The Skeptical Museum

Anyone who gets to know me figures out pretty quickly one of my main passions (other than the skeptical movement of course) – museums. I love museums, the way they smell, sound, feel, the odd micro climate they often harbour and even the varying forms of museum worker you find lurking within. Some of those workers are like me – the strange morlock people squirreled away in dimly lit back rooms caring for objects that the public rarely see.

Recently it has gotten me thinking if there is a way to apply skeptical or rational thinking to museums. I’m sure that if you asked many of those who work within museums, galleries and heritage institutions they may think their work has a sound grounding in rationality. Museums and other similar institutions generally care for the material elements of culture, science, art or of a nation and through the material attempt to offer interpretation and explanation. Having grown out of the age of Enlightenment the Victorian museum sought to educate the (generally unwashed) masses. Museums moved away from the personal cabinets of curiosities and from the private gentlemanly clubs into the purview of all. Seeking to be material encyclopaedias, in particular imperial museums gathered up masses of objects ranging from ethnographic artefacts to dinosaur bones.

These large scale museums, though highly impressive, can be difficult to negotiate in a modern (post modern or post-post modern, depending on who you talk to) world. One just has to mention the Elgin Marbles to know that artefacts and objects are vehicles through which humans express feelings and even reverential devotions. To think that an object can be devoid of meaning has been widely debunked. Regardless of whether or not the viewer knows anything about an object, like the Elgin Marbles, just through the process of experiencing it they will have an emotional response, even if that response is boredom. How one presents an object to a person can shape their reaction however. Choosing to go into great biographical details on Lord Elgin versus an explanation on the brand new custom built Pantheon museum in Athens will shade people’s reactions regardless of prior knowledge. It will either re-enforce their present assumptions and knowledge or challenge them to reassess their perceptions. So the theory goes, but how effective exhibitions and museum spaces are at challenging people can be debated at infinitum (and is).

One way or another, museums are changing how they collect, care for and present their collections. So as “the” museum moves away from the didactic Victorian model where has it gone to? Opinions vary wildly over what has been done right or wrong and what the future museum should be. Greater interaction, multisensory and multifaceted interpretations with layered information seems to be obligatory today. Think of objects you can touch, sound clips to listen to or how information panels are structured with hierarchies of information depending on age or specialised interest. A question has been asked as to whether these sorts of cacophonous installations can be called museum spaces at all through the power of what has been termed “edutainment”. So is there still a place for the more contemplative older museum styles or should they be all swept away and be replaced with the museum paradigm. Well as variety is the spice of life the answer is probably no.

I come back to my original query, can you look at museums, galleries or public spaces with a “skeptical eye” and if we can should we? Are cultural spaces outside of such scrutiny and thus should be left to their own devices? In light of articles such as those about the critisicism (or praise) of exhibitions exploring natural remedies in science museums is there a need for such institutions to think about their displays in light of rational thinking. In short this is something I think I may investigate over the following months – mostly as I think it may be an unoccupied niche out there. If you are a skeptic and work in a museum you are not alone. If you have any thoughts on the subject please let me know, perhaps it is a chance to look upon out cultural heritage in a new light.

The Skeptical Museum

One thought on “The Skeptical Museum

  1. As a sceptic and one of the strange morlock people I would say that there’s a lot of diversity in how museums choose to deal with their collection display etc. Partly it will be down to available funding and partly it will be down to how much control of direction is maintained by curators and how much by designers.

    A common problem for museums engaging on big refurbishment projects is that they have a grant and a short time scale, so designers are drafted in who have prior experience in museums and often the refurbishment becomes a reflection of the previous projects those designers have worked on, tweaked to fit a different space.

    There is also the issue of museology emerging as a discipline worthy of consideration in its own right. This brings social history to any type of collection, allowing old museum displays and interpretation to be examined as a reflection of the broader social context of the time at which it was developed.

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