‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’: The Redefinition of the Modern Museum

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: The Redefinition of the Modern Museum

Meighen Katz
(Monash University)

In the early 1970s, it was first postulated that museums might be re-defined as forums rather than the temple-like models that had previously prevailed. By the mid-1990s, it was a common debate within the museum world.[1] 

As museums moved away from the Victorian notion of museum as a civilising tool for the masses, museum professionals strove to include different perspectives, to apply less whitewash to history, and to recognise audiences as more than just willing sponges, unquestioningly absorbing the information with which they were presented. Museums shifted from the purely celebratory and often didactic model presented by the concept of ‘temple’ toward the notion of a ‘forum’ that could include many voices and many ideas, some in conflict with each other.

On the one hand, this process may seem like a fait accompli, such that the reformed model is now accepted as the norm. And yet, museums continue to struggle with this debate. It has been reframed into a question of the affirmative versus the critical, but the core conflict remains the same. One has only to look at the National Museum of Australia Review of Exhibitions and Programs conducted in 2003 to see proof of these continued tensions. The Review noted that the National Museum should be “balancing grand narratives with diverse and more modest stories”.[2] 

However, in analysing the actual exhibitions, the Review criticised the Horizons gallery in particular, because “it projects little sense of ‘exemplary individual group and institutional achievements’”.[3] The Review further complains that the immigration picture is misrepresented because the exhibitions infer that “Australians, once in the country have, via their institutions concertedly made laws and erected barriers to keep others out”; an inference not entirely out of step with several more difficult eras in Australian immigration history.[4] 

This desire for diversity, yet frustration at lack of celebration, clearly illustrates that the tension lives on. Perhaps it is because we must be careful not to simply ask ‘temple or forum?’, as though both are complete notions, uniform blocks that may replace one another. In truth, if there is to be reconstruction of the role of museums in society, then the implications of both ends of the spectrum must be considered, as must the process of transition itself.

The so-called ‘new museology’ incorporated changes that are taking place in the fields with which museums work in tandem. The evolution of social history gave weight to the voices of women and traditional minorities. It recognised oral histories and considered the stories of the every day. The art world has become retrospectively more inclusive, taking active steps to give value to works that had previously been bypassed due to the artist’s gender or race.

Archaeology and anthropology/ethnography have all changed their practices with regard to collection and description. There is less removal of cultural objects from sites, less talk of primitive cultures, more recognition of cultural tradition and ritual. In response, museums have adjusted. There have been changes to the choices of objects on display as well as to how the meanings of those displays are constructed and conveyed. In Australia, for example, secret sacred objects have largely been taken off public display, as have indigenous human remains.

It is important to remember, though, that this was a change led predominantly by museum professionals, responding to disciplinary developments as described. Museums are institutions that become deeply attached to both childhood memories and to notions of a societal self. If we acknowledge that in recent memory museums have been temples, then we must acknowledge that the changing of any temple, even one without religious overtones, is not a simple process and is often resisted.

Museums have earned a particular status in the public psyche. Rosenzweig and Thelen’s monumental study resulting in The Presence of the Past clearly identified museums as one of the most trusted historical sources. An American Association of Museums (AAM) commissioned survey found that 87 per cent of Americans found museums to be trustworthy, and that among those, 38 per cent considered museums to be one of the most trustworthy sources for education and information. Only 61 per cent found books to be trustworthy with newspapers and magazines considered untrustworthy.[5] While on the one hand it is heartening to be considered credible, this also reflects a trend that says that Americans are more critical and questioning of what they read than what they see in their museums. So what is the public reaction when these museums begin to question themselves?

In discussing the Smithsonian before the 2002 Museums Australia (MA) conference, Zahava Doering used words such as “icon” and “pilgrimage”. She characterised it as an institution that American audiences seek out not to gain new information so much as to have their place in the world reconfirmed. They go for the inspirational and uplifting, not to ask questions about the nature of their nation or society, concluding with the position that:

National museums…exist in order to socialise the citizenry into accepting the values and authority of the majority.[6]

Taken as a whole we may interpret this position to be that museums, at least national museums, should be temples and this is in fact what audiences both expect and desire. Susan A. Crane adds to this by stating that:

Assuming that our own memories are fallible we rely on museums as well as historians to get the past right for us.[7]

The AAM survey further supports Crane’s position with President and CEO Edward H. Able Jr. reporting:

