What is a museum? What is the best way to define the role of a museum? Of course it contains objects, of course its role is to “represent” history, or art. Yes, to represent. Is a representation a synonim of the truth? Does it give us the full image of what we are observing as history, science or art?
A couple of days ago my personal definition of a museum changed completeley, and not in a good way. As a museum lover, I have always thought museums are not only responsible of managing great historical and artistic pieces, but to spread the wisdom of the magic contained behind their doors in an objective way. Last week I attended a conference dictated by Malena Bedoya about museological policies and the contemporary problematics museums have to face today. It was very intereseting and it opened my eyes to shocking facts I had not even though about before. Problematics, behind closed doors.
First of all, talking from a latin american perspective, how many people have questioned the origin of the pieces forming part of the amazing european museums such as Louvre or the British museum? What is the real origin of the collections? Many of the pieces contained in the collections of south american, asian, indian, egyptian, cutlures have not been taken with conscent, but form part of massive lootings and illegal merchandising. When this objects, that forms part of who we are, of who we were, enter a museum, become property of the museum, and stop belonging to us. The role of the museum then is to build intrigue and mistery around this object, interpretating its sense and it use, from a european perspective. Its important to underline that this problematic does not only focuses Europe but in fact, all over the world, due to the reality that every country, every culture interpretates this pieces in a completely different way from each other due to the cultural context they belong to. Then it would be fair to ask, how impartial is the information we recieve through a museum?
The second problematic I want to talk about is how the museum can become a “political space”. In Europe, most museums have the great luck of having private funds with which they can manage their costs but still depend on great part on loans from the government. In latin america this loans have a much greater importance for museums because most of them don’t really have their own incomes but depend on the ministry of culture to be able to promote the exhibitions. This is sad in the way that most latin american governments don’t see the investment in culture a priority right now, and because of that the quality in curatorial process, and prepared staff is not as high as we would want it to be. It has of course changed during the past years for the better, but we have still a long way to go. Do museums have more validation and credibility than independent galleries because of the fact of being promoted by governments? Not for me, but I know that they do for a great amount of people.
Museums today have the great honour and responsability to teach, and the ideal situation would be that they would be able to teach everybody. No matter their social class or status. In first world countries this is easier due to the fact that most people have access to igualitarian education. But the story changes when not everybody has the same access to basic services and consequently has no access to discover the inclosed culture museums present. It might seem culture is available just for some.
A museum for me is a place full of symbolism. A place of discovery, a place of enjoyment. But still it is a strange place. A space that offers only the opportunity to contemplate, we could call it a center of cultural consumption. A place that allows and restricts behaviours, that demands from us certain knowledge to understand it fully. It is not a neutral enviornment, due to the fact that there is people behind it. How this people make decisions, choose what to show or what to hide personifies this space and partialize it. That is why I think museums are settings of conflicts and polemics that make them succeed or fail as cultural sites depending on the people making decisions behind it. I feel research is indispensable to do this. Museums carry a huge weigth on their shoulders, they carry the colective memory of a society, they help building and presenting the cultural change in societies, and they influence us in a very individual way.