Museums and Heritage: A Preliminary Guide and Worksheet
Dr. Alia Soliman
As we walk around museums, it’s not just beauty that surrounds us. There are layers of history, individual and collective narratives of human creativity as well as conflict and suffering, but above all, we are in the presence of intricate stories of civilizations. Whether universal museums telling the story of humanity by showcasing artifacts from multiple civilizations or small intimate museums centering on one theme or one person, museums are inherently narrative spaces.
In the context of cultural heritage, museums play a vital role in preserving and promoting patrimony. They conserve, display, interpret, and educate about the cultural, historical, and natural legacy of different regions and communities, thereby fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of our shared human heritage.
In order to fully appreciate the connection between museums and communities we need to understand how to fully benefit from a museum visit.
A museum visit can be so many things including a great pedagogical tool. Whether you’re a student, an educator, or casual art lover, museums can be rewarding.
Museums are narratives spaces.
Museums are also sites of interrogation.
A museum space is one for contemplation, both outward towards the artifacts as well as inward into the self.
The connection between museums and cultural heritage is a layered, and sometimes problematic. Visiting a universal museum in the West is very different from visiting a museum in the Arab world. Each of these spaces wrestles with and celebrates certain ideological and historical intentions. When visiting museums in contested spaces such as certain locales in the Global South, it is important to be cognizant of the underlying histories, both ancient and present.
In recent years, Western museums, as powerful cultural institutions, have come under scrutiny for perpetuating power and racial imbalance initially brought on by colonialism, imperialism, and wars. Power disparity and historical injustices are embedded within the initial construction and concept of said museums. They are sites of immeasurable beauty, yet often the acquisition of such beauty harbors stories of such suffering. Orientalist and colonial attitudes are entrenched in their collections which are often a display of heritage appropriation or what Karl Marx describes as “they cannot represent themselves, they need to be represented”. Approaching these collections with an appreciative yet critical eye and unearthing these narratives are but few of the many benefits and ways to honor these traumatic pasts of nations and people.
A museum in the Arab World is governed by a multitude of existential and historical tensions that underscore the difficulty of protecting and showcasing heritage in the face of ongoing wars, rapid modernization, and socio-political instability. As Walid Raad says, art museums in the Middle East have been affected with an invisibility due to ongoing disasters skirting the area. This invisibility can be seen as one reflective of a material erasure that effectively dispossess heritage sites, such as the looting of the Iraq National Museum during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the destruction of sites like Palmyra during the Syrian Civil War which started in 2011. The heritage dynamics that govern museums in old cities like Beirut, Cairo, and Baghdad are different than the ones that motivate museums in rising cities like Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai, where modernization and the cultivation of wealth drive and interact with the heritage industry, and where the creation of a new type of heritage takes place in the form of futuristic architecture such as one seen in Dubai’s Museum of the Future. Whether you live in Dubai, Beirut, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, or Baghdad, the changing nature, significance, and role of the museum is palpable.
When we look closely at the cultural heritage embedded in the museum concept, a pivotal question arises, are museums keepers of knowledge or depositories of power? Collections and exhibitions, whether in terms of curation, topic, or display, are affected by colonial and postcolonial discourses and contemporary socio-political tensions. When touring a collection, what is present is as powerful as what is absent. Knowledge vacuums are often in connection to power hierarchies, voice is power. What does that mean for an absence of voice?
The argument becomes more poignant when we consider the topic of universal museums established around the 19th century in Europe and the United States. We are often pleased to visit universal museums like Louvre Paris or London’s British Museum where we are able to survey several world cultures under one roof, effectively doing a sweep of humanity through material objects in a matter of hours. While this didactic and audience-centric mission is at the heart of large and reputable museums, many of these artifacts have been acquired at the expense of indigenous communities, which have suffered the collateral damage for centuries, and many of which are now actively seeking the return of these cultural treasures with little to no avail.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, archeological excavations were the product of colonial expansion, whereby these unearthed relics, such as the Egyptian Rosetta Stone which was “rediscovered” by the French in 1799 and later acquired by the British, would be relocated to foreign museums where they would be integrated into the new cultures. Permanent collections of big museums amassed around the 18th and 19th centuries benefited greatly from Colonial loot and empire building. Nations’ material heritage were often considered “spoils of war” or collected for anthropological, scientific, or aesthetic purposes, reflecting the Eurocentric mindset and power dynamics of the time. Conversely, while these acquisitions may be perceived as immoral and unjust they were not illegal as such as these countries had jurisdictions over these colonized spaces. Some Western museums today are benefiting from contemporary wars, such as the Iraq War, where archeological antiquities end up being displayed in their collections. In 2022, the former head of the Louvre Museum in Paris had been charged in connection with an inquiry into the trafficking of relics and antiquities from the Middle East.
It is with an enlightened mind that we need to approach museums. While the educational value of a museum visit cannot be overstated, it is important to be conscious of the historical and contemporary role that museums play in both power imbalance and restorative justice. After the fresh wave of Black Lives Matter which erupted in 2020 post the death of George Flyod, a number of Western museums have restored looted relics which were initially acquired under less than ideal circumstances, such as the Jacques Chirac Museum in Paris which returned some Benin artifacts looted around the 1900s and held in France since, and the Vatican museum returning some of the Greek Parthenon Marbles, thereby restoring the dignity and heritage of these nations though art repatriation and decolonization of collections.
