Monday, 16 May 2011

The history museum that makes all the difference

In my last post I commented on the story told (or rather not told) by some of the national history museums I have visited. I remember having visited museums of this type in Athens, Barcelona, Helsinki, Berlin, Washington and, more recently, in Buenos Aires (this one hasn´t got its own website).

There are those that simply tell the story of the struggle for independence (Athens, Buenos Aires); or rather do not tell it, because the mere exhibition of arms, paintings, documents is not enough to tell that story. Normally, national visitors, and more specifically, national visitors with some knowledge of history, have got an advantage in relation to national and international visitors that enter the museum hoping to acquire this kind of basic knowledge.

There are also those national museums of history that go a step further (Barcelona, Helsinki, Berlin), first of all in terms of time, in order to present more recent episodes, but also in terms of depth and diversity in the approach, moving beyond the political/military history in order to approach cultural and social issues (education, health, religion, family/professional/social life, the arts, etc.).

When I commented in my post about the lack of capacity of many of these museums to tell the story of the nation, I was referring to the permanent exhibition, which is the one all visitors have access to at any time. I came out of the majority of those museums feeling either that I hadn´t learnt a thing or that the approach had been quite limited, insufficient for my curiosity, for what I had expected to learn about the country or region (I am referring to Catalunia) I was visiting.

The task is not an easy one. The history of the nation is an extensive, multifaceted, sensitive, controversial story. It requires space and means. But it also requires a vision, because it is not a story that has been completed, but a story in continuous production and this fact affects the museum´s acquisition policy.

I highlighted in my last post the National Museum of American History in Washington as an illustrious exception. I should say in the first place that the material and human resources of this museum (one of the Smithsonian Institution museums) cannot be compared to any other´s. It is true that the scale is infinitely larger. Nevertheless, besides the resources, what distinguishes this museum of national history, in my opinion, is its vision. It´s new, innovative for the museum field, fresh, inspired, in relation to what constitutes the history of the american nation. A vision that becomes obvious once we take a look at the objects exhibited and the texts that accompany them.

In this museum we can find the flag that inspired the american national anthem; the manuscript of Abraham Lincoln´s Gettysbourg address in 1863, one of the most known speeches in american history; the Greensboro lunch counter where in 1960 four black students sat in order to have lunch, defying the “white only” rule. We can also find the red shoes Judy Garland used in the film The Wizard of Oz; Kermit the Frog, from the Muppet Show; Muhammad Ali´s boxing gloves; a series of posters of different periods encouraging the population to vote. Here you can see a few images of objects and texts that better illustrate this museum´s vision on what constitutes american national history (it´s enough to click on the images to see them in normal size and be able to read the texts).

Last February, Brent Glass, the director of the National Museum of American History, was in Portugal and gave a speech at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. We got to know a bit more about the museum´s management and, among other things, about its acquisition policy. The collection includes and is constantly enriched with objects such as cars and musical instruments, presidential campaign materials and furniture, photographs and posters, objects related to agriculture, religion, science, popular culture, the various communities that compose the american nation, among many other things. Brent Glass was in Portugal because in 2015 the museum will present an exhibition on his country´s ethnic cultural heritage, and there will be a reference to Portugal as well.

The objects that in other countries are part of collections of distinctive museums (national museums of history, archaeology, ancient art, modern art, contemporary art, music, cinema, sports, science, natural history, etc.) are gathered here under the same ‘roof’, considering that they all contribute in telling the nation´s story (a fact that doesn´t prohibit the existence of specific museums in those fields; actually, the Smithsonian Institution runs quite a few of them). As I said, not all museum have the material and human resources of the National Museum of American History. But if they shared its vision, they could maybe try to articulate their permanent exhibitions, with the aim to present national and international visitors the different chapters of a unique story. This could also be a way of explaining to the public why they are ‘national’.

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