Museums are the collective memory of society: they are the dusty attic of a nation. They are places to visit with granny on a summer holiday, a place to carry out school projects, a place to understand how things were made, done or discovered and a place to hear stories told and bought to life with artefacts and treasures. They are also, as today, a place to meet an old friend for coffee. The museum as an idea and the museum as a place. Two very different things, but both helping us to define both our ‘selves’ and our society.
We make conscious choices every day. What shoes to wear, what necklace or watch, which bag to carry and where to eat lunch. We decide what to buy and what to throw away. We live our lives in a blur of decisions and consumption, but along the way we collect memories and things. The memories live in our heads whilst the things decorate our homes (or hang from our bodies!). Hats, books, paintings, tattoos, all pattern our lives and colour our memories.
Walk into my house, browse my bookshelves, look at what sits on my mantlepiece and you will see a picture of my life painted in the things propped up there: a stone picked up from a beach, an old box of matches, a sketch from a holiday.
Museums do this for a nation. They are the cupboard of society, the place we put things we are proud of, the things we have collected or the things we don’t know what to do with but don’t want to throw away. They are places to marvel and places to learn.
The role of the curator in the museum is to tell the story, to present collections within a coherent narrative, which may be along a timeline, from old to new, or may be themed around something else, such as a collection of Picasso paintings or a collection of kettles of different materials.
The process of visiting a museum is something different for each of us and different at different times. Today, the museum is a backdrop for me, a place to meet and drink coffee. Why here? Why not Starbucks? Because i guess it has more value, value that is imbued by the presence of artefacts. Somehow the authenticity of the artefact is more ‘real’ than the faux decoration and emulated authenticity of a ‘real’ coffee shop. Culture is layered, inspired by a love or a hatred of what came before. Don’t like this kettle? Design a new one that either celebrates the best features or casts them aside and is boldly different. Either way, without the reference point of the old, the new has no conception.
So, in some way, museums have an naturally imbued authenticity, there is something about an ‘original’ that is worth more than a copy. Is it the fact that someone famous or steeped in history once touched it, once crafted it? Where does the value lie? I guess it lies in both the physical traits of the object and in the associated values. A suit of armour that belonged to Henry VIII is valued because of the metal it is made of, but also because he once stood within it. Because his eyes once roved over the patterns that i now see. Because he touched it with his hands, providing a link between the object i see now and the abstract notion of a person from history. It provides a concrete anchor to the abstract notion of history.
That we value museums for their educational value is clear from the hordes of school children swarming around the physical museum and occasionally interacting with the concepts contained within it. For some, it’s just a place to hare around and shout in, which is just the less grown up version of me sitting here drinking coffee with a friend. We are both using the museum as a space to live in. Sometimes though, we see something that catches our eye, we start to feel some connection with an object and, occasionally, we stop to read more, to discover how it relates to the object next to it and, possibly, how it fits into our wider schema of how the world works and our place within it.
The museum as a place and an idea sit at the heart of how we define society, a place informed by the past, but living in the present. Museums are places to learn, but also places to live today. And who’s to say which of those things is the most important.