The accumulation and display of historical memory in museums have come under scrutiny in the 21st century for their colonial legacy, lack of gender and racial diversity and representation, and cultural appropriation; calls for decolonization of collections, repatriation and restitution of appropriated heritage, and the reevaluating of the narratives and stories they present about heritage items, focusing on multiple perspectives and diverse voices, have been at the forefront of contemporary museological discourses.
Below is an elemental guide to visiting museums with specific questions that are applicable to most heritage museum visits. The goal of the questions is to stir the mind as well as the imagination, opening new modes of engagement and research pathways. The questions are designed from the broad to the specific, in order to serve all levels of heritage scholars. It is always advisable to answer these questions while in the museum space. They are pedagogical tool which can be given to students on independent visits but can equally be helpful to anyone who finds museum visits to be daunting. The answers to these questions can serve as a draft or starting point for any write-up that you need to do on your museum visit.
The four main elements of your museum visit:
A-LOOK. Look at the exhibition, engaging it as a whole, then look at individual art pieces.
B-DESCRIBE. Describe what you’re seeing.
C-FEEL. Think about how the artwork makes you feel.
D-INTERPRET. Finally, what do you think the collection is trying to convey?
Before engaging any work of art, it is important to have intent or what is referred to below as active looking. Active looking does not only engage our optical senses but also our cognitive faculties and our pre-knowledge. Active looking is an intentional type of looking that lingers, investigates, and draws connections.
It’s essential to follow your own interests, curiosities, and preferred learning style to create a personal and meaningful experience with the art and artifacts on display. Try not to discuss the exhibition and your remarks with anyone until you have written down and processed your own unique and subjective experience.
Ponder the following questions while you are touring the exhibition, write down your notes, observations, and emotions before leaving the exhibition.
- What type of museum are you visiting?
- Who is included in this exhibition? Is it a single artist or a collective?
- Describe the space in which the exhibition is displayed.
- Which types of art and artifacts do you see?
- What specific elements in the exhibition make it special or engaging?
- What specific elements relate to the exhibition theme or the museum’s mission?
- What stories about history and heritage are being told?
- Do you agree with the history and values of the community as portrayed by the exhibition? is it accurate? Why or why not?
- If you were the curator, how would you change this exhibition? What would you add or omit?
- What does this particular museum or exhibition tell us about the legacy of the past?
- How does the exhibition relate to the theme of identity?
- How does the exhibition speak to your own unique identity?
- What types of emotions did you experience when you visited the exhibition?
- Is the art shown topical or outdated? Does it touch on themes important to today’s individual?
- Does this exhibition integrate digital media elements? How does the collection/exhibition interact with digital technology and new identities that emerge from virtual and digital media?
- What aspects of identity are being engaged here? (gender, historical, racial, communal etc.)
- Which artists/artifacts most represent your values or aspirations?
- Which particular images or objects made you feel that way and why?
- Look at the exhibition as a whole then engage one single piece of art. Describe that piece of art in terms of color, composition, camera angle, framing, subject, etc. Apply active looking principles.
- What is being portrayed or conveyed in this image or artifact and how?
- Describe the various elements of the artwork (e.g., figures, objects, colors, shapes).
- Why is this artifact powerful? reflect on elements of form (color, shape, etc) and content (message).
- What personal associations do you make with these elements, and the work as a whole? Does the work trigger any memories for you? Describe them.
- What ideas and beliefs do you think the artist or creator might be communicating? How do these differ from your own?
- Does the work stimulate an emotional response in you? Do any elements of the work intrigue you? Describe them and their effect on you.
- If you could talk to the artist about this work, what questions would you ask?
- What messages do you think the artist might be communicating through the work?
- What element in this image or in the exhibition as a whole inspires you the most? Describe what you might create in response (creative piece, analytical writing, applied art, etc).
- Does the exhibition (or a specific image in the exhibition) relate to any visual or narrative text that you’ve watched or read before?
- Art as seen in the museum space can be a powerful field for self-expression, reinvention, and creativity. How do you feel now that you have finished the exhibition?
Museums and Heritage:
- What aspects of cultural and/or natural heritage have been used as sources of direct or indirect inspiration in this exhibition?
- What stories of mankind are being told here?
- What power structures are highlighted here?
- How can museum conservators balance between preservation and conservation work? i.e, in order for material heritage to survive, sometimes deliberate conservation techniques need to be applied that may in effect alter the nature of the object.
- What is the provenance of this artifact, what displays of power can we ascertain from the trajectory of ownership of this object?
- Reflect on the curatorial decisions around the museum space, organization of the collections, juxtapositions of objects in the galleries, and exhibition materials such as object labels and wall texts.
- Does the exhibition/collection bring up concerns of cultural appropriation?
- What patrimonial injustices are at play here? As heritage scholars and professionals, how can we help silenced voices to maintain their culture, recover their territory, and investigate the historical crimes committed against them?
- how does the external locale outside of the museum interact with and confluence the exhibition and its artifacts, what context does the exhibition operate in? Is this object displayed in the right place? Why and why not?
- What specific takeaway can you contemplate on further after your visit, one which can be the basis of your research?