problem was it intended to solve?
  • Interesting anecdotes

Basically, I think every gun has a story behind it, and they are all interwoven together. I wonder if it is even realistically possible to put all that information into a physical museum, or if it can only be done in some type of online, virtual environment. The internet offers the benefit of not having physical constraints, but at the cost of offering no physical context. Characteristics like balance and construction are difficult (if not impossible) to convey and understand without being able to actually handle a firearm (although that doesn’t happen in museum exhibits either). If one wants to provide a learning environment for a large number of people, how can that be done?