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Museums: Dilemmas and Paradoxes

Keith Thomson

Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust doth corrupt.

—Gospel according to St. Matthew

We are all daily in violation of multiple Biblical injunctions—coveting this or that, for example—but, as someone whose scholarly work is conducted in museums, I always feel particularly awkward about this one. Laying up treasures is just what museums are for. Rust, moths and a thousand other kinds of pestilence (especially Insecta: Dermestidae) are our ancient adversaries.

People who work in museums are a lot like the fabled King Canute, remembered for plunking his throne on the beach and commanding the tide not to come in. He got wet. By creating museums, we try to stop the tides of entropy and decay from ruining our earthly treasures. Whether we can permanently avoid getting wet is a difficult question.

A spectacular recent case of true treasure laying up is the project to restore the huge flag from Fort McHenry (Baltimore), which, of course, was originally made without any intention that it should last forever. The latest price tag for preserving it is $18 million (soon you will be able to buy a Jasper Johns painting of a flag for that!). Perhaps I am in the minority for believing such an expenditure to be close to a foolish sentimentality. All the powerful symbolism of the flag exists quite independently of the object itself, and most people do not require this particular flag to be any more concrete than Washington's cherry tree. Perhaps making it real even diminishes it. But it has survived, tattered and falling apart, and is therefore a terrible responsibility.

For the money spent to preserve this single artifact one could do a lot of good work in some existing museums or (Heaven forbid) found a new one or two. Beyond simple cash, however, the example of the flag causes us to ask a deeper and nastier question: Must every symbol be made patent and material? Must every possible artifact and natural object be collected and saved? How, where? And why?

Evidently we do think everything must be saved, for we are building museums at a phenomenal rate to hold all our "stuff"—more than one a week for the past few decades. It is rumored that a few years ago museums were being founded at a rate of one per day.

Material things—artistic, natural, historical, technological, frivolous, serious, dead, alive, sublime, trivial—occupy a place of unusual importance in our 20th-century lives. Not only do we create and use material objects on a scale never seen before, we also study them intensively and collect them passionately. The institutions that hold these objects for the public—museums, defined broadly—play an ever-growing role in the collection, preservation, study and use of all this richness of nature and talent.

Science has contributed greatly to the tasks of preservation, conservation and restoration of all material objects. But it has not succeeded in driving down the price of these functions, and perhaps even the opposite is true. Meanwhile there is much we lack: a safe, effective insecticide for museum collections, for example. Science has been particularly useful in making the inventories of museums more accessible through electronic means, and we are just on the edge of broad access to images of museum objects—again, all at huge cost.

But, of course, nothing electronic will substitute for the one essential role of the museum—to present the "real thing." Certainly, an electronic image of the venation of a bee wing can be transmitted across the world and provide an identification. But no reproduction of the Louvre's Winged Victory of Samathrace or of the Rembrandts stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum can substitute for the real object.

In a highly materialistic world our obsession with the physical objects of culture is hardly surprising. The museum collections of America are a treasure beyond the dreams of avarice, comprising perhaps more than a billion paintings, drawings, sculptures, thousands of houses and estates, ships and railways, countless antiquities, ethnographic and archaeological specimens, and more than a billion natural history specimens. Whereas nature in all its glory created many of these objects, honest toil and occasionally genius created the rest. Emperors and barbarians of every age have killed for such treasures (often for these very ones). They are the material manifestation of something intangible and precious: our cultural heritage.

Our culture has evolved in a strangely Darwinian way. We have built it only on fragments of the past rather analogous to the chance mutations that nature throws in the path of evolving organisms. We take these scraps and make major landmarks out of them. Particularly in the past 150 years, we have worked to construct our own histories by using not just all the written documents but also the "objects" of history in a sort of intellectual back casting that authenticates our roots. And so we collect and preserve everything we can, and everything is given cultural value and meaning, trash and all.

In America's museums you can find everything from the guns with which Lincoln and Kennedy were shot to last year's computers, from Mongolian dinosaurs to butterflies from Fiji. We have museums dedicated to Andy Warhol, American Indians, the pretzel and the mushroom. And why not? "Out there" among the general public, the "collecting" hobby has become an even more madcap, high-stakes business. A brief look at the contents of what is (often rather disingenuously) called an antiques store, or reference to the multitude of books devoted to "Collectibles" and their prices, will show the scale of the problem. Everything is being saved and collected—1950s plastic cap pistols, Barbie (of course), and toothpicks, beer cans, mass-produced "collectible" plates and dolls.

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