Give our museums back back

October 13, 1995

Have today's public museums lost sight of their original purpose of educating, informing and stimulating curiousity and imagination? Have they become the sterile preserve of fastidious curators, self-centered researchers and aesthetically obsessed architects? According to Francesco Antinucci, one of Italy's foremost museum experts, the answer is yes.

Professor Antinucci is head of the laboratory of comparative psychology at Italy's National Research Council and part of a group that studies "Cognitive processes and interactive technologies". In recent years he has visited the major museums in Europe and the United States, broadcasting and writing frequently on what he sees as the gradual loss of the original function of the museum.

"The concept of the public museum originated in the late 19th century," he said. "The idea was to fire the imagination and the thirst for knowledge of the layman visitor. It is no coincidence that the science of museology blossomed in the heyday of European nationalism at a time when the desire for schools and education for the nation was growing.

"A classic example is the Egyptian Room at the British Museum. The visitor feels immersed in ancient Egypt, feeling its magnificence come to life around him. Another is the Ishtar Gate in Berlin, a life-size reconstruction of the great Babylonian gateway.

"Anyone visiting these two places cannot help but be overawed by the spectacle. What does it matter if there is a prevalence of reconstruction? What if there is on occasion some ingenuous historical simplification?

"Today a museum exhibit of the Ishtar Gate would be housed in a beautifully furnished, carefully lit room kept at perfect humidity and temperature. State-of-the-art security apparatus would protect a few tiny fragments of the real Ishtar Gate in dimly lit cases of bullet-proof glass. A school child would feel bored and discouraged from taking any further interest in ancient Babylon. So, for that matter, would any adult without a specific background in Babylonian history and archaeology."

The problem, according to Professor Antinucci, is the rise of "scientific museology" after the Second World War.

"The figure of the museologist has disappeared. If you look at learned publications on the subject of museums, the issues considered important are conservation, lighting, environment control and security. Nobody seems to give a hoot for the impact that an exhibit will have on the ordinary visitor. Museology has become a field for curators who are obsessed by the management of their precious collection, architects who feel they must make their mark in designing the museum, and academics who see the museum as a temple for their research. The lay visitor has become a necessary evil."

As an example, Professor Antinucci cites the ethnographic section of the Dahlem Museum in Berlin. "It is beautifully lit, exquisitely furnished, perfectly air-conditioned. But it is totally incomprehensible. A visitor goes in and comes out knowing nothing he did not already know."

According to Professor Antinucci, this happens whenever an old museum is renewed or a new exhibition is set up.

"The traditional concept of a museum has been completely lost. The noisy, ice cream-soiled schoolchild gazing in open-mouthed wonder at a reconstructed Egyptian mummy or at a 19th century steam engine clanking noisily and belching smoke may not be a pretty sight, but is what a museum should be all about. His solution is simple: "Give museums back to museologists and make sure they are clear about the basic and essential purpose of a museum.

"Their aim is not to satisfy the vanity or sophisticated aesthetic sensitivity of curators and architects, nor to respect the sense of historical rigor and academic precision of the academics, but to be interesting, informative, fascinating and above all entertaining for the ordinary visitor, to "educate the nation" as the 19th century fathers of museology dreamed.

"If people enjoy a museum, if they have fun visiting it, they will inevitably become curious and learn," said Professor Antinucci.

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