On “The Museum of the Future”

Posted on April 30, 2011

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The Atlantic recently unearthed a couple of rather sweet articles from its great archives (a reminder that everything we know now is connected to that which has been previously discovered).

One of the articles is Walter Lippman’s 1948 vision for The Museum of the Future. He makes a pretty lovely case for the importance of museums:

The experience of man, and the creations, inventions, discoveries of men throughout the ages and in an infinite variety of circumstances, transcend our personal lives and our immediate interests. This inheritance is worth collecting and preserving and using—whatever our transient hopes and fears… Without the accumulated achievements of the past to work upon, the freedom of men would be limited by the necessity of rediscovering and of repeating endlessly that which has already been discovered and experienced. And since life is short and art is long, not much would be discovered, and little would be created.

However, his sentiments are preceded in an article from 1893 by Edward S Morse, titled If Public Libraries, Why Not Public Museums? I find it fascinating to realise not much longer than a century ago, in America at least, the case for museums is not yet made… So what does Morse see as being the special role of the museum? He writes:

the building of a museum requires special gifts and special training. Besides, one thoroughly imbued with the spirit of a collector should have charge of a museum… The absence of a public demand for museums in the past has arisen from the methods of public instruction. Lessons from books, and not from nature, have been the tiresome lot of school children. Questions and answers, cut and dried, have tended to deaden the inquiring spirit.

Thomas Greenwood, the author of a special work on museums and art galleries, expresses his belief that “the museum of the future must stand side by side with the library and the laboratory, as a part of the teaching equipment of the college and the university, and in the great cities cooperate with the public library as one of the principal agencies for the enlightenment of the people.”… A museum seems as much an integral part of the public library as are the experiments part of a lecture on chemistry or physics. If the public library is established primarily for educational purposes, surely the public museum should come in the same category. The potency of an object in conveying information beyond all pages of description is seen in the fact that in the museum a simple label associated with a veritable object is often sufficient to tell the story at a glance; the eye seizes the essentials at once.

Taken together, we get a sense that the legacy of the museum is to enliven learning and to leave the traces of man’s experience writ large upon the world so that we can truly understand who we are, and how our world works (oh were it only so simple). But maybe these early visions can provide some perspective to the question that keeps popping up from those working in digital heritage: what would a museum look like if it was invented today?

Despite being written in 1948, Lippman’s vision seems almost slightly prescient of what the future could hold for museums as we move further into the digital age (emphasis added):

One can imagine, I venture to think, that the museum of the future will have two departmentsone the sanctuary where the unique objects, the irreplaceable relics, are preserved and exhibited for the veneration and the enjoyment of those who make the pilgrimage; the other department in effect a library for the student, the scholar, and the amateur, where they can find, as in any library, collected in one place and readily accessible to them various editions of the unique objects which are scattered in the sanctuaries all over the world.

Lippman’s vision for a museum of the future so articulated does not sound so different from the clearly delineated ‘departments’ we now find as museums move online, with the physical museum akin to Lippman’s sanctuary, the the digital collection likened to his library. How the second of these develops further is the next interesting question… So what will the museum of the future really look like?

Posted in: Museums