Comment: Museum curators making strange choices

When it comes to celebrating human achievement, museum curators are making rather strange choices, writes Tiffany Jenkins
Picture: Greg MacveanPicture: Greg Macvean
Picture: Greg Macvean

Museums are institutions that select and order what we consider to be important. Ostensibly about the past, museums are more often of their time, encapsulating and embodying ideas about the foundations of knowledge and the history our contemporaries judge worth knowing. Every significant social shift has led to a new way of collecting and remembering. The last few decades are no exception.

Traditionally museums celebrated human achievement, culture and science. Kings and queens were placed atop of the pedestals, the victors of history championing their glories; their failures and the losers forgotten. But in recent times there has been a new kind of history placed in glass cases on which we are expected to gaze with awe. It is one that is not quite so inspiring or informative.

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The Riverside Museum in Glasgow has expressed an interest in acquiring parts of the wreckage of Pam Am Flight 103, the plane destroyed in the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, and which resulted in the deaths of 270 people. What is left of the blown-up jumbo jet has been returned to Scotland, as the police continue their investigation, and the museum is eyeing up the debris. A source told The Scotsman: “We continue to hope some of the fuselage will be made available to help us to tell this important story.” Museum officials have said that they were seeking “something which is identifiably part of the aircraft rather than just a piece of metal”, like a seat or one of the black boxes. That: “We want items that tell a story, such as a piece of fuselage which shows blast damage, or something which illustrates the forensic investigation.”

The Riverside Museum is devoted to transport. It houses some of the most innovative, interesting and gorgeous cars, trains and boats – around 3,000 are on show. There is a locomotive from South Africa, subway cars, trams (lovely thin old ones, not the new fat ones yet to run), all kinds of automobiles and trains, as well as a recreated street from Glasgow circa 1895-1930. It already has material relating to the bombing: a metal detector, an airport X-ray machine and a package that looks similar to the one that held the device. The names of the dead are etched on the wall. What, then, is wrong with an extra piece?

I am not sure what it would achieve. There is nothing intrinsically valuable about the debris – a seat, or the fuselage; it doesn’t inform us about the workings of an aeroplane, it doesn’t look nice, nor reveal anything about the lives lost. The bombing was an incredibly important event, but this wreckage left behind is not. It simply bore silent, inanimate witness to the horrible demise of too many people. It strikes me as macabre to keep any part of it, conserve it and put it on show. On 11 September this year, a new museum will finally open in New York, situated at Ground Zero in Manhattan. It will show thousands of artefacts related to the attacks on the Twin Towers including shoes left by those who died, a filing cabinet and parts from the tower. But what can these objects say to us? And why would we want to look at them? They have nothing to teach us. We remember the people and their lives – not just their deaths – in other ways.

We should question the flourishing interest in putting death and disaster so prominently on show. It is presented as radical, but maybe it’s just part of a morbid trend. The past few decades have witnessed a boom in the display of tragedy, which is taking up space once devoted to the beautiful and exemplary.

According to an academic study by the museologist, Paul Williams, more memorial museums have opened in the last 30 years than the previous 100. Such museums are proliferating with countless galleries devoted to destruction.

Previously institutions would celebrate great national victories and the achievement of military leaders. Yes, it was one-sided, but it was a good side. All this has changed but not for the better. There is now the aforementioned museum to the 9/11 attacks, 16 Holocaust museums in the US alone (with plans for more), as well as the museum dedicated to those who died and lost their loved ones in the bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995. Elsewhere there are scores of museums documenting slavery in America, genocide in Armenia, Rwanda and the Balkans.

Even within older institutions, such as the Natural History Museum in London, there is a memorial, alongside the specimens and the old dinosaurs, to the lives lost in the 2006 tsunami. At Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow there is a gallery devoted to violence against women, which shows some of the instruments of torture devices used to keep people in their place and silent; these particular pieces are interesting and historically informative, but I wonder about their place in a museum and what it side-lines? Will there soon be a Curator of Death and Domination instead of a Curator of Medieval Collections? Museums are a history of mankind. When that history is one that highlights the worst in human beings rather than best, it cannot be positive.

The tremendous growth in commerce in Italy, from the 14th century, simulated by banking and mercantile activity, was the main trigger to serious collecting which led to the establishment of museums. A rising merchant class sought social credibility both by the accumulation and demonstration of riches and an association with antiquity. The Renaissance was stimulated by the rediscovery of classical learning which inspired a great interest in the past and attempts to recreate Alexandria’s scholarly institutions.

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By the mid-16th century establishing a “musaeum” had become common across Europe, becoming known as cabinets of curiosities, reflecting the tremendous desire to know more about and understand the world. Sadly, these fascinating old cases are being placed by those that showcase the worst aspects of our deeds from which we will learn little. It is time to rethink these cabinets of misery.