Third Chapter of Exploration into Museology

Historic site museums, and specialized museums offer various unique methods in servicing the classical definition of a museum (an institution that acquires, preserves, studies, exhibits and interprets a collection for public benefit), using material things to develop/communicate knowledge. Diversification of the museum field allows for a wider range of themes to become apparent amongst explicated knowledge, as well as a wide array of options for how a museum can service its fundamental goals. However, the discussion of diverging types of museums allows for a greater understanding of the complications within the museum field. In this essay, I will attempt to explicate the central notions of the required assignments of Unit 3. I will initialize this essay by laying a backdrop of the information present in the PowerPoints and their associated videos, before going on to detail how the Tenement Museum article, the Open-Air Museum article, the Hampton Court Palace article, and three Museum Crush articles congregate in this unit. 

A large portion of the content present in the first powerpoint relates to historic site museums and open-air museums. Historic sites are places of heritage used for either a continuation of their initial function, or to fulfil a new role. A wide array of buildings and areas can be considered historic sites such as significant urban centres like Montreal. When historic sites fulfil a museum function centered in its own history they are historic site museums. With this being said, a historic site can embrace some of the qualities of a historic site museum and still not be regarded as one. An example of this is the power plant at Harbourfront in Toronto in which a heritage building is servicing a museum function through art displays, but it is unrelated to the building’s own history. 

Fort York in Toronto serves as a representative example of a historic site. The fort was founded in 1793, reflecting the emergence of Urban Toronto. During the War of 1812 the fort saw battle in multiple years, playing a notable role in Canadian defense. Beyond Fort York, there is attention given to multiple historic sites throughout Toronto although their popularity, largely stemming from a growth in tourism and interest in history in the 1960’s and 70’s, has feigned since.  

Historic site museums have a unique appeal to the public as the authenticity of the space appeals to the visitor’s sense of imagination and humanity. Historic sites of important events were visited in the middle ages for spiritual reasons. The modern prevalence of historic site museums can be partially attributed to the Renaissance especially during the romantic movement in which old age notions gained newfound appreciation. This appreciation is additionally reflected by romantic and gothic architecture and decor in the 19th century. An interest in the medieval past is reflected by the romantic decor in Dunollie Castle (13th century style castle) and the emergence of residences such as Dundurn Castle and Casa Loma. For many countries, the preservation of sites of heritage came from a desire to form or strengthen a sense of unity amongst the population.

The formation of historic preservation groups such as the National Trust additionally arose out of national sentiments, an interest in collecting and a fear of ancient buildings being “over-restored”. English Heritage is a group set up in 1983 that encapsulates the roles of some of these groups as they seek to preserve and display England’s own heritage sites. Among their jurisdiction is the current treatment of Stonehenge (PowerPoint videos). Previously, the group had identified that Stonehenge was not being presented as effectively as it could, facing problems of overcrowding and inadequate facilities which inhibited the interpretation of the space. They sought to resolve the issues, the same faced by many popular historic sites, through implementing energy efficient, informative, nature contouring facilities whilst removing some overcrowding elements like the nearby road. The discovery of the dwellings of neolithic individuals not far from Stonehenge has inspired an open-air museum that utilized methods such as observing chemical composites of preserved pollen to gain an understanding of the agricultural practices of the neolithic inhabitants, reflecting aspects of their day to day life.

A representative example of a historic site museum is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (PowerPoint video). Once a residential building housing many immigrant families living with low wages and harsh living conditions, the museum focuses on the stories of the everyday lives of the people who lived in the building. This allows for the site to facilitate important contemporary conversation as well as allow for current immigrants to see their life in a different light.   

The benefits that historic site museums provide to the public include: the preservation of historical structures, their relevance to the field of archaeology, cultural understandings that are gained through the authenticity of space, and modern comparisons that the authenticity of the space allows for. However, there are additional shortcomings of historic site museums that inhibit their central functions such as the inherent difficulty of the museum housing requiring preservation. Furthermore, the communication of many historic site museum’s histories rely on vocal ideration from staff members, leaving the likeliness of public ascertainment on employee training. Additionally a crucial battle within the museum space, particularly so for historic site museums, as they often utilize authentic spots in portraying publicly attractive material, is between a focus on academia versus programming. 

