Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Museums, Memory, and the Logic of Coercive Institutions

National Public Radio has a new series on museums in the United States. People often think of Americans as sports fans or infatuated with pop culture entertainment, but it turns out that we quite the museum goers. Almost 900 million people visit museums annually.

Why are museums so popular?

Philippe de Montebello, former Metropolitan Museum of Art director, answers: "A museum is the memory of mankind."

But we know, too, from many psychological studies that human memory is a very fragile and confusing thing. It is often unreliable and susceptible to being framed and influenced by extraneous forces. We know too often that sometimes people remember things that did not actually happen or not in quite the same way according to different people's recollections.

That why The Pinky Show offers a very interesting take on the museum as a cultural institution. Instead of being neutral repositories of our collective memory, museums may in fact be coercive institutions, run by elite groups who take it upon themselves to disseminate "official" (that is, ideological) versions of history for the masses. Actually, that sounds too Marxist. Kim the kitten puts it better:

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At 2:21 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

900 million out of a population of 300 million? I assume this is the raw number of museum visits, rather than individuals.

At 5:21 PM , Anonymous Lani said...

A perfect example of what Kim has explained here is available in Los Alamos, New Mexico, home of the atomic bomb. Several years ago, a philosophy society I am a member of went on a tour of Los Alamos while holding our annual meeting in Santa Fe. In Los Alamos are two museums about the atomic bomb, one which is big and fancy, put together by the old Atomic Energy Commission (I don't know today's equivalent government agency) and the other by the people of the county, I think Los Alamos County, which is small and ordinary. The museum put together by the government was clean and tidy and extolled the virtues of the scientists, how clean atomic energy is and what they produced and how it ended WWII. What was missing was all the untold misery, agony and suffering caused by the exact same research. The government museum actually made me and a few other folks nauseated, literally. On the other hand, the county museum did show photos of what the ranch (Los Alamos was originally a ranch) originally looked like, the private boys boarding school that was there (Gore Vidal went to school there), and photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many of us were deeply grateful to the people of the county who made their museum possible.

At 11:31 PM , Blogger Dennis said...

Having a kitten say sure does make it easier to swallow, doesn't it?

Have you shown these in a class yet?

At 11:53 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Anon@2:21--yes, visitors to museums.

Lani: A really nice example. Thank you.

Dennis: You should visit the archive for The Pinky Show. Some very interesting topics including globalization, immigration, and just war. I've thought about using the episode on the morality of the war on Iraq in my Peace Studies class

At 9:17 AM , Anonymous Theresa said...

Equally troubling to me is the problem of how museums have acquired the items on display, which are often considered by their home tribe or country to be stolen, particularly by colonial powers (The British Museum is a great example of this kind of 'theft'). At the same time though, I love galleries like the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery for granting up close access to amazing works of art that would otherwise be locked up in private collections. The Victoria and Albert also has a stunning collection of clothing from many eras that tells the story of everyday people in a really interesting way. While I understand the dangers of such a re-telling of history, I can't help still loving certain museums and galleries for the glimpses they provide into the past, even out of context.


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