What Good Are Museums?

What good are museums? Some folks think they’re no good at all, certainly not worth funding when budgets get tight. Even people who are generally supportive of museums might be tempted to think of them as one of life’s frills, not truly necessary in the face of more pressing needs.

David Grabitske, Manager of Outreach Services at the Minnesota Historical Society, recently asked visitors to the MHS Local History Weblog to provide “compelling reasons” why history museums ought to garner more support in his post “Why so bleak?”. (Web link to article: http://discussions.mnhs.org/MNLocalHistory/2011/01/04/why-so-bleak/) Staff at the Morrison County Historical Society discussed this blog post and came to some lofty conclusions.

Museums are purveyors of immortality. The drive to live forever is strong in human beings. It’s why so many of our religions contain a provision for life in a heavenly afterworld. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that afterworld actually exists, so we have to find ways in the here and now to hedge our bets. We have children so that our genes and values will continue on after we die. We create books and paintings and buildings and letters and photos so that some thing will remain as evidence of our existence. And, we establish museums to hold our things because organizations have a greater potential to outlive us. The Morrison County Historical Society, for example, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. The organization has outlived its founders, yet the history of its founders continues on inside the walls of The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum.

Personal immortality isn’t the only function museums serve. They also preserve society’s collective memory, stitching together the histories of individuals into the larger fabric of cultural expression, be it through language, mode of living, tools, major events, achievements or failures. Because museums are scattered throughout the world, each can focus on the particular culture endemic to its locale, thus rooting a community more firmly to its geography, giving it not only a physical place to reside, but a spiritually meaningful one as well.

Do not underestimate the importance of this institutional concentration of collective memory. While museums may give the appearance of being nonessential, when there is political or social unrest, museums are often among the first targets for destruction. The current upheaval in Egypt is a case in point. Reports of threats to Egyptian museums by looting and fire were ongoing via Twitter. Why are museums, which are supposedly trifling when it comes to balancing budgets, targeted? Partially because they contain monetarily valuable items, but when the situation involves one cultural group attempting to conquer another, the real goal is to erase the collective memory of the vanquished group. If that collective memory can be suppressed for long enough, the winners in a conflict can assimilate the losers and quash potential rebellion by submitting them to their own cultural mores. In light of this, museums don’t seem so inconsequential or disposable, do they?

But when there is a lack of funding, can’t we pick off the small museums and just save the big ones? Umm, no. Even an organization as large as the Smithsonian Institution, which actually operates several museum buildings, can’t do it all. All museums, out of necessity, must choose a focus. Larger museums, ones with a national or state scope, tend to save history on big events and personalities, those that have a wide-ranging effect on society. Small local museums are critical as a point of entry to immortality for average people. You don’t need to be a famous author, actor, or aviator to have your history saved at a local museum. It’s the web of interconnections between the lives of average individuals and larger-than-life individuals that creates our collective memory, a web that is built by the entire museum community.

Aside from immortality and the ­preservation of collective memory, ­museums can serve another highfalutin purpose, although they’re not used often enough for this in our estimation. The resources they hold can provide a foundation for future public policy.

For instance, communities throughout Minnesota are suffering the effects of massive cuts to Local Government Aid (LGA). While this might seem to be the best way to help the state balance its ­budget, why was the LGA program started in the first place? Did our forebears say, “Let’s create a costly, inefficient way to fund the needs of communities around the state,” or were they trying to do just the opposite? By dipping into the archival documents held at museums around the state, we might discover their intentions concerning the problems they were trying to solve. In cutting LGA, are we likely to resurrect the original problem or has the program outgrown its usefulness? Answering questions such as these about all sorts of public policy issues, from social services to health care to public education to stadium funding, would give us the necessary background to make effective decisions about current problems. Museums, therefore, can help us use the past to inform and shape the future. And that, along with immortality and collective memory, is plenty good.

By Mary Warner

Copyright 2011, Morrison County Historical Society
The article first appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society’s newsletter in 2011, Vol. 24, No. 1.

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