Important to an understanding of open-air museums is ascertaining the distinction between a restoration and a reconstruction. Restorations take place on period buildings that generally try to bring them back to one point in its history. This is often done through removing items that had been added after the point in history, and through reconstructing elements present at the point in history. Conversely, reconstructions generally take place on historical buildings or sites that can’t be restored. 

Open-air museums are assemblages of buildings from other locations that have been restored, often featuring recreated landscapes (with added animals), reconstructed minor features and modern facilities such as visitor centres that provide ancillary information, programming or interpretations. Open-air museums differ from historic site museums in that they are often based on little historical significance,  instead offering valuable interpretations of people’s lives. The practice of moving historical buildings in order to preserve them initiated with museums like Skansen in Sweden which utilized a focus on ordinary people’s lives through period-room settings and interpretations. Furthemore, during the late 19th century (near Skansen’s inception) there was a noticeable loss of village life as industrialization’s influences began to influence some to preserve it. Open-air museums, although a valuable method for interpretation, have been met with criticism for being overly reminiscent and romantic, rarely speaking to the extent of travesties. In conjunction with their oft-concentration on rural people, open-air museums have been criticized for exhibiting a bias in their analysis, relating to a fear of public reception.

There are additionally many museums that reflect a fusion of historic site museums and open-air museums. A primary example of this phenomenon is Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, a major restoration of the capital of Virginia in the 1770’s. Williamsburg differs from museums such as Skansen as many of its displayed structures are in their original location and not recreations. Williamsburg additionally employs open-air museum features, implementing building replicas, restoring the historical landscape and having direct implications on the field of archaeology. 

In the second PowerPoint, an array of museums that offer unique roles to society are discussed, as well as the intricacies of some collections. Some museums derive from royal and noble collections. The Louvre is an example of this in which royal collections were seized after the French Revolution. 

An example of a private collection of significance is Sir John Soane’s Museum in London (PowerPoint video) which, due to restorative efforts, has remained relatively unchanged from the 19th century. Soane’s museum encloses a wide array of clustered decorative fragments and antiques that span centuries. A 7 year development process allowed for the restoration of complete interiors that had been lost from the museum, as well as an entire floor not previously open to the public, reflecting an ongoing restorative process present in most historic site museums. Soane’s Museum features juxtaposing elements which culminate in a theatrical effect, clustering items (110 paintings in one small room) as well as presenting them in a thematic, enlightenment-inspired way, allowing for an imaginative and inspiring learning experience.

Specialized museums differ largely in exhibitions, collections and methods of presentation however share the novelty of being a museum with a specialized focus. An example of a specialized museum is the V&A museum in London which primarily collects decorative art, being the largest museum to do so. The museum’s origins lie in Parliament seeking to extend the knowledge of arts and manufacturing present in general society during the mid 19th century, during which industrialization was rampant and closely related to design. Furthemore, in addition to specializing by type of faculty, museums are often specialized by medium, artist, theme or national focus.

A wide array of museums and their respective functions are presented in the second PowerPoint. An in-situ archaeology museum is when the site of the underlying archaeological dig becomes the museum. An example of this is the Jorvik Viking Centre in York in which a reconstruction of the excavation that found a viking city from 900 CE is displayed. Both in situ archaeology museums and ship archaeology museums reflect instances of archaeological finds becoming themselves accessible museums associated with the site’s history. The Vasa Museum (PowerPoint video) serves as an example of this. The Vasa is the world’s best kept 17th century warship that was lost in 1628. After 333 years the ship was recovered and is now being sprayed in attempts to preserve the ship for 1000 years. The Vasa’s accessibility and value as an archaeological site based museum is reflected by it being the world’s most visited maritime museum and by it containing engaging aspects beyond the ship itself. 

In addition to sunk ship museums, there are museums that are functional ships. Many functional ship museums such as the HMCS Haida reflect elements of military history. War museums reflect military history, often having particular focus on wars that were culturally significant to the country. Similar to identity museums, they represent a part of the country’s history that is tethered to many individual’s understandings of themselves and others throughout the world. As such, bias is at the forefront of many War/Identity museums as the information can be easily presented in a one-sided way. A representative example of a war museum is the Musee de L’armee in Paris (PowerPoint video) which is a historic site museum housing practical and decorative items of France’s military history, such as armor and metal decor, including Napoleon Bonaparte’s tomb. 

