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Why collections must stay at the heart of the 21st-century museum

This deeply felt study of the importance of museums stresses how central objects are to their function and future

1 October 2016

As director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, Nicholas Thomas is well qualified to address the central concerns of The Return of Curiosity (Reaktion Books), which is essentially an essay in three parts. Analysing the recent vicissitudes of museums, he discusses the ways in which they have been regarded in the past generation: ‘Museums were lambasted variously as temples of elite culture, warehouses of colonial loot and hegemonic institutions – instruments of the state created to inculcate ideologies and hierarchies.’ But just as the death of the museum was predicted with wearisome frequency, the opening of such institutions as the Centre Pompidou (in 1977) inaugurated, in Thomas’s view, a revival of museums and a rethinking of the nature of the museum; a revival that was needed since by that time they had begun to lose momentum. While ready to make striking general assertions, Thomas directs his attention primarily towards museums in his own field, although to an extent his remarks can be extended to the fine and decorative art museum.

For Thomas, the collection is paramount. While he acknowledges the beneficial effects of the increased professionalisation of museums in the late 20th century, and gives a succinct account of the profitable international networks created by  institutions in the West, he stresses that the object must be at the centre of what the museum offers – something that, indeed, is often forgotten. And Thomas means the object itself, not its digital equivalent (which is ‘not meaningfully or effectively equivalent to any actual object’). Self-evident as this statement may seem, Thomas unpicks the theme. He considers that ‘In whatever form, via whatever technique or practice, the activation of the collection is the museum’s beating heart.’ Objects are ambiguous and inclined to constant change, not least when they are transformed into museum specimens and thus generally lose any nature they may previously have possessed; they may carry strong associations for the people in whose culture they were originally created (or again, as he pungently illustrates, they may have no associations at all, having been created precisely for sale to colonialist collectors); if too famous, they may lose their original meaning under the weight of commercial exploitation and reproduction. On the other hand, objects of whatever sort (though again, this may apply less forcefully to paintings in a certain Western tradition) are richly full of meaning, not only in themselves but in their relationships with other objects in the collection in which, by a succession of chances, they find themselves. They may offer a collective meaning within society (Thomas discusses the social importance of the museum as a ‘sustenance of civil society’) and they act as potent lieux de mémoire. But, equally, the experience of visiting a museum is an open-ended one, uncontrolled at least in the finest examples by the curator and educator, in which the visitor may create for himself or herself an individual experience, whether by seeing or (ideally, it would seem) by drawing. Museums, for Thomas, are ‘for difference’, even though the visitor’s experience is inevitably shaped by the curator’s selection and juxtaposition of objects.

This book makes a strong statement for the importance of the curator: not the flashily self-publicising curator who feeds the world of contemporary art with new sensations and pseudo-profound pronouncements, but the type who, being deeply familiar with their collection, is able constantly to think and rethink its nature and to find new meanings within the objects. Thomas regrets the present threats to curatorial excellence within the museum, on the one hand from museums ruled by collection managers with highly developed technical skills but no detailed understanding of their subject, and on the other from museums (national museums, he has in mind) where curators conduct thorough academic research without engaging with the objects nominally in their care. Deep curatorial expertise must be the secret to uncovering and reinterpreting the complex objects in a museum’s care – just as new acquisitions give added layers of meaning to the collections.

Thomas’s tone is not apocalyptic – indeed he conveys relief that the sticks rattled by the theoretical critics of the museum no longer make much noise. He shows a general willingness to state what veers towards the obvious for anyone who has taken any interest in museums as a cultural phenomenon: his first chapter, which is a recapitulation of the history of museums in the Western world in the past generation, is solid and sensible rather than surprising. The book does not address the issue of European museums being forced towards a North American model of funding and celebrity-chasing as public resources gradually dry up, so that larger and more attractive museums become enmeshed in the capitalist system; nor the cult of the museum designed by the celebrity architect. Nor does he consider the demise or near-demise of the tradition of public service, which in cities and towns all over Europe instituted municipal museums of every sort, and which today appears to be increasingly under threat. The near-demise of traditional curatorship – other than in national and university museums – at least in Britain, is a theme that might have been further explored. Still, this is a useful and deeply felt study which addresses many of the most important issues that vex the museum as it advances, ever more popular and more visited, into the 21st century.

From the September issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.

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