What is the Role of Museums, Really?

An obligatory post-colonial think piece

Photo by Michele Bitetto on Unsplash

was in the 19th century that the tradition of putting art on display for the general public took root. No longer were great works reserved for the eyes of their noble patrons in their private collections. 19th century Europe, with its expansive wealth deriving mostly from the slave trade (not to oversimplify history) began to see the development of a middle class.

Along with the riches brought in through their harbors, also came a budding curiosity for the exotic: the colonized, non-western peoples off of their shores.

It is then, in 19th century Europe, where the concept of a museum open to a wider public really took hold. Within their halls, museums created spaces where the great works of their own countries were on display for public access. Their walls carefully curated as to craft an intended narrative.

In parallel with museums as places where people were coming to learn about European history and culture, was an increasingly growing curiosity for non-western peoples.

As a result of these conditions, a persisting and problematic practice emerged. It continues to plague Art and History museums alike to this day. The creation of Primitive Art and its framing of European art as true art.

Aimé Césaire’s 1950 Discourse On Colonialism decried this use of stolen artifacts from colonized peoples and their subsequent labeling as ‘primitive art’.

Many questions emerge: why isn’t the label of primitive art relegated only to Cro-Magnon art? or Pre-Historic Art?

Today, the relationship between museums and the public has largely changed as they have adapted with the times. Museums no longer exist explicitly as gatekeepers of European interests (I mean, hopefully).

The museum model is now used in every part of the world and for nearly every field of study. It serves to educate and inform visitors on curated visions of history and culture. As the cultural gatekeepers of society, a museum should spotlight all perspectives and push away from elitism.

In the midst of the covid crisis that has highlighted the challenges of our multifaceted society, perhaps our museums should strive to become institutions that improve our society.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on a bench facing an old skate park with a close friend of mine. We were watching a group of teenagers congregating in the park. My friend, whose awesome name I shall hold ransom, turned to me and asked: what social movement do you think our generation will be known for?

Our hyphenated identities: Indian-American and African-American, and the plight to reconcile the two to simply be ‘American’ is what young people are now embracing. All marginalized identities: black and brown, queer, and femme (and all the other goodies), are no longer an element which we cast aside in order to become successful.

Shouldn’t museums such as the Guggenheim, the MET, MoMA, etc ? do away with the archaic labeling of ‘Primitive Art’? Shouldn’t Americans be able to see their hyphenated identities legitimized and on display? Shouldn’t the subjects and artifacts that hang in their walls be used as a mirror to continually drive us to improve our society, rather than promote elitism?

Photo by Alex GreenBerger/ ArtNews

Museums have the unique privilege of designing a specially curated space for their visitors to fully engage with its collections. The tremendous power that museums as educational institutions have can be used to inspire deep and meaningful insights to its visitors. Within their walls, visitors have access to tangible artifacts chosen and curated by a team of professionals. It is precisely the ideas and impressions presented which should be continually at question.

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