Universal Museums Should Disappear

In my Love Letter to Cape Town, I explain how South Africa has changed me. Professionally, it has also had an influence on how I see my future career. My experience in South Africa modified my objectives. What I want to achieve has changed. The way I want to work has changed. And it is partly because of what I am going to explain now.

A few weeks ago, I published my thoughts on the museum culture in Cape Town saying that visiting museums wasn’t a very Capetonian activity because of the outdoor lifestyle the locals have. I have been thinking about it more recently and I don’t think it’s only because the weather is good and the scenery is nice. There’s something else. The museum culture in general in just very western. Let me explain.

Long story short, universal museums such as the Louvre in Paris or the British Museum in London come from cabinets of curiosities. During the Renaissance in Europe, rich men started to collect items from all over the world in a single room: the cabinet. They wanted the ‘wonders’ of the world in one space. Over the years, the collections became larger and larger which forced the collectors to classify their collection in certain ways (by use, provenance, etc). They also experimented with different ways of displaying their collections. Slowly, they started to open the doors of their cabinets to visitors: specialists and academics first and then to a larger audience. These collections were the base of the big universal museums we have in Europe today.

Therefore, going to a museum is all about seeing objects from other cultures, made by population living far away. It is about seeing wonders. It is still what people expect today: seeing things they are not used to see. They want to be amazed, fascinated, surprised. We just need to remember one thing: these collections are the result of colonialism. If the rich European collectors put their cabinet of curiosities together, it’s because objects from far away were brought back by conquerors after their expeditions around the world. Therefore, in a way, universal museums are a celebration of colonialism. The museum culture subsequently derives from it.

In South Africa – and this could be true for other countries as well – there isn’t this mindset of ‘going to see what our empire brought back’. It simply does not exist. Museums don’t hold objects from other cultures, from ‘far away’. They hold objects related to the history and cultures of the country. I believe this explains why people don’t really go to museums. They have never been attracted to visit a place where they would see what they deal with everyday. And because it is not a habit, it is difficult to make it become one. However, as the museum culture evolves, the reason why people visit museum is more and more the experience itself than the objects on display. In that sense, and as I expressed in my previous post, museums in Cape Town and in South Africa generally should work in developing a museum culture that is their own, that resembles their needs and aspirations.

And, as the new French official report states (and this will be discussed in another post), universal museums should gives their collections back to the countries they were taken from if they were the result of stealing, war or colonialism. As a consequence, and because it just sounds right, universal museums should simply disappear.

Maxime

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