I evaluated several documents related to the development of museum history and the current factors that compose a museum’s duties to the public. In this essay, I will reflect on the varied readings present within unit 2, while additionally explicating what central ideas of value emerged amongst them. Firstly, I will review the two power points present in the unit, identifying their key notions whilst connecting several of the ideas together. I will then discuss the noteworthy elements present within the, “New Futures for Old Collections” article, the exploration of inclusion in the museum space, and The Mystery of the Roman Silver documentary. To conclude my essay I will discuss three Museum Crush articles, speaking on the relevance of their respective references to museums.
Largely spoken within the initial powerpoint is the pivotal role that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment served as periods of influence for modern Western culture, notably in regards to museums. This period of change came as a result of multiple instances congruent with, and reflective of the urban growth and expansion associated with Renaissance culture. Urban growth was reflected by not only attributes of change in facilities, but additionally a wide-spread change in attitudes. This change in attitudes can be connected to the burgeoning Humanist movement of the time, which embraced empirical methods and reflected a renewed appreciation for the developments of their Ancient predecessors. Europeans began expanding their world understanding while expanding, becoming more aware of the presence of different peoples and different ways of thought, subsequently further fueling the curiosity towards understanding humans. Additionally contributing to this effect was the benefit of the printing press being utilized, and other forms of communication developing.
A focus on an empirical understanding of things grew during the Renaissance yet took larger form during the Enlightenment, in which the humanist desire to understand humans manifested in a larger focus on humans and nature. Empirical thought features a large focus on observable data, only taking what can be observed as valid and only theorizing with valid premises. As such, Humanist desire for an understanding of nature serves as a grounding for an understanding of ourselves. Furthermore, nature served as a common goal of understanding for those of the Renaissance and those of the Enlightenment alike, coexisting with world understandings based in religion and faith.
Along with an emphasis on physical evidence starting in the Renaissance, focus was given towards preserving aspects of family and possession. This was reflected by an emergence of portraits to preserve family legacy, as well as private collections emerging to display and study human-centered aspects of life. Collections of this time were likely of innovative, empirical scholarship.
The desire to understand nature and its inhabitants is additionally reflected by the history of collecting. Natural collecting additionally took place in many instances without a direct motive of understanding nature as a whole. This is reflected by Darwin’s collections and the eventual discoveries of observable change in nature that he extrapolated. The empirical way of thought supports natural collecting through a humanist motive as nature serves as the grounding for understanding of humans. The display of natural collections though enriching, can be controversial due to the inherent dictation of what is considered nature.
Ethnography and Anthropology are two social scientific approaches to describing humans and their cultures. It is through Ethnographic study that Westerners sought to make sense of others, eventually detracting from its origin of Western-bias and becoming a field relatively critical of itself. Ethnography has historically played a role in raising some of the important ethical questions posed to the museology community. Instances such as the restoration of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria for supposed museum-based purposes only to have multiple of pieces subsequently sold reflects how concerns of unethical artifact treatment extend further than questions of provenance; raising the question of if rightful possession is more important than the responsibility to preserve.
Modern museums are a reflection of the growth of empirical thought and scholastic research, which largely gained its footing in the Renaissance. In the 18th century, noteworthy countries began to use museums as a method to gain trust amongst their citizens, attempting to appease and subdue their citizens. Throughout the 20th century museums underwent various changes and motives, oftentimes operating too far onto one side of the balance between serving the public in an accessible fashion and providing a place for generating knowledge for scholars. Early museum history in the Renaissance reflects a new interest in other cultures, an attribute reflected by 19th century museums in promoting national culture through world’s fairs. Many of the additional attributes of early museum history in the Renaissance continued on throughout the 19th-20th century such as economic growth and educational focus on museum-based knowledge.
Having a greater responsibility towards artifacts than contemporary agendas plays an important role in archaeology as well. This attribute is reflected by the systematic evaluation that proper archaeology adheres to. Through evaluating all present factors, using the most detailed methods at hand, archaeologists reflect the empirical way of understanding that is present in modern Western museums. Within this process is a utilization of scientific strategies such as carbon dating, allowing for a greater understanding of nature, and thus humans, to be obtained. It is within this that Archaeology and Ethnography fit into a museum’s role to the public, contributing towards academic study of natural and social studies, and reflecting the value of collections.
The “New Futures For Old Collections” article discusses in detail what, or if reconciliation can occur at ethnographic museums as ethnography has its origins in Western notions of hierarchy and the way that cultures function. Early ethnography was heavily influenced by racist ideologies informed by colonialist attitudes. A gradual change in ethnography has occurred in which cultural dynamics have become the focus of these types of museums. The change towards a focus on cultural dynamics from relics of the past reflect a reevaluation of the field itself, as an evaluation of the process by which ethnographic museums display information has been undertaken. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of artifacts and cultural dynamics reflects an innovative change that can occur for ethnography within the reconciliation.