There are additionally museums that are focused on an idea rather than a collection. An example of this is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as the bulk of it’s content has an archival focus, focusing on documents, photographs and oral recordings related to the Holocaust. A fundamental difference between archives and museums is that archives don’t display much of their own research, rather providing the materials for others to perform their own research with. 

The Aga Khan Museum (PowerPoint Video) reflects efforts to facilitate the creation of work by contemporary artists that connects with the history of the items within the museum’s collection. This push has allowed for the museum space to become more of an incubator for talent in many disciplines. The newly created works fill in the gaps between exhibition information as well as engage visitors in dialogue and discussion that can lead to broadening their world understanding.

Additional museums of note are science museums/centres, corporate museums and “anti-museums”. Corporations such as Redpath Sugar in Toronto have formed for-profit museums that promote their product through celebrating their corporate history. Additionally non-profit corporate museums exist such as the Corning Museum of Glass. The Natural History Museum in London serves as a representative example of a science museum, they utilize material things that connect to natural history in order to develop knowledge on a given exhibit. The Creation Museum in Petersburg reflects the notion of an “anti-museum” as they utilize museum technologies in subverting empirical knowledge which is central to the classic functions of a museum. 

In a Museum Crush article, Pitt Rivers Museum, founded in 1884 when General Pitt-Rivers, an influential archaeologist and evolutionary anthropologist donated his collection to the University of Oxford, is discussed. In most ethnographic and archaeological museums the objects are arranged according to geographic or cultural areas, at Pitt Rivers they are arranged according to type allowing for parallels and juxtapositions to arise. The objects present in General Pitt-Rivers collection were closely tied to the history of British imperial expansion and their acquisition stemmed from a colonial mandate to collect and classify objects with unfair means. The Pitt Rivers Museum has displayed trophy skulls, shrunken heads and additional human remains alongside interpreted historic labels. The collection and its respective labels have long been a subject of controversy as the labels contained racist and derogatory language, as well as including interpretations of spiritual material. The museum undertook a 3 year review of the museum’s controversial collection, eventually settling on the creation of new labels, films and podcasts that help visitors engage with the voices of artists, indigenous leaders and local stakeholders. 

In an additional Museum Crush article the Loughborough Bellfoundry Museum, which showcases 160 years of bell construction and innovation from John Taylor & Co, is discussed. However, due to the prominence of the Covid-19 pandemic, the museum is currently accessible only by group tours. The Loughborough Bellfoundry Museum showcases the history of bell moulding and casting, contrasting the moulds used by other companies, and between innovations within John Taylor & Co’s bells. This museum functionally preserves a unique, specialized part of history that reflects important innovations that have a place in England’s cultural transmission.

Furthermore, a tertiary Museum Crush article discusses The Watts Gallery, founded in 1904 as the UK’s only gallery devoted to a single artist, G. F. Watts. The museum offers insight into the life and work of Watts, now utilizing historic and contemporary galleries to establish an extensive learning programme. The museum and its associated artwork tells a story of social change in England as Victorian artists were at the frontline of social reform, believing art to be pivotal to changing the issues of poverty, hunger and disease. For painters, this was reflected by a change from emphasis on harrowing deprivation to a more sympathy-inducing image of suffering, this is reflected in G.F. Watts’ work and the historical story has been preserved through the museum. 

