Museum's Function And Identity

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Museum's Function and Identity

Table of Contents


Museum Evolution3

Museums and the Social Order4

Sophie Calle6

Susan Hiller13

The sacred and secular meanings of museums23

Approaching the study of museums27

Museums and the social: religious community constructions29



Museum's Function and Identity


The desire to collect artifacts and share those collections with others may be as old as humanity itself. What members of a society value enough to collect, how they interpret and display it, and who they grant or deny access to their collections both reflects and constructs collective identity and memory.

The story of the evolution of museums as producers of knowledge, repositories of cultural artifacts, and conveyors of myth, therefore, is also the story of what a society values. As an accurate reflection of women's traditional exclusion from the public sphere, most museums have ignored, underrepresented, and misrepresented the stories of women. However, a critical turn that began in the 1970s has resulted in unprecedented attention to women's art, history, and their place in the social world that is demonstrated in museums throughout the United States, as described in this entry.

Museum Evolution

According to the American Association of Museums, there now are more than 17,500 museums that attract 865 million visitors a year in the United States alone. The worldwide statistics are inestimable. However, long before museums were the publicly accessible institutions they are today, they existed as private collections of art, scientific specimens, and assorted natural and human-made oddities. Often these “cabinets of curiosities” were shared with strategically selected guests as a means of flaunting personal wealth and power. During the Enlightenment, members of elite societies commissioned scientific expeditions around the world, housing their spoils in facilities accessible only to members and their guests. Later, in the United States, these societies occasionally opened their collections to immigrant populations in large cities as tools of mass “Britonisation”.

As museums evolved, so have their functions. Today, museums reflect their rich legacy by fulfilling all the functions that characterised earlier eras, including the display of personal and collective privilege; production of knowledge; collection, preservation and interpretation of artifacts; professional and mass education; construction of civic identity; and entertainment. In addition, increasingly museums are recognised as vital tools for development programs aimed at attracting tourist dollars as a means of reviving local economies.

Museums and the Social Order

Museums have never been mere apolitical cabinets of curiosities; rather, they are ideological texts that communicate contestable messages about the structure, values, and practices of society. This is most clearly illustrated by controversies that have pitted special interest groups against museum officials. For example, outcry from veterans groups in the 1990s regarding the National Air and Space Museum's proposed treatment of the U.S. atomic bombing of Japan in World War II resulted in the cancellation of the exhibit. The Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas, has been criticised by feminists who charge that corporate interests are too prominently displayed.

From their earliest days until the mid-20th century, museums primarily represented the viewpoint of the culture's elite—white, male, and ...
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