The importance of this juxtaposition is the context which it can often provide, directly addressing one of the large flaws of bias within ethnography. The benefit of individual artifacts in their greater cultural context is reflected by the emergence of the Pow-Wow dance for Native Americans in the 1930s, stemming from artifacts of Native history. Ultimately, contextualization in ethnography museums allows for reflections into cultural history, as well as promoting thought on the history of ethnography such as how artifacts were formerly acquired.
Another method that can reflect a change for ethnography is the large focus being given towards collaborative efforts amongst cultures. Intercultural influence is an inherent thing given the proximity of co-existing people. Collaborative efforts in ethnography museums allow for the connections between cultures to be observed and compared to the former relationships shared between groups.
Within the exploration into inclusion in the museum space, I noticed multiple strong connections to the article about the future of ethnography museums. Similarly to indigenous communities having a hesitant to trust ethnographic museums for displaying artifacts founded in colonialism, students seeking a response from museums for their colonialist roots are hesitant to accept the issued word of museums stating that they are actively countering systems of racial oppression. Those frustrated by the lack of action of museums call for reparations to be paid where museums have profited off the display of other culture’s artifacts. Furthermore, the lack of black representation in museums influences students’ hesitance.
There have been a number of exhibitions and events that have occurred in attempt to address this public concern. An example of these efforts is the Rijksmuseum in Norway having the exhibit Black in Rembrandt’s Time. The aim of the exhibit was to reflect on Rembrandt’s work in relation to black culture at the time allowing for a connection between what many know and what many can learn. Although viewed as an attempt to address the identified problem of racial inrecognance in museums, many were discontent with the choice in comparison to other, perhaps more effective exhibits. At the root of this discussion was the lack of representation in the Dutch museum’s workers in comparison to the general Dutch population. This lack of representation reflects a predominant issue of it being largely white, Western individuals at the helm of decisions such as what exhibit the Rijksmuseum should do in order to address racial inadequacies.
An alternative approach to recognizing systems of racial oppression through museums is reflected by a former residential school in Brantford. The school has been restored under the “save the evidence” movement in which the main purpose is to give survivors of residential schools a platform to tell their story and allow for their experienced pain to not be invalidated by being erased. In this sense, the school, although a site of unethical occurrences, serves as an artifact that is able to establish a lesson through accompanying material.
This effect of accompaniment allowing for items that illicit terrible things to become educational tools is mirrored in the museum in which portraits of U.S slave owners are accompanied by the information of their atrocities. This notion is further troubling when taken into consideration the new interpretations artworks would elicit if their artist’s life story were written alongside them. The inclusion of artists who are known to have committed horrendous acts in museums has become a subject of controversy especially in light of the MeToo movement. As artists personal lives become more subject to the media, the tolerance of artwork by infamous artists making it into museums significantly decreases.
In the documentary The Mystery of the Roman Silver a collection of 14 silver objects with noteworthy detail for the time of inception are discussed. One of the overarching themes of the documentary is the antique-ruining effect that the black market has. Furthermore, a strong theme within the documentary is the difficulty of proving both the ownership and the location of excavation of an antique once it has been improperly removed from an archaeological site. The archaeological strategies utilized in the film, such as using isotopes for representation and carbon dating reflect the precise matter in which authenticity must be evaluated in order to make subsequent findings in museums. The vast majority of antique looting occurs from archaeological sites, funding a 4 billion dollar black market industry. With both of these attributes being true, the amount of antiquities with cultural value, such as the Seuso treasure, that can no longer be verified reflects the large cultural loss that comes at the hands of the antique black market.
Related to the theft of artifacts from archaeological sites is the Museum Crush article, “The Stolen Ancient Sculpture Tablet Heading Back to Iraq”. The article details how a temple plaque excavated in Iraq has been identified after being stolen. The plaque was of particular rareness as it was one of only 50 examples known in existence, one of which is in the British museum. Currently, any looted objects that are recognized in the UK are brought to the British museum for identification, analysis and cataloguing. It is through this process that the artefacts are eventually returned or “handed over” to countries laying a claim. In 2019 the Museum went as far as completing one of the largest handovers of Iraqi artefacts that had been found in Britain with a collection of 156 tablets.
An additional Museum Crush article related to museum history is, “London Transport Museum Takes a Look Back at its Origins and Collection for its 40th Anniversary”. The London Transport Museum reflects the wide array of collections exhibited at museums worldwide. In addition to reflecting this array, it additionally shows their respective value. The development of the transport network in London yielded many artefacts that provide great context towards the development of London at large at the time. Furthermore, the museum has begun to evaluate the future and past developments of transport’s social influence, seeking to enrich their collection by including more perspectives through projects such as LGBT+ Linking Lives.
The final Museum Crush article that I studied this unit relates to issues of inclusion within Museums. In the article, Heart of the Nation, a new multimedia exhibition at the Migration Medium tells stories of the National Health Service through various methods including oral histories, archival materials, art and animation. The exhibition is online, largely reflecting how technological influences have changed the potential for museums as this exhibit exists in a form unavailable for museums formerly. The focus of the innovative exhibit is the personal history of those affected by a national service. The personal side of the exhibition is reflected by the 200 countries that work in the NHS contributing to the exhibition in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.