Museum History – The Keepers of the Real

In a world of plastic and digital recreations, museums are the keepers of the real thing. They preserve and interpret artifacts, bones and photos that show us what our ancestors were up to and sometimes, even, long-extinct monsters. As repositories of the past, they are a powerful link to other worlds, a place that can provide a sense of unity and meaning for a people on both a global and local scale.

Museums have a rich history, with a variety of founding motivations: to serve as recreational facilities; scholarly venues; educational resources; or to promote civic pride and nationalistic endeavors. While they reveal a remarkable diversity in form, content and function, all museums are bound by their dedication to preserving and interpreting some aspect of human culture.

The first museums were often small, displaying collections that had been collected by individuals or groups before the establishment of the institution. The word “museum” itself is thought to come from the nine Muses, the Greek goddesses of inspiration. But the concept of a museum as an organized repository of cultural and natural heritage has grown rapidly in recent times.

In the aftermath of World War II, many museums underwent a great transformation. They shifted from serving just the scholar, as befits an institution that holds much of the primary evidence of the material world, to also providing for a wide audience. Museums began to employ designers to help with exhibition work, education managers to develop facilities for students and the public and information scientists to handle the scientific data inherent in large, research-oriented collections.

These changes helped museums to become more popular and better able to meet their mission: To discover, interpret, and disseminate knowledge about human cultures and the natural world through scientific research, education, and exhibition. This is still the basic mandate of museums today, but they are now more visible and accessible than ever before.

This era of change was not without its challenges, though. The growing globalization of the world’s population brought with it a new set of demands for museums. Some of these demands were more political than others, with museums having to grapple with questions of social justice, race and identity.

The NMAAHC’s decision to leave the noose hanging from the tree was a powerful reminder that museums need to continue to evolve as they confront the needs of our diverse, modern society. The institution’s former director described the noose as a “symbol of extreme violence and hatred for African Americans,” making its continued presence in the museum all the more relevant to our current climate of racial tension, xenophobia and anti-immigration rhetoric. In a world where many museums and books offer only one dominant viewpoint of our shared history, the role of a museum is crucial to countering that imbalance by telling stories from minority cultures. We hope to bring you more about this exciting and complicated museum history in future articles! The Cedarhurst Center for the Arts and Goldman-Kuenz Sculpture Park look forward to the future of museums and are excited to be a part of that evolution.