The main function of museums has traditionally revolved around collecting, preserving, researching and displaying objects. In the last 50 years, a greater emphasis has been placed on exhibitions, interpretation, learning and audiences. Furthermore, the number of museums has grown dramatically in this period, with an incredible range of themes and subjects covered. Displays are still constructed essentially around objects, thus making material culture a key constituent of most museum interpretation narratives.
History consumed in museums is closer to what might be termed ‘public history’ than the history that circulates within the academy. Despite the rapid expansion of museum collections throughout the last century historians have preferred to research in the familiar comfort of the archive and the library rather than in the museum object store. Recently, historians have become more engaged by objects as new technology has resulted in digitised collections being made available through the internet. They have also become more involved in the development of new museum galleries and temporary exhibitions. The history of museums and of collecting has become a specialist field all of its own.
Any discussion of museums and history has to begin with the British Museum. What this museum says directly about the history of Britain is difficult to gauge and problematic. It is not a national history museum as such, unlike the National Museum of Scotland that tells ‘the story of Scotland, its land, its people and culture’. However, it does have displays that place British history in a European context, earlier periods treated in more depth than later ones. Other London museums provide further historical context to the modern age including the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in its permanent displays (with its central founding premise that it is about history rather than art), the Science Museum in its Making the Modern World gallery (which aims to set out the cultural history of industrialisation from 1750 to the present day) and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in its British Galleries (national design and decorative art history from 1500 to 1900).
The lead curators and academics involved with the latter display, when they undertook the ‘reconceptualistion’ of the galleries in the 1990s, found an ‘uneasy relationship with history in general and British history in particular’.(1) They had to think about what was ‘British’ for a post-colonial era and came up with a new approach in considering the museum’s applied art objects around the two themes of consumption and production. Other museums such as the Imperial War Museum (IWM) and the National Maritime Museum (NMM) have had to recast their historical narratives in relation to war, empire and discovery.
More recently, the British Museum has set out its stall for the 21st century as a ‘museum of the world’. Its collections are ‘worldwide in origin and intended for use by the citizens of the world’.(2) In 1998, the relocation of the British Library to a new building at St. Pancras left a void at the centre of the museum. The spectacular Great Court, billed as the largest covered public square in Europe, has transformed the old reading room and its surrounding space. This is an example of museum ‘statement architecture’, very much a feature of the age.
The British Museum sees itself primarily as a world museum of material culture and art. The new permanent Enlightenment exhibition (2003) in the King’s Library, created to celebrate the museum’s 250th anniversary, acts as a type of museum history lesson. It displays the sorts of collections that were acquired and donated during the 18th and early 19th century and interprets many of the key issues and objectives that lay at the heart of the early museum.
Another exhibition space, the Wellcome Trust Gallery, is home to a cross-cultural, semi-permanent exhibition based around the theme of well-being and health – Living and Dying. Taking objects from the museum’s as well as the Wellcome’s collections, the display aims to show how people and cultures ‘deal with the tough realities of life in many different ways’. As Tony Bennett has written
The result is an exhibition of a set of what are largely ‘disconnected diversities’ – disconnected from each other as well as from any particular histories connecting them to each other in either allied or hostile relations – as a testimony to the creative ordering capacity of human beings as evident in the varied way they respond to, and make sense of, death, pain, and suffering.(3)
Such differing displays set out the new role for the museum as a ‘universal survey museum’(4) alongside the more representative permanent displays and blockbuster exhibitions such as First Emperor and Hadrian that have taken over, at least temporarily, the old British Library reading room to great acclaim.
Another specific form of museum is the city museum with a chiefly urban history focus. Many were established in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century usually as a semi-official expression of civic identity. They took archaeology, antiquarian interests, topography, decorative and fine arts, linking them together to produce a popular social and cultural history of urban life. For a museum like the London Museum which opened in 1912 the aim was to ‘acquire objects of historic and local interest to Londoners and … exhibit many things which would find no place at the British or the V&A Museums, but which nevertheless are of value’.(5) As Cathy Ross has written this reflected
a type of ‘curiosity’ collecting that up until that point had been confined to private collectors but from that point forward developed into the institutional social history collecting that continues in city museums today. This type of collecting values objects not just as specimens in systematic object-based scholarship but as eloquent embodiments of human experience in all its chaotic, emotionally charged diversity … It was, as one headline writer of the time put it, ‘the most human museum, where a handkerchief is more useful than a notebook’.(6)
One level down from the national museums, the remit of the city museum has been directed towards the local or the regional. The ‘history from below’ approach has been used to showcase the lives of ordinary people. Major capital city museums are now also beginning to address the global as their audiences become increasingly culturally diverse. Oral history, both aural and on film, has driven such displays. A recent example was the temporary exhibition Belonging: Voices of London’s Refugees (2006–7) held at the Museum of London that challenged assumptions about refugees and explored their personal stories of loss, adaptation and achievement through their own voices.
Today, museums are viewed in many different ways. They are seen as businesses, storehouses of collections, exhibition and display venues, educational establishments, research organisations, communal spaces and places of memorialisation. Museums are often driven in new directions by national and local government policy. Curators continue to curate exhibitions and displays, shaping the main historical narratives and object interpretation alongside their colleagues involved in what is now called ‘learning’. In larger museums, curators have been downgraded in organisational terms over the last 30 years and frequently have no direct input into their museum’s top-level strategic planning.
The future direction of historical interpretation in museums is uncertain. ‘Hidden’, contentious and diverse histories are becoming mainstream. On one level, the displays created in 2007 to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade reveal some of the current broad practices.(7) Developed through consultation and partnership, a co-production with a range of organisations, communities and academics, and backed up by funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the exhibits highlight present-day issues, giving the main historical narrative of slavery and the slave trade contemporary relevance. Museums are encouraging history to be viewed where possible from multiple perspectives, catering for different learning styles and providing a space for dialogue and debate. They are not the only place in the public sphere where history is consumed but they do provide a unique environment for historical enquiry through their galleries, exhibitions and collections.
Alex Werner is Deputy Head of the Later London History and Collections Department, Museum of London.