A 1998 book, The Presence of the Past, which documented Americans’ trust of Museums’ treatment of history, indicated that Americans believe museum accounts of history even more than first hand accounts by their own relatives.[8]

If the public truly desires a temple, what then is the justification for not fulfilling that desire? Why should our museums not continue as they have, presenting and commemorating that about which we are most proud? The answer lies in the temple’s shortcomings. These failures occur on several levels. Firstly, the temple assumes a universal desire to identify with the dominant tradition. In the second half of the twentieth century there has been rapid social change and re-identification among many Western countries. Whether this has taken the form of the American Civil Rights movement, the Australian Indigenous Land Rights movement, Quebecois separatism, the re-unification of Germany, the end of the Communist Bloc, or the opening of the Scottish parliament, we have seen many changes of alliance and of socio-political behaviour during the last fifty years. If the museums fail to recognise the voices of these power groups, then the citizenry they represent will fail to recognise the museum. Any institution, any temple, must have at least tacit support to continue to exist. The difficulty in Doering’s position is that in today’s society a temple is very difficult to maintain. Can one celebrate the inspirational achievements of the Civil Rights movement, without acknowledging the inherent and institutionalised racism that made it necessary? And, in a period where political viewpoints change radically in a short period of time, what are the values of the majority? Do the majority of Australians agree with detention centres for refugees in spite of the fact that the UN has declared them to be counter to basic human rights? Should the National Museum of Australia (NMA) celebrate detention centres or will they find themselves quickly representing an outdated position?

The second failing of temple/museums springs from the continuing development of the fields of knowledge on which curators draw to present exhibitions. The difficulties that the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum faced in their ill-fated attempt to stage a 1995 exhibition around the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima, have many origins. However, one of the primary problems was that within academia, the fifty years since the dropping of the A-bomb have involved much discussion as to whether the act was necessary and justifiable.

As historians, the curators felt compelled to incorporate the many views. However, as public historians they underestimated the dichotomies between the views of scholars and of the public and/or veterans. More importantly, they underestimated the ‘temple’ role of the institution. The proposed exhibition tried to approach the bombing from many perspectives including those of the crew and those of the victims. It also queried, as had academics, whether the dropping of the bomb was justified, or whether it was the first act of nuclear proliferation. On the other hand, it did acknowledge the expectation that an invasion of Japan would have cost tens of thousands of lives and the fact that after V-E day, President Truman was under intense pressure to end the war. However, such was the power vested in the museum by the public to present the true and trustworthy form of history (if we accept Crane and the AAM), that the questions asked were seen as an indictment of those who were involved rather than an exploration of ideological positions. While this could be seen as a failing of the forum rather than the temple, the larger problem stems from the fact that the model of the temple does not allow for the scope of existing scholarship to be accurately portrayed.

Some may argue that it is not the role of the museum to keep apace with academia. However, as the shifting perspectives and approaches filter into the lower levels of education, these perspectives, as others before them, will enter into the more publicly accepted bodies of knowledge. If museums fail to keep abreast of trends in academia, they will come to be seen as old fashioned, not because of technological shortcomings, but because of their failure to recognise, let alone address, the issues with which their societies struggle. It is one thing to say that people come to museums to affirm their understanding of their place in the world, but if museums fail to recognise that world as imperfect, they ultimately let their audiences down by creating a false realm in which to place themselves. No museum director would ever position their institution as one which exists to perpetuate ignorance, and yet the model of the temple ultimately does just that.

The emotional response to museums is not to be underestimated, however. Doering’s assessments must not be dismissed lightly for they reflect the position that many audience members hold as they enter a museum, particularly a national museum. Even an exhibition that attempts to be factually balanced, therefore, may let down its visitors in its failure to recognise that its position may be contrary to that of dearly-held beliefs or “knowledge”, and has, in fact, come no closer to a model of the forum, as it excludes the audience from the discourse. As Crane states:

What the Enola Gay controversy exposed were the scars of memory which historical interpretation and education have not helped to heal.[9]

Little in the disciplines that museums contend with is simply black or white. As such, it is possible to be true to the knowledge of the discipline and yet uphold an ongoing national mythology. In contrast to, or perhaps as a result of, the controversy that surrounded the Enola Gay, the National Museum of American History (NMAH) staged a successful exhibition, also in 1995, commemorating the conclusion of the Second World War. The exhibition entitledWorld War II: Sharing Memories, employed a multi-faceted approach and succeeded in encompassing some aspects of the forum.

