What Are Museums For?

We visited a number of major museums while we were in Europe – the Paris Musee de Armee, the Belgian War Museum, and the London Imperial War Museum in particular. Maybe I’m spoiled, but I found myself a bit disappointed by most of them. I think that with the emergence of the internet, the role of the museum needs to change.

It used to be that books were readily available, but photos -lots of good detailed photos – were not. I’m probably from the last generation to really use a brick-and-mortar library, and I remember doing research there. Being able to visit a museum and see real artifacts behind glass was a great opportunity that the library couldn’t offer. Today, that’s not the case. Today, I can learn as much about World War II from Wikipedia (more, actually) than I can by spending a day in the Musee de Armee. The Musee is dimly lit, and all its exhibits are behind glass with a one or two sentence description at best. If I want to learn how something worked, or why it was adopted, or if it was effective, or what replaced it I have to pull up Wikipedia on my iPad.

The Belgian War Museum was better, with a lot of artillery exhibits in the open where you could really get a feel for the proportions and walk around them. They also had some neat pieces like production boards showing the incremental steps involved in manufacturing something. Their British MkI tank has several pieces of armor replaced with plexiglass so you can see inside. This is much more valuable than objects behind glass, which provide little more utility than photos on the ‘net.

It feels to me like many museum curators are attempting to turn their museums into choreographed multimedia walkthroughs of particular historic periods. A selection of standard uniforms and artifacts (poorly lit and behind glass), plus some vintage film clips playing in loops, and a few important quotes printed in large text on the wall. For the folks who are brand new to the topic at hand, that’s decent – although still pretty much on par with what they could get on the internet in an afternoon. These places aren’t doing anything to make use of their greatest asset, which is possession of large collections of physical items. Museums have the opportunity to be really extraordinary teaching institutions today.

I realize that most museums struggle for funding already, but if they had the money here’s what I would propose:

  • First, make more exhibits hands-on. Touching and feeling something is far more valuable than looking at it on a shelf. I realize that the rare items cannot be handled by lots of people without being destroyed, but there are plenty of things that can be. For a military museum, you could have things like sections of tank armor or inert artillery shells. Some fairly common items or reproductions can be put out on the floor with the understanding that they will need to be replaced periodically because of use – things like gas masks (what does it really feel like to wear a WWI gas mask?).
  • Second, offer classes for the visitors who want to know more. Charge an admission fee to defray some of the cost and to limit attendance to people who really care, and really go into depth on some aspect of the museum. Let people put hands on the exhibits, and help them really grok the material.
  • Lastly, allow serious researchers to use the collection. Several really amazing public (or theoretically public) firearms collections in the US have become closed to anyone at all, including the most serious and scholarly of researchers. It appears to just be a case of apathy and an unwillingness to dedicate any staff time to any visitors. What is the point of a collection that sit locked up in a basement hidden away from everyone?

I understand the archival instinct to protect collections from human contact, but museums have a dual purpose of preserving history and also teaching history. I think we need to pay more attention to the teaching aspect.

What do you think? Am I being hopelessly utopian here?