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 war with, or been replaced by, two new purposes.
The first one is the museum as educational resource. This is where most political capital is to be gained, as I know from the experience of our annual visitation from members of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, when half a dozen men in grey suits troop through the Gallery looking bored until they come to the areas devoted to educational activities; their eyes light up as they see something of which they think their ministers will approve.
The truth is that much of what museums and galleries do is not in any straightforward way educational. If children want to learn about dinosaurs, then they are more inclined to do so from books, and CD-Roms, to which a large proportion of the population now has access. They will visit the Natural History Museum not in order to learn about dinosaurs, although they may do this in passing, but in order to authenticate the reality of the existence of dinosaurs, to see and experience, so far as is possible, what dinosaurs looked like. (Sadly the Natural History Museum, in its anxiety to be seen as a modern institution, has abolished dinosaurs and replaced them with computer terminals, which children can just as well consult at home). I am not convinced that people come to the National Portrait Gallery in order to learn about British history in a conventional sense. Do they want to know when Sir Alec Douglas-Home was prime minister when they look at his portrait? No. They are looking for a different experience of the past from that which they can obtain by conventional methods of learning. Museums may be educational, but they are essentially an experiential, rather than an academic, form of learning.
The second new purpose is the museum as leisure attraction. When the history of the postwar museum comes to be written, this will be seen as the key modus operandi of museums in the 1980s-when the Natural History Museum sent its staff to be trained at Disney University, when the ticket gates were installed, and the V&A advertised itself as an ace caff with not a bad museum attached. All of this now has a dated feel to it; museum directors no longer want their museums to look like motorway service stations at off-peak hours. The problem is that if we want to treat museums simply as leisure attractions, then the private sector is almost certainly better at providing them and the argument for public subsidy disappears.
I am not convinced that members of the public want museums to provide the same experience as they receive elsewhere, as is evident from the widespread public unease about the levels of investment going into the Millennium Dome. What is the point of spending more than the cost of the British Library on a structure whose contents consist, so far as we can tell, of superficial simulation?
It is more useful to consider the metaphor of the museum as memory bank. Memory is an essential attribute of the human psyche: the way we think about and order the experience of the past not just as history, which is systematic and sequential, but as memory, which is more personal, more concerned with the experience of the past.
The idea of museum as memory bank encapsulates the public roles and responsibilities of museums. It connects museums to their 17th century origins as cabinets of curiosities. In their origins, museums were not places of enlightenment order, but places of wonder, where you might expect to find an elephant’s tusk next to a portrait. The museums which have the greatest grip on the popular imagination are not those which are most modern and systematic, but often those which are most disorderly and individual, like Sir John Soane’s museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields or the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford. The experience in these places is not of history, ordered and systematic, but of memory, provocative and strange.
Thinking about museums as memory banks is also in line with recent developments in museums internationally. The obvious examples are the growing number of museums devoted to the record of the Holocaust. Less obvious are the experiments in connecting the world of popular taste and collecting through local “People’s Shows” pioneered in Britain by the Walsall Museum and Art Gallery.
Thinking of museums in this way also provides the best explanation of why people are visiting them in greater numbers. At the National Portrait Gallery, I have always felt it to be inadequate to think of 1m visitors coming to see a “1066 and All That” account of British history. Nor do people necessarily come to look at portraiture as an art form. They come because the images prompt the creation of an individualised recollection of people in the past which operates in the realm not of narrative history, but of public and private memory.
Finally, thinking about museums as memory banks provides a weapon for public advocacy. My experience of the public funding of culture is that simplicity is essential in the arguments about the allocation of national resources. Thinking about museums as memory banks provides a simple and memorable metaphor. It also connects museums back to the world of complex intellectual and aesthetic experience, the exploration of public and institutional memory. It takes them away from the superficial and ephemeral worlds of simple learning machines or simulated experience. It gives them back their historic identity.