Learning from the Past: Are Museums the Echo Chamber Antidote?

Ashleigh Hibbins - Museum Professional

George Santayana famously wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” These days, museums are doing more than just examining the past; many are boldly engaging with current events and controversies. In a world of echo chambers, fake news, and soundbites, museums have an unprecedented opportunity to offer what most folks really crave – hard evidence, context, and analysis of complex issues.

Collections aren’t just evidence for past events and cultures, they’re tools for understanding our world today – and sometimes challenging our view of it. Here’s a look at four crucial conversations museums around the world are leading right now.

Health

A balanced diet consists of whole grains, plenty of fruits and veggies, and regular museum visits. Especially if you’re visiting one dedicated to medicine and health, like London’s Wellcome Collection. The museum not only explores the history of medical practices and attitudes from AIDS campaigns to x-rays but also how modern advancements are changing society.

Another example of engagement with health is Delhi’s Sulabh International Museum of Toilets. Often featured in lists of unusual collections or unique tourist spots, this museum is actually founded on a more serious message. The museum aims to promote the benefits of indoor plumbing and good sanitation to public health.

1995 AIDS campaign poster from Wellcome Collection. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

Environment

Science centers and museums of natural history aren’t just obsessed fossils and dinosaur bones (although those are AWESOME obsessions to have). They’re also doing crucial work to educate visitors of all ages about climate change, biodiversity, and conservation. The Australian Museums not only share the amazing wildlife of Down Under with the public, but are also actively involved in understanding and preserving these species for future generations through their coral reef research facility, wildlife genomics research, and citizen science center.

As environmental concerns become ever more prevalent, museums have a growing role to play in preserving examples of disappearing species and habitats and creating a space for dialogue about protecting the planet. This isn’t an opportunity on the distant horizon; the Museums & Climate Change Network already exists, and plans are currently in the works for a dedicated Climate Museum in New York.

Politics

Museums increasingly recognize that it’s impossible to be ‘apolitical’. Instead of shying away from activism and debates, museums are boosting their relevance by embracing political stories in their collections – even where you wouldn’t necessarily expect it. For example, the Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-18 exhibition at London’s Design Museum explores the role graphic design has played in dictating and reacting to recent political events.  

Design Museum. Credit: Paul the Archivist via Wikimedia.

Not content with a single exhibition, the People’s History Museum in Manchester is devoted to telling the history of democracy and activism, from the first trade unions to modern political protests. In a world where elections can be won or lost on tweets and soundbites, museums can provide voters with evidence and historical context they need to make an informed decision.

Social justice

Exhibits and programs at museums that focus on minority and marginalized groups such as the National Museum of African American History & Culture, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, and Women’s Museum in Denmark aren’t afraid to ask the uncomfortable questions. These museums not only help visitors explore how far society has come, but also how much work there is still left to do. Some institutions are going beyond the margins of their collection to engage with important topics, like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s exhibition about the conflict in Syria.

Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. Credit: Skeezix1000 via Wikimedia.

Looking Inwards and Upwards

Museum professionals around the world recognize that museums aren’t just for educating and entertaining, but also for exploring – and sometimes confronting – current events. The growing popularity of movements such as Museums Are Not Neutral and OFBYFOR ALL demonstrate the sector’s willingness to look inward and think critically about what the role of museums should be in the 21st century.

But there’s still a lot of work left to do. Museums and galleries are just starting to grapple with the #MeToo movement and its implications for abusive male artists represented in their collections. The ongoing lack of diversity amongst museum staff – especially at management and board levels – needs to be radically improved. The dubious colonial origins of many Western museums’ collections are still being reckoned with.

Yet even with these ongoing challenges, museums have a huge opportunity to lead from the front when it comes to providing safe and trusted spaces to explore complex issues.

In a world of soundbites and 24-hour news cycles, taking the long view at a local museum is exactly what we need right now.

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