Objects were chosen not only for their significance but also for their ability to invoke memory and multiple stories, such as a gas-rationing card, a common item on the American home front, which happened to belong to Mrs Truman. Recognition of segregation and labour movements was present but not invasive. War art was used instead of photography as it was seen as intrinsically more interpretative. Finally, there were books in which the visitors were encouraged to write their own memories of the period both first hand and acquired.[10] By this simple element the curators were able to share interpretative authority without diminishing professional standards. The exhibition was successful partly because it allowed for many voices, including those of the audience.

What the model of forum provides is not a solution to the problems of inclusivity on both a social and intellectual level, but rather a framework within which to approach the problem. A forum argues that society is in a constant struggle, and that to understand the struggles, we must first understand the context within which they originate. As Dawn Casey, former Director of the National Museum of Australia, describes it:

Essentially, we provide a forum for debate by offering a reflective space in which people can consider issues in context – against their historic background. We offer comfortable spaces and a stimulus for thought -’a safe place for unsafe ideas’ as the museum consultant Elaine Gurian says.[11]

The inclusion of multiple perspectives, of a post-structural polyphonic approach, is not to be mistaken for an absence of curatorial voice. Nor is it to suggest that objects be allowed to speak for themselves without interpretation. However, at times it may mean adapting that curatorial voice. Moya McFadzen of Museum Victoria described the process by which the museum curators approached renovations to the content of the Impressions Gallery at the Immigration Museum. Research among visitors found that what they desired was a more factual context with which to reference the Australian immigration experience. Therefore the decision was made that, unlike the rest of the museum which focuses on individual stories and emotional response, this gallery would focus on policy. Through a process of historical juxtaposition, the curators attempted to create a whole picture of the Australian position on who is allowed to immigrate.[12] In admitting some of her own difficulties in approaching the subject in this way McFadzen states:

What I’m trying to suggest is that with emotive and contentious issues, particularly those in which people already seem to be feeling manipulated, museums may be able to play the role that people used to look to the press to play – just give them the facts… I want people to leave the exhibition wondering if our current humanitarian program could be more generous, especially when compared with former times. I want people to have a dawning realisation of how trying and complex the immigration process can be and to ask themselves ‘would I get in, if I tried now, fifty or a hundred years ago?’ I want people to look at a simple document like a post-WWII identification certificate and understand how much rides on proof of identity. Undoubtedly I have certain motives -but must allow people to pick up the messages they can or are willing to.[13]

A true forum still presents ideas and arguments but it acknowledges that they are not absolute. Furthermore, it recognises that audiences bring with them a perspective, an emotional response, and a history all their own. As McFadzen’s realisation illustrates, a forum allows audiences to find only the celebratory, if that is all they are willing to see, but does not shy away from presenting that which will inspire questions or thoughts. Ultimately, though, it places responsibility for those questions back in the hands of the visitors. A forum requires that curators must engage in true dialogue.

However, we must recognise from the Enola Gay and other similar incidents, that it is unfair to expect the public to make the transition as swiftly or as surely as museum professionals have. Crane suggests that:

The more curators or historians make themselves visible to museum visitors, the more visitors react warily, unsure if they are really being asked to engage in discussion or whether they are simply being instructed in a new way.[14]

Ultimately, the solution for all parties comes in the realisation that sometimes it is not a matter of “temple or forum” but “how much temple and how much forum?” Individual exhibitions would then be constructed with a view to achieving a balance determined by the subject matter. Several major museums including the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), and the National Museum of American History held special exhibitions in honour of the first anniversary of the September the 11th terrorist attacks. At the Corcoran and the MCNY the exhibitions were both visual, consisting predominantly of photography, with some use of children’s art at the MCNY.[15] The NMAH also included photographs, but added objects from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as well as witness statements.[16]

In all cases, though, the exhibitions explore the experience rather than the event. That is to say, they reflect upon the emotions raised and the images captured and remembered. They do not explore the reasons behind the actual attacks, nor the impacts beyond the very immediate . An exhibition that did attempt such dissection would not only, in all likelihood, attract public outcry, it would also attract critical complaint.

Not enough is yet known about what engendered the attacks or what the results will ultimately be in terms of the United States’ relationship both with its own citizens and with the rest of the world. After fifty years have passed, it is possible that an exhibition which critically explores the larger issues may be more readily received in all arenas. However, as with the bombing of Hiroshima, curators will need to recognise the emotional content as well as the historical questions.