The aforementioned Tenement Museum is featured in an article depicting the museum’s challenges and undertaken methods in creating a democratic space for dialogue on immigration-related issues. In order to create a visitor-engaging institution, the museum found that it had to become more democratic itself. They employed immigrants to guide tour content, serving as a contemporary step between history and today. The poor working conditions faced by immigrants of the 20th century relates to the building’s history directly as residence reforms led to immigrants living in low-income housing having more pressure to work dangerous jobs. The goal of the museum is to promote historical perspective through the presentation of various immigrant experiences in the Lower East Side. The issues being addressed by the museum remain incredibly relevant today as approximately 75% of workers in early 2000’s New York City were immigrants, with 75% of these factories being classified as sweatshops. In order to change common misconceptions of the immigrant experience, the museum has unromanticized it without alienating it. This has been done through the innovative program of Kitchen Conversations, a post-tour session with a trained dialogue facilitator who explores visitor’s understandings of the immigrant experience as well as what significance the historical story has to them. The process allows for important social discussion to take place, as the visitor’s interpretations are then discussed in modern contexts. Furthermore, the museum has incorporated six two-hour workshops in which students explore an enduring challenge faced by the immigrant community. 

The challenge faced by open-air museums in remaining relevant is discussed in an article by John William-Davies. The emergence of open-air museums came largely through folk museums that focused on indigenous day to day life. These museums (Welsh Folk Museum, early Scandinavian folk museums) were based in a movement that sought to retain aspects of village life (customs, dialects and cultural traditions) that were declining as a cause of urbanization (as well as the nation’s interest in patriotism). Due to the strong social affinity between the content displayed at these museums and the audience, which formed from accessible, emotional presentation, open-air museums gained large popularity. The battle between academics and admissions led to criticism of the fictitious nature of open-air museums however this criticism is contingent on the visitors of these museums expecting entire historical accuracy. Modernly, visitors have little connection with the notions being presented in open-air museums. Multi-period museums help to bridge the gap to contemporary life as they present various time periods. Furthermore in order to become more inclusive towards groups disenfranchised by the historical content of open-air museums, multimedia orientation projects are being utilized to reflect the importance of diversity. Open-air museums face challenges of popularity, however they emerged amid complex social change and have remained relevant their multiple strategies and decades, thus proving their ability to re-invent themselves to have influential change. 

For the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession, the Tudor palace at Hampton Court was re-interpreted by a team of trained historians from Historic Royal Palaces whose skillset lay in addressing the communicative needs of various audiences. The team sought to identify how emotions, intellectual meanings and relevant connections could be used to carry the past into the present. Efforts in the 1840s to refurbish the Hampton Court were romantic and bore elements not based in historical accuracy (drawing on elements like color and armor without historical justification), had an influence of appeal through beauty and were found largely engaging by the public. The investigation by the Historic Royal Palaces team identified that visitors wanted to know what people felt and thought in the past, desiring a contemporary lense for historic characters such as Henry VIII. This attribute changed the focus of re-interpretation at Hampton Court from buildings to stories. Furthermore, authenticity is reflected in Hampton Court’s re-interpretation through an appeal to all of the human senses, providing hands on experiences that reflect authentic histories by drawing on universal bodily and emotional experiences. The identified value of storytelling in this instance additionally serves as a downside as storytelling can create genuine emotions for characters of the past but additionally lock the narrative into a single interpretation. Hampton Palace now utilizes costumed historical interpreters that restrict themselves to a historical backing, with human “imagined” characteristics. Furthermore aspects of comfort were incorporated with a historical backing, allowing for the development of feelings of authenticity. Additionally, interpretive elements such as decor within the Great Hall, and garden organization reflect an attempt to create authenticity while engaging with genuine aspects of historical truth as they are not antiques but imagined designs/placements that correlate with the culture contemporary with Henry VIII’s life. 

The first PowerPoint in this unit had a large focus on understanding historic site museums and open-air museums. Both of these newly introduced aspects contained authentic, valuable new approaches towards servicing a museum’s functions to the public. The second PowerPoint present in this unit discussed a large array of museums showing the different types of discussion facilitated in, as well as what kind of knowledge can be developed within them. Both of these PowerPoints had a large focus on the origins of, and representative examples of these various museums. Throughout three different Museum Crush articles, the central themes of re-interpretation, cultural transmission and artist specialization leading to social change emerged respectively. The Tenement Museum article focused on the immigrant experience and the relevance of presenting immigrant experiences from the past to contemporary perspectives on immigration. The open-air museum article discussed the value of open-air museums in taking new forms and reflecting relevant historical realities. The concluding article of this essay, on Hampton Court’s re-interpretation, reflects the complications and opportunities present within a modern historic site museum.