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the return of curiosity

4 february 2017

Nicholas Thomas' book-length essay The Return of Curiosity is a response to one of the less predictable developments of the digital age: the explosion of interest in, and construction of, big old-fashioned material museums.

Museums were awesome when I was a little kid in the 1960s, but by the 1980s when I was a grown professional, they were corny, fleabitten, ideologically dubious, ecologically imperialist, and under suspicion of having looted most of their contents from unsuspecting (or overpowered) natives. At the time, I thought this was just what happened to all of your favorite childhood things as you grew up. But Thomas notes that I really was riding a wave that threatened to send museums into oblivion. They had changed: they'd dropped the ball of progress, they'd lost visitors and funding, they'd broken with their nation-building past, and they'd become sensitive about the issue of repatriation.

With the coming of the Internet, museums seemed destined to be paved over and turned into parking lots. With knowledge digitally everywhere, and access increasingly democratic, who would ever again want to visit the massive entry hall of the American Museum of Natural History to stare appreciatively at statues of Teddy Roosevelt taking up the white man's burden? Followed by stuffed carcasses of exotic animals that Teddy or someone like him had shot, and quaint artifacts from the travels of Margaret Mead, which were increasingly seen as little more in tune with diverse world cultures than Teddy himself?

And then, somehow, as if orchestrated by a massive invisible hand, museums did an about-face in the past 25 years to become the foci of many a civic renewal and magnets for global tourism. And you know how this works: you can't wait to get on a plane to tour the museums of some distant city, while you haven't remembered to renew your membership with the museum in your own for years. And it hardly matters, because thousands of tourists a week are pouring into your city to see your museum. To paraphrase Pascal, we might all be better off quietly taking in our own museums.

Because there's almost certainly a museum near you. Thomas points out that the rising tide of interest in museums has lifted every variety: local culture and history, art, natural science, global collections – pretty much anything you can stuff into a well-lit space and slap a gift shop beside.

But if museums have experienced immense revival, their problematics haven't simply gone away in the process. Entering a museum nowadays seems to involve a lot of meta-thought about what you're doing there. Interpretive text and exhibition catalogs draw attention to how displays have been crafted by curators. Old-style reticence about discussing the provenance and politics of objects has become as passé as old-style cultural triumphalism. Still, one of Thomas's main themes is that for all the direction we now receive about how to think critically in museums, they remain places where people are remarkably free to choose their own experiences.

There's no script when you enter a museum; there's no obligatory point of view for an exhibit. Even if curators try to manage visitors' perception as much as possible, yakking at them through those annoying audio guides, every visitor comes away with a different experience – not just in the sense of individual interpretation or subjective feeling, but of the basic sensory texture of the time they spent there (and that amount of time, Thomas points out, varies greatly from visitor to visitor, even in the most directed of timed-entry exhibitions). The impact of museums, says Thomas, "may arise not from their particular disciplinary orientation or content, but from the very fact that we cannot predict or prescribe what visitors make of them" (145).

In other words, the elusive goal of "critical thinking" might be taught best not by posing problems and training people to steer through them, but by setting them loose in a roomful of mute, provocative stuff. Of course, to do that, a museum must have some sort of stuff to display. Thomas notes that

there is nothing wrong with science centres in which interactive exhibits of various sorts can render a whole range of processes and principles visible, entertaining and spectacular. But these techniques exemplify a distinct exhibitionary mode that is not museological in the strict sense. (140)
I visited two museums in Gdańsk, Poland last fall. One was the Polish Post Office, a site of resistance during the brief campaign that opened the second world war in Europe in 1939. The building survived the war and is still a working post office. Half of the ground floor is devoted to a display of artifacts from the battle. The post office itself is one of those artifacts, the damage caused by German shelling visibly patched over on its façade. It may not be much of a museum, but it's vivid and immediate – and you can buy a postcard and mail it home on the spot if you want.

