Museums, especially in their current form, are institutions forming the cultural, intellectual and entertaining representations of cities that host them. They can often embody, separately or all at once, centers of scholarship, artistic creativity and tourist attraction. The collections of the museums are stand, also, as an exhibition of their countries’ prestige, notwithstanding the numerous debates on their origin, value, representation and other respective aspects (f.e. Harris, 2021). Thus, the museum as the intersection point of various disciplines and problems, can be interpreted as a rich source of tools for cross cultural communication.
The word museum originates from the Greek mouseion, "throne of the Muses". In Greek antiquity, a mouseion was a place of reflection and philosophical discussion (Lewis, 2021). The Muses, in turn, were the keepers of history, ready to sing it from its beginning to an inspired listener. Such, for instance, was an archaic Greek poet, Hesiod:
And they [the Muses] send forth an immortal voice as they give kleos [glory] first to the genos of the gods, a matter of reverence, starting from the beginning, telling about who were generated from Earth [Gaia] and the vast Sky [Ouranos], and what gods, givers of good things, were born from them. (Theogony, 44-46)
The poetic image of the museum as a place of concentration of knowledge and inspiration, thus, lies in the very origin of its name.
Figure 1. Gustave Moreau, Hesiod and the Muse, 1891. [Oil on canvas]
From the 15th century the word ‘museum’ began to be used to describe collections. Nevertheless, the character of the collections and the history of their contemplating still implied the prevalence of their educational aspect. The cabinets of curiosities, serving as museums’ prototypes, stored objects of anatomical, anthropological and ethnographical interests. The formation of the idea of a museum as of a place preserving and publicly exhibiting a collection belongs to the 18th century (Lewis, 2021). The 2022 definition of a museum, approved by the International Council of Museums (ICOM), states that:
A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.
The adoption of this definition has been accompanied by a certain amount of criticism (Etges & Dean, 2022), perhaps emphasizing the difficulty of defining a modern museum, which is confronting a diverse number of tasks. This might also serve as evidence of the constantly altering concept of the museum.
The political, cultural and educational values of museums have long been disputed and there is still no conventional understanding of the museum as of the tool of societal influence (Bennett, 1995). Despite its openness to the general public, it is still considered to be the place of class segregation, a view that arguably overlooks the complexity of the museum’s influence, as well as the accessibility of the visual language that is principal for a typical exhibition. In this regard, the idea of the museum as a point of conflict between elitism and popularization (Jung, 2010), restrains its essence, limiting its potentiality to unite various societies and cultural subgroups in a dialogue. Arguably, this can be regulated at all stages of the museum's activity: research, collection, interpretation and exhibition. Controversy, in turn, is used to draw attention to the existing social problems and suggests ways to regulate them.
Figure 2. Rotunda in the Altes Museum on Museum Island, Berlin. [Online image]
A discussed phenomenon represented in a museum is no longer a ‘curiosity’, but an active element of people’s lives. The problems of interpreting and choosing the way to display individual items or collections belonging to different cultures, separated by time, geographical or worldview boundaries, do not belong to a particular case, but largely highlight the current issues. The existence of an argument is often an indicator of an unsolved and a topical concern and discussion is the nurturing environment for its resolving. In that respect, it is natural for the museum to simultaneously take the roles as both the reason and the battle of conflict, the parlementaire and the source of the solution.
The open nature of the modern world – the relative freedom of movement and wide access to information – are ahead of the process of cultural exchange and overcoming some ideological attitudes. Lack of information or its erroneousness, however, continue to be the cause of discrimination (WHO, 2017). In such situation, the education that the museum can provide as the place of concentration of diversity can significantly influence the formation of a safe environment. In particular, the causing controversy exhibitions that integrate contemporary art objects into the spaces of classical museums collide groups of different generations and views, forcing them to consider the existence of each other. The next step for a museum is to provide sufficient materials for the study of the phenomenon which was made visible: texts in explications, brochures, catalogues, discussions in accompanying lectures, panels and educational programs.
Figure 3. The Museum of Modern Art in New York. [Online image]
Another crucial turn in a viewpoint towards the international collections stands in their representation as the achievement of a certain culture and the rejection of the perception of the museum as a monument of conquest, colonisation and, in general, any kind of oppression. Representing objects in terms of equality, respect and interest can serve as a powerful stimulus for the formation of a society united by a greater understanding and acceptance of the characteristics of cultures and communities.
The territory of a museum exists aside of temporal, geographical and cultural restrictions. The objects of history and art in themselves act as mediums of communication, being the visible evidence of the great heterogeneity and diversity of human artistic, emotional and intellectual manifestations. Acting as the most illustrative encyclopaedia of human achievements, the museum, regardless of its nature, can and does act as a powerful tool for the educational process. The use of the full potential of the museum as of the learning place depends on the attitude towards its aims and purposes from the officials, scholars and external educational specialists.
Bennett, T. (1995). The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. London: Routledge.
Etges, A. & Dean, D. (2022). The International Council of Museums and the сontroversy about a New Museum Definition – A сonversation with Lauran Bonilla-Merchav, Bruno Brulon Soares, Lonnie G. Bunch III, Bernice Murphy, and Michèle Rivet. International Public History, 5(1), 19-27. https://doi.org/10.1515/iph-2022-2039
Harris, G. (2021, October 4). British Museum should review its position on the Parthenon Marbles, Unesco body says. The Art Newspaper. Retrieved November 17, 2022 from https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/10/04/british-museum-should-review-its-position-on-the-parthenon-marbles-unesco-body-says
Hesiod. (2020). Theogony. (G. Nagy & J. Banks, Trans.). Retrieved November 17, 2022, from https://chs.harvard.edu/primary-source/hesiod-theogony-sb/
ICOM (August 24, 2022). ICOM approves a new museum definition. Retrieved November 17, 2022 from https://icom.museum/en/news/icom-approves-a-new-museum-definition/
Jung, Y. (2010). The ignorant museum: Transforming the elitist museum into an inclusive learning place. In N. Abery (Ed.), The new museum community: Audiences, challenges, benefits, (pp. 272–291). Edinburgh: MuseumsEtc. Retrieved November 16, 2022 from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283081219_The_ignorant_museum_Transforming_the_elitist_museum_into_an_inclusive_learning_place
Lewis, G. D. (2021, March 11). museum. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved November 18, 2022 from https://www.britannica.com/topic/museum-cultural-institution/
World Health Organization (WHO). (2017, June 27). Joint United Nations statement on ending discrimination in health care settings. Retrieved November 18, 2022 from https://www.who.int/news/item/27-06-2017-joint-united-nations-statement-on-ending-discrimination-in-health-care-settings
Figure 1. Moreau, G. (1891). Hesiod and the Muse [Canvas, oil]. 59,0x34,5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France. Retrieved from https://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/artworks/hesiode-et-la-muse-21310
Figure 2. Adenis, P. (n.d.). Rotunda in the Altes Museum on Museum Island, Berlin [Online image]. Retrieved from https://www.visitberlin.de/en/altes-museum-old-museum
Figure 3. Kalina, N. (2019). The new MoMA in New York [Online image]. Retrieved from https://www.moma.org/about/new-moma