Finally, it is important to note that to enter the realm of the forum is to acknowledge the political aspects of museums. To be a temple is to attempt (though not always successfully) to claim status above politics, to be a shrine aloof from debate. As the forum focuses on debate, it must also focus on the politics. In rebutting some of the criticism levelled at the National Museum of Australia, Graeme Davison argues:

Even in the narrowest and most obvious sense, these debates are political debates: the critics are generally strong supporters of the Howard Government…and the hostility to the museum’s interpretation of contact history is inseparable from the government’s stance on issues of Aboriginal reconciliation, native title, stolen children and the like.[17]

The ramifications of moving forward towards forum, in such a case, can loom large. Dawn Casey notes that it “can be a dangerous business”.[18] McFadzen allows that the possibility of alienating political parties has to be considered in deciding the curatorial voice.[19] Davison points out that, for many museums, it is the government paying the piper and so calling, or at least attempting to call the tune.[20] In considering politics, perhaps the best advice comes from politicians. Abraham Lincoln, a much-loved American president, whose likeness is enshrined at the Smithsonian, pointed out that it is impossible to “please all of the people, all of the time”.

In light of these sage words, museums must strive to adopt practices that therefore make them adaptable to change on all levels, and which seek to encompass many voices of influence without becoming Babel. In our current climate, this is most likely to be some type of forum, but as professionals we must be aware that this is not, nor will it ever be, an absolute solution. Perhaps we must all strive to create institutions which earn similar kudos as the National Museum of Australia :

They’ve come up with a museum in motion, small in scale but big in ideas, supple and sexy where museums can often be solemn monuments to nationhood.[21]

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Notes

[1] Steven C. Dubin, Displays of Power: Memory and Amnesia in the American Museum, New York University Press, New York and London 1999, p. 252. Back

[2] National Museum of Australia Review of Exhibitions and Programs, p. 7. Back

[3] National Museum of Australia Review of Exhibitions and Programs, p. 22. Back

[4] National Museum of Australia Review of Exhibitions and Programs, p. 36. Back

[5] Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelan,The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, Columbia University Press, New York, 1998. American Association of Museums,Americans identify a source of information they can really trust, press release, St. Louis, Missouri May 7, 2001 . AAM President Edward H. Able also made reference to the The Presence of the Past and to another survey commissioned by architectural firm Ueland Junker to further support the AAM’s findings. Back

[6] Zahava D. Doering, “Serving the Nation: Lessons from the Smithsonian”, paper presented at the Museums Australia National Conference, Adelaide Conference Centre, South Australia, 2002.Back

[7] Susan A. Crane, “Memory, distortion and history in the museum”, History and Theory, Vol 36, No. 4, December 1997, p. 51. Back

[8] American Association of Museums,Americans identify a source. Back

[9] Crane, “Memory, distortion and history”, p. 62. Back

[10] Steven Lubar, “Exhibiting Memories”, in Henderson, Amy & Kaeppler, Adrienne L., (eds), Exhibiting Dilemmas,Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1997, pp. 15-25.Back

[11] Dawn Casey, “Museums as agents for social change”, address to National Press Club, Canberra, ACT, March 18, 2002. Back

[12] Moya McFazden, “From dictation test to detention centers: exhibiting controversy, past and present”, paper presented at the Museums Australia National Conference, Adelaide Conference Centre, Adelaide, South Australia, 2002. Back

[13] McFazden, “From dictation test to detention centers”, p. 5. Back

[14] Crane, “Memory distortion and history”, p. 48. Back

[15] See http://www.corcoran.org/exhibtions/hereisnewyork/hny_1.htm, http://www.mcny.org/Collections/911/cityresilient.htm and http://www.thedayourworldchanged.org. Back

[16] http://americanhistory.si.edu/september11/exhibition/highlights.asp. Back

[17] Graeme Davison, “Museums and national identity”, paper presented at the Museums Australia National Conference, Adelaide Conference Centre, Adelaide, South Australia, 2002, p. 1.Back

[18] Casey, “Museums as agents for social change”. Back

[19] McFazden, “From dictation tests to detention centers”, p. 3. Back

[20] Davison, “Museums and national identity”, p. 5. Back

[21] Casey, “Museums as agents for social change”, quoting Michael Fitzgerald of Time Magazine. Back