The other museum was the European Solidarity Centre a few blocks away. This is a very recent (2014), massive construction on the grounds of the old Gdańsk shipyards, clad in rusty iron panels to make it look suitably grim and industrial. Inside, however, the Centre is shiny and postmodern, combining exhibit floors with archives and, weirdly enough, Lech Wałęsa's office – not some sort of replica, but the man's actual office. He wasn't there the day I went.

The European Solidarity Centre is certainly informative, but it suffers from a lack of stuff. There's a forklift or two that were apparently once driven around by some of the early organizers of Solidarność – but on the whole, the Centre belongs to the genre of museum that I'd call "mural books," with big enlargements of photographs, a map or two, and lots and lots of text. It's often unclear how much one gains from the mural-book experience that one wouldn't gain from reading a book – or a small pamphlet, which is all that the text in such places often reduces to. But books don't have gift shops or cafés.

So it may not matter what kind of stuff a museum presents, or how much, or even how rare and unusual, as long as there are objects, and preferably objects with history attached – not objects that merely symbolize history, but objects that have been through many hands and played their own role in the material construction of history. "People should have the opportunity," Thomas advocates,

to encounter not only artworks, presented as singular things, but the histories of acquisition and exchange that have drawn them together, ostensibly systematized them, perhaps subsequently fragmented and redistributed them. (141)
This is why, at blockbuster temporary art exhibitions, I love to read text that talks about the provenance of a piece, and where it's on loan from. It's doubtless why the interpretive text at such exhibitions expounds more and more these days on the circumstances in which an artwork was collected (or held onto by the artist), and shown and re-shown and otherwise circulated.

And like the Polish Post Office, the more venerable museums have themselves become museum pieces. Museums, Thomas argues, "reflect successive phases of establishment, enlargement, neglect and perhaps subsequent renewal" (118). Experienced "museologically," august old piles like the Louvre and the Metropolitan reveal whole histories of cultural appropriation and display. The American Museum (which has displaced some of its Teddy-and-the-natives items in favor of less-political dinosaurs) remains my favorite museum of all – less a deliberate preference for me than an addiction that I need to satisfy annually. I first loved it for those dinosaurs, or more specifically for the dinosaur eggs and trackways that remain some of the most spectacular exhibits in any paleontological collection. But over the years, the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians has become one of the most important places in the world for me.

The Hall is the creation of Franz Boas, who was determined to challenge "racial theory, social evolutionary thought and similarly hierarchical conceptions of human variety" (107).

His fullest articulation of the argument was the hall itself, which remains what Lévi-Strauss famously called it, "a magic place," one that would strike visitors today as more progressive and remarkable had its propositions not gone on to form part of a broad (if chronically qualified and conflicted) public understanding of cultural diversity and cultural value. (110)
Boas's simple but radical idea was to place artifacts in separate areas defined by glass cases that serve as display areas and modular walls. Each area is devoted to a different tribe from the Pacific Northwest. The artifacts include some striking ritual objects, especially masks, and some fine examples of handicrafts; but the governing theme is that of material solutions to the problems of everyday living.

Far from looting stuff like this moss, incidentally, Boas – like many a collector – bought it, or commissioned it: the items in the Hall come from the contact zone between lives in progress and the collecting impulse.

The Hall of Northwest Coast Indians thus preserves evidence of various ways of life and evidence of how some Western thinkers turned decisively away from the idea that their own way of life must be higher, more sophisticated, or further along the march of historical inevitability. I hope nobody ever gets the idea of gussying it up. The Hall is badly lit and fitfully provided with interpretive aids. (It also isn't precisely as Boas left it, because intermediate gussying up, till about forty or fifty years ago, I'd reckon, has intervened.) But in its current stasis, the Hall seems to preserve fascinating layers of life and critical investigation that would be lost irretrievably in any "renovation." Or, at least, that's one person's critical experience of unique museum visits in New York.

Thomas, Nicholas. The Return of Curiosity: What museums are good for in the 21st century. London: Reaktion, 2016.