The beginning of a long discussion of museums

Posted August 25th, 2014by Nate Wessel

I started to write a little post concisely stating my opinion of the Natural History Museum in London, which I recently visited, when I ran up against the apparent fact that I have no concise opinion on that matter. It seems that my thoughts are quite confused, complex and contradictory. The collection of the museum itself is all over the place, and doesn’t lend itself to a simple critique; between a childish insect exhibit and a ridiculously exhaustive gem collection, it’s own goals were ambiguous. On what ground would I even start?

What I’d like to do then is allow myself to write in an open-ended way on the topic of museums generally, with the hope that our other Meddlers With Nature will pick up on some of my thoughts here on the blog and help me develop them in further posts. We so often have these conversations over the phone or beer, but I’d like for once to document some of them and make them a touch more rigorous by making them explicit. So here goes!

I’m usually not sure what the point of a museum is, supposing that it’s not to entertain kids in the same way cartoons do. When I go to museums, I tend to want to bask in the presence of invaluable objects from history, and generally, to see properly masterful works of some sort. I want to feel awe. That’s why I tend to like places like Cathedrals and art deco skyscrapers.

I don’t know why other people go to museums. Many people seem to want to bring dreadful children, which may provide some indication of their inclinations. Perhaps they are trying to make them less dreadful somehow. Perhaps a museum should work like a nanny service.

I like a museum to make me feel tiny, and the Natural History Museum did do that, not least with their life-size blue whale replica.

Whales at the NHML

The slice of giant sequoia with rings going back well past the plague was also a good one. The tree was only(!) about four feet across when that whole Islam thing got started. Ten feet or so when Charlemagne was crowned, etc. I love that, even if I’ve seen the idea before somewhere else(California? Probably mind-blowing to the brits!).

big stump

I also got this sense all throughout the British Museum, which houses artifacts from basically all of human history. Ozymandias has always been one of my favourite poems, but you never quite feel it like you feel it when you’re actually standing in front of such a colossus. From god to shriveled ‘specimen’ in such a short time! Do you think future generations will dig up our own heros, and inspect their teeth to see what they ate? If we can dig up the Egyptian kings, how long will it be before we can dig up the US presidents? Famous writers? How long after an empire falls? Or does it even need to? Sacred objects from the British empire are clearly on profane display while it yet stands.

But I think that awe is not always best felt before humbled greatness, felled trees and dead whales. Do living things have a place in museums?

I suspect the presence of a still-living thing is what inspires me when I see some of the very old objects in the British Museum: the little clay stick-men and cave-wall inscriptions. It’s the depth of the life of humanity itself that gets to me. A long view down the giant.

Perhaps the point of a museum is to educate? When looking at the best educational exhibits, my interest is inevitably drawn by the art with which the content is presented.


To me, what’s interesting here is not the order of feathers or their relation, but the idea that they can be so neatly arranged. But perhaps that’s because I’m already familiar with he wing? Perhaps in the best educational exhibits I’m just less conscious that I’m being educated.

Perhaps the point of a museum is to house the best and most beautiful things in the world and thereby inspire the creators among us to new heights. This is the sort of feeling I had in the Musee d’Orsay. I felt nothing for most of the exhibits, but when I came to some of the neoclassical and art neuveau sculpture, I was giddily snapping pictures and taking notes which I’ll return to later. Clearly this was work with elements worthy of energetic immitation. In some of this work, you could just feel the craftsman masturbating over their skill with a chisel, etc. What other excuse could there be for such things?

Masturbatory Woodwork

But what an excellent challenge!

Is a museum like a library in this sense?

What are zoos supposed to be these days? Have they ever been…decent… things? Might they be? I ignore here the research and breeding purposes of zoos, and focus on the way almost everyone sees them. Why should research and conservation be attached to wanton spectacle anyway? Why should research professors teach undergrad survey classes? Why do our institutions keep dragging into the common mud those who hold some of our most pure ideals?(truth, conservation, disinterestedness) What would it look like to split these people out and fund them separately?

What are we to make of exhibits in the museum style which pander to the whims of children?

What is the point of a catelogue of things, available to the public for viewing and no more? I feel like a zoo, or the Natural History Museum’s mineral collection, or their bird collection, is like a public library that shows visitors the titles on their shelves(“Wow! They have a copy of…look at that!!”) but reserves reading for the staff.

mineral room

What do we see when we look at the bird displays, but a preserved specimen with a name?

Are we to be practicing for a pictorial Jeopardy? I’ve seen aquariums for example that take my implication here one tiny step forward with equally dissatisfying results, giving displays with names and one-liners like Genus Species: Lives in adjective nouns like Proper Noun. Displays *trivially whimsical behavior, no more than one sentence describing it*

And then there are the treasure parts of museums. Each has at least a little one, the epitome of which is the “Hope Diamond” display I saw last year in either NY or DC. A shiny rock with no significant history dazzles with it’s socially constructed value, which the museum obviously does nothing to question and everything to reinforce. The main element of all such displays is the valuation, because how else would we know, a literal statement of exactly how many dollars the jewel is supposed to be worth.

Am I getting anywhere here? All I actually wanted to do when I started this post was to share this silly little picture of me hanging out with the portrait of some cool bearded dude in a museum.

wallace and nate at the london natural history museum

I started wrapping that picture with reason, and found the reason lacking. Really, I have perhaps nothing but partly rhetorical questions and doubts about the legitimacy of pretty much every institution in the museum genre with the exception of circulating libraries.

Before asking others to catch up my loose threads, I’ll leave on this simple question: Has any museum been so masterful a concoction to warrant inclusion within itself? A 21st century museum of museums might be a poor thing indeed.

Posted in: Museums | Philosophy
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