Museums and Heritage: When does vanity supersede history?

 Museum Image

By Laohnorian Madani

Photo Credits: Unsplash

From a very young age, the premise of the museum fascinated me. The prospect of a building devoted to serving as a repository of past memories and achievements impressed my mind, and regular visits to a small archaeological museum in my neighbourhood just bolstered my preconceived notions of what a museum could potentially be. This initial interest later transformed into a general appreciation for the wonders of history, heritage, and culture across the globe, as well as the manners in which it is preserved for posterity.

After digging into the history of museums and the artifacts enshrined therein, however, I came to a dismaying conclusion that very much contradicted my high opinion of museums and historical collections at large (or perhaps, more accurately, those in charge of maintaining them); namely, that in constructing them, the vanity of the curators and collectors often eclipsed the heritage their intentions were to ostensibly protect. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a plethora of well-documented instances where curators presented forged replicas of timeless artifacts masquerading as the real versions, a black market for smuggled relics that arose during the ‘Scramble for Africa’, as the annexation of the land and resources of Africa during the late 19th century by various conflicting European powers was dubbed, and other questionable presentation methods whose focus was not on providing the viewer an authentic historical experience, but rather a theatrical one.

An example of this that blurs the boundary between absurd and downright comical was an American museum’s Ancient Egypt exhibit, featuring a mummy smuggled into the United States by a German businessman, who had received the invaluable cargo from hired tomb robbers. In order to confer vitality upon the mummy, whose spine was found to be abnormally bent, the curator grafted a wooden broom handle to its vertebrae in an effort to straighten its back and have it strike a confident pose for visitors’ amusement. Irrespective of the humour of that situation, the prevalence of museums emphasizing vanity and spectacle at the expense of the history they were intended to promote is deeply concerning. 

As colonialism reached its peak towards the end of the 19th century, many wealthy collectors from North America and Europe and/or their associates traveled the world via ship, and with the assistance of local guides, who were paid significantly better than the average citizen in many colonized countries, visited historical sites of relevance and relieved them of their artifacts. In many cases, collections of artifacts taken from a particular region, such as the Indian subcontinent or Central America, were often combined into mixtures that carelessly took works representing various different time periods, regions, tribes, and even artistic styles under a single geographical label.

The end of overt colonialism did surprisingly little to change this paradigm, except opening the entire world, rather than a small subset of subjugated countries, to the same treatment. Over the last several decades, millions of priceless relics have been auctioned between wealthy owners and museums as if they are mere trifles, and as technology improves, general interest in history decreases, forcing museums to over-compensate by adding an entertainment aspect to their modus operandi.

Furthermore, as larger, well-established museums increasingly embrace the dramatic and unexpected in a bid to attract visitors, smaller, more authentic establishments which cannot hope to compete in such a race are falling by the wayside. Within an hour’s drive of my home, one can find well over a dozen small museums, scattered across various backroads. Almost without exception, these museums, depicting the traditions that once graced the area more than 100 years ago, are completely dependent on municipal and regional government support to operate. Visitors interested in viewing the stories and exhibits depicting traditions past in their own backyard are so few, in fact, that most depend on a rotating corps of volunteers just to open their doors for several hours a day. As these unlikely heroes gradually age, I greatly fear that vanity could win out, and the sensationalizing of history obscure stories close to home. People tend to remember history for armies galloping across various landscapes, mass indignities committed on helpless groups, and castles and temples littering hills and valleys, and in fact, such a simplistic view can actually help the uninitiated appreciate the tradition of one or more particular cultures, and how that inextricably ties into their heritage.  

However, that does not change moderation being essential: while converting an entire episode of history into concise form is not inherently problematic, and indeed serves a good purpose, it comes with a sacrifice of details. Simplicity is the soul of understanding, but excessive simplicity can sometimes do more to confuse and obfuscate than even the most convoluted presentations of information.

Worst of all are those who purchase historical artifacts as pure playthings, entirely uninterested in the deeper heritage they allude to, and it is those collectors that constitute the image of vanity, and thus indirectly inspired these words. There is no worse fate the remnants of history can suffer than to be used as air pumps to inflate another’s ego.

Ultimately, this disturbing trend ties into a modern age of rampant consumerism and exceedingly low attention spans, where social media campaigns, intricately filmed documentaries, and even blatant clickbait are often necessary to force a widespread appreciation for particular historical achievements, whose annals have been stored in museums for centuries. To paraphrase the quote, a society that cannot appreciate its history and traditions resembles a tree without roots, prone to being entirely blown away by even the slightest destabilization. History serves an almost religious purpose in this sense: providing a common thread that links the intentions and interests of a group of people, and a tangible cause to defend when sovereignty, liberty, and even survival are under threat. Understanding our heritage gives us a concrete vantage point for understanding the worldviews of others, as well as our own. As Aldous Huxley put it, ‘to travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.’

An unfortunate side effect of technological advances is that the unique heritages many cultures possess have largely been diluted into a generally aimless ‘melting pot’ of ideas, and in doing so, traditions are becoming extinct at a concerning pace. Though we are perhaps closer to that point than we ever anticipated, this trajectory is not yet irreversible.

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