Museum Pieces

Julian Spalding argues that museums should re-evaluate their purpose and practices.

Museums aren’t doing enough to interest people in history. This might seem an odd claim to make. Do museums not exist to preserve the past? Are they not the stuff of history itself, and thus beyond criticism? But the fact is that they are not using their unique public platforms, many sited in the centres of the world’s major cities, nearly well enough to promote a wider understanding of the past.

Museums are, like everything else, products of history. They have all changed a great deal over time and can change again. They need to. Museums spring, essentially, from the Enlightenment. The British Museum was founded in 1753, a century-and-a-half after Galileo, but a hundred years before Darwin. The rapidly accumulating collections in the world’s first public museums were a by-product of the birth of modern science, when researchers made discoveries by building collections – a devil’s toenail, for example, entered museums as an object of wonder only later to be re-labelled as the fossil of an extinct oyster.

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