Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Book Review - The Birth of the Museum: history, theory, politics

image from Blackwells.co.uk
As we've shared on social media, in the winter we took advantage of a fantastic book sale and also received two very generous donations of museum literature. These have greatly expanded our reference library.

The first 'new' addition that I read felt like an appropriate place to start. Written by Tony Bennett (not that Tony Bennett) and published by Routledge in 1995, this is not your standard book on the history and development of museums. Bennett takes a serious look at museological development in Australia, Europe and North America, and how museums played a role in social development, gender equality, education, and much more. He also looks at the motivations behind these activities. What I really appreciate about Bennett's take on museological history is that he doesn't shy away from harsh truths. Rather than tooting our professional horn, he acknowledges the good, the bad and the ugly. He also includes world fairs, exhibition centres, and other similar activities and events in his analysis, and includes many quotes from early museum designers and planners that reveal motivations and goals, some of which will make you shake your head. This makes for a rich, diverse look at how we have showcased and displayed, celebrated and mocked our collective history, and how those teachings and the museum environment have translated into long-term, generational lessons.

Bennett identifies three issues that were driving forces in 19th century museum development. Firstly, museum designers and planners absolutely thought of museums as public, social spaces and wanted to make a serious shift away from the private, exclusive museums that were in existence. The second issue, also a major shift, was to move from presenting cabinets of curiousity to educational forums that would teach visitors. This teaching would be done through exhibit design and labels. George Brown Goode presented a lecture in 1889 that noted a desire to transform the museum of the past "into a nursery of living thought". I think that's a great question to ask ourselves today. Is our museum a nursery of living thought? Are we cultivating questions and discussions? The third issue was really about the visitor. Designers and planners recognized that society was changing, partially because of the industrial revolution, and that there was a huge opportunity for education around things as simple as being polite. The museum's public, accessible space offered an opportunity for people of all backgrounds to gather, to watch and learn from each other. This concern over proper behaviour even translated into building design, with promenades, galleries, and elevated areas providing plenty of open space and ability for museum staff to keep an eye on visitors and address any "inappropriate" behaviour immediately. They also expected visitors to monitor and address issues as well, through disapproving looks or remarks.

Bennett reminds us that while western museums were some of the first public places that welcomed and encouraged women to visit (go equal rights!), this often came from a place of fear. Planners were afraid that museum crowds would turn into mobs, and that the buildings and collections would be damaged. They figured that men behave better when women are present, so if they encouraged men and women to visit museums as a social activity, this would help to maintain order. No I am not making this up.

He also faces colonialism head-on, and demonstrates how these racist attitudes have had a lasting impact on our societies. His discussion on chronological exhibit design will make you think.
"The devices which rendered human progress into a performable narrative within the museum entailed that only some humans and not others could recognize themselves as fully addressed by that narrative and thus be able to carry out its performative routines." Let's admit it, we've been really slow at changing out exhibits and labels and other interpretive text, so there is some insensitive information still being presented that definitely doesn't help in the era of reconciliation. I still sometimes see "Micmac" in Nova Scotia's museums, even though I remember being told clearly as a young child in school, "even though the textbook spells it Micmac, it should be spelled and pronounced Mi'kmaq". Not that I'm trying to age myself, but that was almost 30 years ago. I think it's time to show a little respect to our First Nation friends and neighbours.

Even our educational history is tarnished with elitist intentions. Bennett shares numerous quotes that illustrate the hope of museum founders to improve the morals and behaviour of the low classes in order to render them more acceptable to encounter while out in society. In the various quotes that Bennett shares on this subject, the museum planners come across as wanting to make things better for the privileged in society, rather than trying to help lift anyone out of poverty or illiteracy or ignorance. Believe it or not, instruction booklets for museum visitors were part of this process, and included things as fundamental as how to dress. They may speak of the benefits to the "lower classes", but their comments are dripping in elitism and a desire to make the spaces popular with the privileged.

In thinking about this complex and difficult past, Bennett encourages museums to look to their visitor statistics and make use of them (yes!!! a thousand times yes!). As he puts it, "studies of museum visitors thus make it abundantly clear not only that museum attendance varies directly with such variables as class, income, occupation and, most noticeable, education, but also that the barriers to participation, as perceived by non-attenders, are largely cultural. Those sections of the population which make little use of museums clearly feel that the museum constitutes a cultural space that is not meant for them - and, as we have seen, not without reason."

Aside from the different perspective presented, which I will be rolling into our Museums 101 course, finishing this book left me with a series of questions. I wonder what I've been programmed to understand as a museum. Do I behave differently when I'm in one? What are our true intentions when we develop programs, design exhibits, or seek partnerships. Have we shaken off our elitist history? Are we trying to be self-serving? Or are we legitimately trying to make our communities better for everyone?