Museums and Cultural Change

Featured in the Collecting Lessons
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A museum is one of the earliest forms of institutional collecting. Museums collect objects that are put on display for the study, interpretation and enjoyment of audiences, ultimately for the preservation of heritage.

Natural history museums in part grew out of 16th- and 17th-century “Cabinets of Curiosities.” These were also known as Wunderkammern or cabinets of wonder. European cabinets contained objects as diverse as animal or other biological specimens, African masks, navigation tools and human bones. Heavily influenced by the Renaissance fascination with the exotic or unknown, early collectors fed their collections with artifacts from world exploration and travel, often raiding sacred sites and removing important objects from existing cultures. As a result, the valued pieces of these collections were exceptional and rare. These objects were viewed as examples of divine creativity exemplified in nature and human creativity exemplified in art.

In the 19th century, museums were born often from donations of entire Cabinets of Curiosities. Today, when these same museums display objects of questionable origin or content, they attempt to address the problem through “Dilemma Labels.” These labels explain the nature of the objects, how they were acquired and why they are controversial today. Labels can openly point to outdated displays that reflect past racist, sexist and colonialist attitudes on the part of the museum. Dilemma Labels expose and discourage the tendency to exoticize other societies in order to maintain a colonialist domination over them. The contradiction between the original label and the object displayed combined with a viewer’s contemporary perspective is clarified in print.

Comprehension Questions: 

  1. Define the term "Cabinets of Curiosity."
  2. Why are some museum displays considered controversial?
  3. What have museums done to address this controversy?
  4. Research the practices of artists such as Fred Wilson and his project "Mining the Museum." How do contemporary artists address the possible racist, sexist and colonialist attitudes of the past (or even the present) in Museum collections?