I think about the function of museums all the time. What real purpose do they serve? The answer, of course, has to do with knowledge of the past. Or, at least I think that was the original function of museums. There might also have been an idea of presenting a picture of places that were far flung and remote to the average citizen. Is that function relevant today? I am not so sure, although perhaps it is for some museums. Certainly, you can go to the Metropolitan Museum, for example, and still have that experience, but today museums seem to want to present culture in a particular light, focusing on what they see as current and contemporary and worthy for our consideration. That is a responsibility and because it has been mishandled so many times in the past, museums are gun shy, in my opinion, about saying, “no”, even to some really strange ideas.
I just read John Banville’s novel, “The Sea”, a Mann Booker Prize winner that is a sensuous and vivid exploration of the past, specific times within the narrator’s life that he continues to try and grasp and come to terms with. Banville’s prose is poetic and painterly which heightens the confusion the narrator feels about these events. Clearly, the past needs interpretation as it can be read, and then read again, into almost any version that fits the psychological holes that need filling. Interpretation essentially becomes a function of necessity with the translation of events subtly changing. Inconvenient truths are possibly not remembered to enable the process. We don’t know nor does it matter.
As I see it, the presentation of culture, any culture but particularly contemporary culture, to a museum audience is a tricky thing. Interpretation is necessarily involved and, as in Banville’s book, we know that interpretations change. I certainly don’t mind museums trying to do this. In fact, it is a relevant point of view, but it will almost always put a museum and its mission under close scrutiny, if not today, then in the future. This judgment will be necessarily focused on what and why museums have acquired the pieces they have–they are public trusts, after all. In some cases, I am quite certain, they will seem prescient, but in others—who knows? And is there any shame in being wrong? Not really because the mere fact that a museum, particularly large established museums, takes a stab at something will, in some way, give that idea credence. To my way of thinking, it is a rather peculiar state of affairs.