Hello Planetary Pals
Recently a friend shared a video that came across my feed. It is from the YouTube channel “Forgotten Weapons,” and in it, a firearms historian spoke at length about some of the fundamental changes in the way that museums and private collections operate in the Era of the Internet. I clicked out of curiosity but found that the points he and, in a subsequent video-podcast, experienced museum curators made could apply to the concepts of natural history museums that house many geological, paleontological, and planetary science artifacts. As such, I thought it would be fair to write a blog post about museums in the 21st Century. After all, though it may not be the path I personally see myself going towards, some of us and our colleagues may very well end up working in natural history museums.
I should preface this discussion by saying that I am, by no means an expert or even a novice in the field of Museum Science. There are people who devote their lives to these topics, and I have only watched a couple YouTube videos and read a few articles.
I will start the discussion by running through the history of private collections and museums. The earliest museums were the so-called “cabinets of curiosity”. They were collections procured by wealthy individuals whose initial aim, it would seem, would be the collections of the most outlandish articles. It seems that the purpose of this procurement of many thousands of pieces was, on a deeper level, an avenue for social mobility. These rich elites could invite other rich elites to their manor and could demonstrate how worldly they were; being a true Renaissance man seemed to equate to having the most stuff. These cabinets of curiosity were the first real, recognizable museums. They housed items of real scientific, historical, and cultural value such as zoological, paleontological, geological, and archaeological pieces.
But the owners of these collections were not of the same mindset as the modern museum; the items were not properly vetted (i.e., often faked items such as dragons’ blood, homunculi, etc. made their way into these collections), were not properly stored, maintained, or researched. Despite their shortcomings, these “wonder rooms” were a first step to the making of a true museum in the following Era.
With the following Enlightenment Era, a new philosophy towards science, being the Scientific Method was emerging, and this influenced the development of museums, both scientific museums and cultural ones as well. The Age of Enlightenment becomes more interested not in merely collecting, but in creating a physical encyclopedia all knowledge of. True museums began to emerge in this Era. The purpose of these museums was markedly different than the pure entertainment value of cabinets of curiosity, and it became in vogue to start researching the pieces in a collection and adding this knowledge to the greater scientific community. Of course, this community was still the same aristocracy as in the previous era, though the purpose of the museum shifted from entertainment to niche education. What this looked like was that specialists in the field, say, of mineralogy for instance, who already knew a great deal about the field, could come to a museum and study a specific mineralogical collection available. This is still far from what we see in modern museums, however.
Eventually, in the 20th century, public museums as we would recognize developed, and once again, museums shifted. This was the period of the modern museum, which is dominated by a dedicated group of Museologists. The goal of these museums was to take someone’s private collection and put it on public display to pass that knowledge along. This meant that private collectors were discouraged from hoarding of significant scientific, cultural, or historical value. An important meteorite find could be properly maintained in a museum and accessible to the scientists who desired to study it, but also available to the public to see.
The museum of the Internet Era, however, is facing new challenges. With studies showing that attention spans are being lowered by due to intense information overload, and with Wikipedia articles and YouTube videos going in much more depth than a museum’s 3×4 placard card can hope to display, the museum is again facing a change in priorities, and some of those in the know would argue that this is not for the better. Even the best museum cannot compete with the Internet.
Ultimately, museum curators of the late 20th and early 21st century worked to find a medium between the two ends of informative/educational, and entertainment. The philosophy went away from catering to the specialist, and instead something called “Edutainment.” This essentially means that museums aimed to be attractions and destinations, and not merely repositories of knowledge (very similar to how the original cabinets of curiosity functioned). The museum tries it’s best to be relevant to its main visitor, the nuclear family on vacation in that city; but in trying to cater to both education and entertainment, it loses out on a lot of what made a museum useful to the specialist.
In my trip to the ROM in pre-Covid days, it is true that I felt that, as a specialist in the field of geology, there was really nothing on display that I had not already learned. It is, of course, okay that a museum seeks to inform the undereducated, and it is important to realize that in this era, I, the specialist, am not the target audience of the natural history section of that museum. But it is also important to realize that this was not always the case, not always the philosophy. And specialists who do go to a museum, who do not have access to the vast archive of items that would be of interest to the specialist sort of miss out on some great opportunities to further their knowledge.
Essentially, the changes that the museum industry is facing today, while rather unique in scope, is not a new phenomenon. In the original video that I spoke to, the speaker lamented the changes that museums had undergone since the Internet revolution. But, while I do agree, and my anecdote does support this, it is also important to recognize that the change in museum philosophy in the internet age can be for the better if done properly. It’s strength is in becoming a “physical Wikipedia article” and in becoming a place where the seed of knowledge for future specialists can be planted.