The role of the museum in contemporary society is often difficult to explain. While some argue that museum serves an obvious educative function and that thinking regarding their role does not need to stretch past this, others argue that the museum should also be seen to represent dominant ideologies and social trends. They state that while the museum appears to present objective truth, this truth is always mediated by the structures within which it appears. As such, the role of the museum cannot be purely educative. Any educative content is necessarily bound up in the process by which a society uses a museum to “define itself and present itself publicly” (Dubin, Displays of Power,3). This paper will argue that museum do serve an educative function within society, despite their ideological content. This function can be split into three main aspects. The first of these is education about the facts of history, the second is education regarding moral and ethical behaviours and the final point is education regarding the progression of history itself.
In her work, Jill Stevenson argues that the most important aspect of the museum is that it provides the chance for people to be educated about the facts of history. These facts are inherently ambiguous and can be controlled and misinterpreted by curators. When visiting a museum, people are able to understand the fact that certain things happened and the objects produced during a certain time are presented in their objective truth. This objectivity however, is questionable. For example, when taking of the Creation museum, Stevenson notes that what is fascinating is “the ways in which familiar museum genre is used to communicate that message” (Stevenson, Embodying Sacred History, 94). Likewise, on a less controversial note, Rebecca Mead notes that the MMA in New York frequently changes its collection and often keeps items in the basement, creating a necessarily biased and limited view of any era it displays (Rebecca, Den of Antiquity, 2007). However, it is nonetheless the case that people can learn actual, real facts when they visit a museum. By looking at pottery, for example, people can learn what it looked like, its dimensions and other things about it. Facts of history are of course placed within a social context, but it is also possible to learn real facts and the truth of this is an irreducible aspect of the museum’s educative function.
According to Dubin (3), people learn by going through their history and activities that occupied earlier generations. For instance, legislators and judges often rely on rulings made in the past. Due to their significance in terms of cultural wealth, museums remain highly contested battle fields. “Museums, whether they feature art, history, or something else, have become a principle target.” (Dubin, Displays of Power, 8). Therefore, museums educate the public on issues that affect the society.
Secondly, museums enable one to access moral lessons and ethical truths. For example, if one sees an exhibition devoted to ancient civilisations then it is possible to learn about ideas of moral progress. It is possible to see how certain civilisations may have decayed as a result of moral degradation, as well as a learning individual real life stories that may serve to display a moral lesson. Again, however, it is not possible to understand these moral lessons within a neutral context. They often represent to dominant discourses of ruling ideologies and there is often much that they leave out of their representations.
Despite this, however, argues that although a museum is not a “sort of neutral space and transparent medium” through which ideas may be communicated, one nonetheless understand objects in their context and still draw moral and ethical lessons from them (Weil, Rethinking the Museum, 47). It is certainly the case that any lessons presented in the museum context will be planned and will be amenable to the curators of the museum. Nonetheless, this does not mean that conclusions drawn from them would be necessarily false. Once again, while the context of ethical education form museums may be open to question, it is irreducibly the case that this education can exist and that, to some extent of other, it is important.
In addition, Weil (55) recognizes the need for museums to act as facilities for different communities to assess their past as well as their future prospects. Museums should act as proponents for empowering society values in respect to past generations. Items displayed in different museums around the globe provide need to satisfy public interests rather than fulfil interests of a few individuals. “Its goal as such would be to provide the members of its public with a knowledge of the methods, processes, and techniques through which they, in turn, could make better-informed judgments about their own past and more insightful choices about their future.” (Weil, Rethinking the Museum, 55). The museum as an institution should work towards engaging the public in educative matters in relation to historical objects placed in different museums around the globe. Weil (56) reiterates that today’s museums should focus more on how it impacts on the lives of people rather than concentrate on the number and value of collections. Modern museums need to places where people serve by fellow humans instead of being servants of the different collections (Harrison, et al 71).
Finally, museums provide access to the fact of the progression of historical time. By looking at an exhibition and understanding that a certain amount of time has passed, people have an insight into the way that civilisations change, and they are encouraged to see their own lives as a part of a wider historical nexus. Once again, it can be argued that this nexus is always mediated by the context within which it appears, but it cannot be reducible to this. By providing this insight, museums give a sense of history and the weight of the human past. Museums act as historical sites where people come to study past events. Modern generations can learn about their culture and evaluate whether traditional practices have been passed down the different generations (Chambers 37). In this light, people appreciated the changes that have been experienced due to technological advancements.
In conclusion, this essay has argued that the “truth” and educative function of a museum is always mediated. Nonetheless, it remains the case that certain things can be said for certain about a museum’s educative function. The first of these is the fact that museums serve to educate people regarding objective facts of some sort of other, the second that they can show moral lessons and the third that they manifest historical continuity and change. While all of these are in a social context it is nonetheless the case that they continue to exist in some form or other regardless of this.