Museums, physical embodiments of culture, history and education, are continuing to thrive. Even in our hyper-digitalised, mobile society where the internet acts as the gateway to unlimited, readily-available information, the thousands upon thousands of museums dotted across the world show no signs of withering away or shutting down. From rural villages to the vibrant, museum-abundant cities like New York, London and Berlin, exhibitions can be found truly anywhere and are often collated for all different purposes and audiences. While visiting museums is not necessarily a universal pastime, they are an important approach to presenting information and sparking conversation.
The format of the exhibition is unique in its ability to turn physical and tangible the lessons of an academic book. With an exhibition, there is no need for an extensive reading list or long days in the library as the material has already been specially organised and set up for the visitors’ ease of viewing. The spatial layout, with plaques of additional information and the occasional complementary pamphlet, essentially acts as the indirect voice of expertise which ‘creates history’ in our minds. Yet this is by no means a restricting quality, but rather an encouraging one – inviting the freedom of personal interpretation.
Despite great potential, it is important to note the sense of distance that can come with museum exhibitions. For some, feelings of inspiration stay behind in the museum, like a fantasy, so removed from the realities of daily life. Historical objects set behind glass can feel too isolated to comprehend fully. While photography and film as primary sources from the historical period help to make certain concepts feel real, they often only immerse viewers while they are present, but they don’t retain the experience as they leave.
The physical exhibition space itself can be a strong disconnect from reality. This can be especially true in war exhibitions, where the creation of a museum narrative often removes any fault of the Westerners and leaves the viewer feeling a sense of pride for brutal, colonial pasts. Moreover, the thoughtfully arranged and neatly positioned articles cannot accurately represent the chaotic, merciless reality of war.
Yet the way that museum exhibitions share and present knowledge is truly far-reaching in its impact. The vastness of history is beyond one person’s ability of comprehension, and exhibitions can teach us about unknown subjects. The use of art and creative media in exhibitions, in particular, can allow viewers to relate emotionally to distant historical periods or events.
On both personal and public levels, reflecting and remaining in touch with the past is crucial. Whether you visit museums simply out of appreciation and interest, to learn more about a different culture, to kill some time, or with the ambition of learning in order to avoid repeating past mistakes and enact change, these are all scenarios that connect people to history more so than create further distance from them.
Yet, museums have much further to go. It is essential that past mistakes and malpractices are recognised, analysed and applied to ensure a more promising future for museums. New exhibitions must provoke intrigue and stimulate the inspiration necessary to ameliorate social, political, and economic conditions. These aims should be grandiose - especially in the UK where so many museums are publically funded. Museums provide a great opportunity to rewrite history without the prejudices that are currently entrenched within our system.
Through making critical ideas accessible to the full extent of the general public, museum exhibitions should not be overlooked in their capacity to educate masses and encourage reflection and interrogation of the past. They are an important regenerative tool as we continue to question the inequalities of the present through the institutions of the past.
*Illustration by Dani Rothmann*