Originally posted on Medium, May 4, 2017.
I chose to do something a little different this week for my blog post. While I have done something similar in the past by responding to what museum professionals discuss in professional development programs. This time I decided to write about what other people discuss about in the museum field in their own blogs. I came across the blog post “Museums are places to forget” written by Steven Lubar. Lubar is a professor of American Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and a museum consultant. Before that, Lubar was the Curator at the National Museum of American History, Director at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, and Director at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage. He has written a book called Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present which will be released in August.
When I came across this blog and finished reading this blog, I thought it was an interesting piece since it reminds me of lessons I have learned while in both college and graduate school. At least one of my previous classes had a deep discussion about what it means to be a professional historian, and one of the topics discussed was about history and memory. The relationship between history and memory is an ongoing discussion that takes place outside of the classroom especially during my experiences as a museum professional. This blog post Lubar wrote is a discussion about how museums are examples of how history and memory are dealt with within our community.
One of the things that caught my attention as I read the blog was this subtitle for the blog. Lubar stated that “sometimes, museums are places of forgetting, not remembering” which I find interesting since in general people believe that they are supposed to attend museums to be reminded of our past and learn about a part of the past that help them understand a community’s culture. While this is true that people come to museums to be reminded of the past, museums can represent what we have forgotten and chose to forget. Museums can also sometimes choose to forget the past and/or unintentionally forget the past.
Museums have the purpose to tell a narrative that supports the institution’s mission, and sometimes when museum professionals decide on a narrative not every item in its collections can be displayed to explain their narrative. For instance, when I worked at the Butler-McCook House & Garden in Hartford, the historic house is set up to tell the story of the third and fourth generations of the family who lived in the house during the 19th century even though the history of the house and family can be traced back to the 18th century.
The staff created an exhibit in the History Center that gives an overall history of Hartford and of the family during the 18th and 19th century; the exhibit included not only narratives but also objects and photographs from the house’s collections. While I was there, the staff and myself worked on projects based on the interpretive framework that will help start including more information from the Butler-McCook House’s history; to this day, the Butler-McCook House continues to create interpretive programs that covers more history that can be shared with visitors of all ages and backgrounds interested in learning more about this family.
The example of the Butler-McCook House showed how a historic house museum while still maintaining its display in the house as a 19th century house it also works on incorporating other significant parts of the house’s history. There are more objects that are found in both the collections storage room and on the third floor of the house not open to the public which are not seen by the public.
This brings up a point Lubar brought up in his blog that there are times that not everything in a museum, especially at the Butler-McCook House, can be viewed by the public for various reasons. Some items in museums’ collections are those that are in poor condition, and even have stopped serving purposes for the museum and are forgotten with the passage of time.
Of course, there are more than a couple of reasons museums forget. Lubar pointed out that sometimes “society decides that it’s not longer ethical for museums to hold certain kinds of artifacts.” And this can be true especially for museums that have Native American artifacts in its collections. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) was created to require museums receiving federal funding to return Native American human remains and other artifacts to appropriate tribes. Between museums and the government, they work together to find out what is no longer ethical to hold onto for educational purposes and it is important for all museums to acknowledge ethical issues and find ways to make sure artifacts are given respect. It is also important for museums to serve and work with society to remain relevant, and to stay relevant museums need to pay attention to how society views its own practices in ethics.
Another statement that stood out to me was this statement about religion and religious artifacts. Lubar stated in the blog “When something’s put in a museum, it loses part of its meaning. Religious artifacts become art.” That can be true for museums that include religious artifacts in the collections. As Parish Historian at my childhood church, I have seen a unique situation where the meaning behind the artifacts in Trinity Church that have both its own original identity and an identity as a historic collection item. When I last talked about my experience as a Parish Historian, I talked about the exhibit I designed to celebrate the Easter season using items that were viewed as items used in church services in addition to photographs.
At the same time, Trinity Church also has items in the collections that are not stored with the rest of the items but are still used in church ceremonies (such as the chalice and prayer books); these items are listed in a book of donated items to the church which is one of the items in the collections. In my experience, the collections are constantly crossing the line between being part of a collection that is, until recent years, has been forgotten about by the Trinity community and being part of Trinity’s practices today. The Trinity community continues to rediscover its collections from the past as future projects are getting underway.
Museums today continue to practice its practice of helping the public remember and forgetting its history, and will always constantly cross the line between remembering and forgetting to meet expectations of society and its surrounding communities.
The link to the original blog post can be found here: https://medium.com/@lubar/museums-are-places-to-forget-ba76a92c5701
Do you agree that museums are places to forget? What are some examples you have seen and experienced with remembering to forget and forgetting to remember?