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Purposes of museums

This week’s papers mainly talk about the history and the purposes of museums. The word museum originally comes from the Greek mouseion, it meant “seat of the Muses” and denoted a place or temple designed as a place of contemplation or a philosophical institution. The traditional mission of a museum is to collect objects and materials of cultural, religious and historical importance, preserve them, research into them and present them to the public for the purpose of education and enjoyment. When I read about the case of National Museum of Iraq in The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao, I love the saying that the museum is civilization and a place for cultural heritage. At the same time, I could not help thinking about the ethical dilemma of preserving world cultures. There are hundreds and thousands of priceless historical artifacts have long been stolen, traded, sold and passed through uncountable hands to be shipped away from their original countries and displayed in foreign countries museums. More than 150 years after British and French troops sacked and razed the Summer Palace, almost every year around the anniversary of the sacking of Beijing’s Summer Palace in 1860, come calls for the return of ‘stolen’ antiquities. By last year, the China Cultural Relics Academy was estimating that 10 million Chinese items were overseas. Should these museums return art or not? Who should own indigenous art? How can these ‘universal’ museums (mostly western) obtain and display artifacts without stoking the illegal art trade and reproducing colonialist narratives? Andrew McClellan regards museum as a place of refuge and dialogue. Some scholars focus on the enlightenment virtues and educational potential of museums and regards that museums should be universal. As far as I am concerned, in order to honor and nurture the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples and to foster the understanding and the cross-cultural communication, those stolen artifacts should be returned to their hometowns.

Beautiful and priceless’ ancient treasures stolen from Afghanistan on show at British Museum

Professor Irvine defines museums as “mediums with a message” in the paper The Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld. What I understand is that museum is a space that mediates for other media, the collection and the senses, the ideologies, and also a mediator of time, history, and memory. For example, different types of museums mediate their ideologies in ways that serve distinct purposes. Museums can function as a symbol that represent the identity, power, and wealth of a nation. The art museum utilizes an aesthetic approach to ordering knowledge, utilizing art objects to mediate national pride, sophistication, and elitism. The natural history and science museum served as a platform for showcasing man’s domination over his surroundings through classification, description, and the establishment of hierarchies within nature. The museum can also mediate time by compressing the exhibition narrative in a way that conforms to the physical limitations of the exhibition space or the visiting time. In this way, the museum has the power to “re-present” history.