The main purpose of museums is neither to educate nor to entertain. Charles Saumarez Smith, director of the National Portrait Gallery, says museums are places of memoryby Charles Saumarez-Smith / July 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
One of the most memorable lectures I heard when I was on the staff of the Victoria and Albert Museum was a training talk given by Valerie Mendes, about her experiences of collecting examples of contemporary dress for the museum. She brought along a rail of 20th century frocks. To look at, they did not seem particularly interesting, rather like items of salvage from an expensive West End Oxfam shop. But, as she talked about them in turn and how she had acquired them, they became intellectually engaging. Each item ceased to be a bit of old fabric wrapped in tissue paper in the vaults of the museum and was transformed into something which not only had been made by a particular designer, but also had been bought by a particular person, used, loved, cared for, and sufficiently valued for it to be then considered worthy of presentation to a public collection.
I remember being struck by the contrast between the private life of the curator in a world concerned with the history of past experience, and the curator’s public obligations-documentation, classification, attribution and systematic record. This combination lies at the heart of the modern museum.
Many museums were founded as instruments of enlightenment thinking. Objects, pictures, coins, bones were removed from the private world of an individual’s collection into the public world of a museum, where they were stripped of previous associations and made available for public inspection as an item in a series, as an object type or an example of an artist’s oeuvre.
If museums are collections of artefacts, they are also research institutions. Once you have a comprehensive set of objects-the bones of the prehistoric dinosaur or the portraits of 18th century worthies-then you need people who will be responsible for further acquisitions, who are sufficiently knowledgeable about the subject area to make sensible choices, and to describe and record those acquisitions in a scholarly manner. This is the aspect of museums which has been most subject to attack in the last two decades, partly because it is not well known how much time and expertise the process of acquisition and identification requires; and partly because issues of classification and taxonomy have become unfashionable in the human, as well as in the biological, sciences.
In the past two decades, the two original purposes of museums-as collections of artefacts and as research institutions-have either been at…