This question, which seems an excellent way to begin the MGHG blog, was also the essential question posed at a roundtable discussion at the Leicester University School of Museum Studies 50th anniversary conference, Museums in the Global Contemporary: Debating the Museum of Now (20-22 April 2016), organised by the MGHG. For me, although this conference was over a year ago, it raises issues which are still valid and reveals some potential problems and opportunities for the group as it seeks to ‘promote the study of the history and theory of museums’. A key problem, or potential problem, was the very title of the conference which prompted the roundtable: the museum of NOW. Do museums, and museum studies as a discipline, have any interest in the past of museums, and should they? Museums in general do not devote a great deal of attention to investigating their own past despite the fact that they use it on an almost daily basis, working with accession numbers and indeed entire collections which were assembled sometimes considerable time ago, and often inhabiting buildings designed for earlier understandings of display. Of course, in most cases such a lack of interest in the past is a result of practical constraints, above all on curatorial time and energy; but is it also produced by a growing rhetoric (emanating from funding and governmental bodies, not museums themselves, I think) tending to equate change with progress and to reject a good deal of museums’ pasts as elitist? Graham Black has accused museums today of a certain ‘amnesia’ about what they were actually like in the past in order to throw into relief their current democratic, inclusive and useful credentials, but it can seem like an article of faith that museums are throwing off the outmoded practices of the past in order to be relevant to contemporary society.
For the roundtable, a number of academics and practitioners, and practitioner-academics, gave their thoughts on the value of studying museums’ history. I introduced the discussion with my own thoughts on the issue; as a historian not a museologist or curator, I see self-evident value in museum history as part of the cultural history of the period. But I don’t think the value stops there or that museum history doesn’t have value for museums now. Conal McCarthy, of Victoria University Wellington (NZ) spoke next, and highlighted what he felt was a problematic lack of knowledge among museum practitioners about museum history – he argued that they had no sense of their institutions as having a past which shaped their present, and that more emphasis on museum history in training programmes would allow professionals to understand how practices have evolved and are contingent. Bronwyn Labrum, of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, was also concerned with what she described as the ‘amnesia’ of current museums, leading to a lack of awareness of the possibility of doing things differently. Provocatively, she suggested that museums today were more interested in bling buildings than in history of any sort.
Chris Whitehead, of Newcastle University, suggested rather that museums and galleries were worried that they might seem to be navel gazing if they investigated their own history; there was a perceived need to be forward-looking. Yet, he suggested, if we see museums as places (and, I would add, as communities), then they needed to be understood as coming into being historically. Alan Crookham, of the National Gallery, tackled an issue maybe more true for art galleries, that institutional history needed to be investigated to prevent the creation of hagiographies around important donors, founders and directors. He argued that reflection on institutional history could prevent a somewhat regressive attitude whereby the past acted as a ‘dead hand’. For him it was not just about paying attention to museum history, but about paying critical attention to it. Simon Knell, of Leicester University, was similarly interested not just in investigating museum history, but in investigating it for specific purposes – using it to counter reductionism and to enable or de-essentialise groups who had been excluded.
Overall, then, there was a sense that if as a museum you know your own history, then you ‘know thyself’ in important ways. Such historical understanding, though, needs to be approached in the right way, and not just used to shore up existing attitudes. One comment on the session suggested that the point of museum history had not been nailed down – ‘it depends’. I’m pretty happy with this as the answer – I don’t think that history should have a preordained job to do with regard to museums and galleries; that way lies poor history and a failure to leave room for what we could know if we looked further. Although the same response suggested that it wasn’t enough to do museum history for the sake of it, I disagree – I’m happy to see some instrumental work which is focused on particular contemporary problems, but I think where there is the time and resource for ‘blue sky’ museum history research, it can reveal the full richness of a past which could help current institutions in ways we can’t yet imagine. But does the ‘luxury’ of such research mean only academics and large institutions can undertake it, and what does this mean for small institutions and their lively history of making do and managing with little?
I presume as MGHG members you’re all already convinced of the value of museum history – but why? Where does it lie? Who or what are we doing it for? And is there a dichotomy between present-focused and antiquarian historical research in this area?
Dr Kate Hill, Chair of the Museums and Galleries History Group