Can museums really make a difference?

As museologists I guess most of our research at least touches upon the power of museums and their potential as instruments of social change. Here's a BBC report about an inspired collaboration between Google Earth and the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, which aims to highlight genocide in Darfur, and -crucially - affect a change:

BBC NEWS World Africa Google Earth turns spotlight on Darfur

"Museum director Sara Bloomfield said the challenge in preventing genocide was
not only to inform people but also to make them empathise with the victims - and
then act.

"When it comes to responding to genocide, the world's record is terrible," she said. Each information screen has a link for people to follow for advice on what they can do to help - including writing letters to politicians.

And with some 200 million people using Google Earth over the past two years, the scheme's potential reach is huge.

The museum's Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative - which aims to halt violence before it becomes genocide - could be extended to other conflicts in the future."
Lofty and admirable aims, but do individual museums (however iconic) have the necessary political clout and high profile to change the world? I'm not sure, but it's got to be worth a go.


Ceri said…
I will write a much fuller review over the next few days or so but this question cropped up at the conference I went to in Swansea recently. Although it was directly in relation to history... was history powerful enough to shape social memory? I think this is the same kind of question, are cultural institutions powerful enough to shape minds? I am still grappling with this so will leave that question hanging for a moment.

A second issue that came from the same conference which I will also develop more another time, is that museums a mausoleums. That as soon as they try and preserve a culture that culture effectively dies because it is 'fossilised'. Therefore once people have to go to the museum to see their life and experience 'captured' this is the death knell for that culture because it is something that is alive and dynamic but museums are not like that. Things stay the same and nothing changes. I think if this is the perception of museums in the outside world then we still have a long way to go... I am sorry if I write this badly but I will have a better think about it and post my thoughts more coherently.
Amy said…
Ah! Interesting, cos me and Mary had a little discussion about this sort of thing on t'other blog recently. My most recent 'theory' is that - in relation to 'difficult' histories - museums actually keep artefacts in cultural circulation. Far from dead, they still resonate with the memories, experiences and incidents associated with them - particularly those related to history in living memory, or where the legacy of which remains powerful into the contemporary (e.g. those piles of glasses, or shoes or artificial limbs at Holocaust exhibitions). Memorialised sites associated with recent history - like the Stasi HQs in the former GDR, for example - on the other hand are 'authentic', but serve to contain the perceived power or trauma associated with them and, perhaps, the fallen regime, psychologically permitting people to leave their 'baggage' behind and get on with their daily lives. All this completely contradicts the usual interpretation of the 'museumfication' process of course, which I also accept. Perhaps the above is quite specific to recent history? I dunno... Would be really interested to hear what others think.
Ceri said…
I think that is a very interesting idea Amy and I am eager to understand more about the fear of 'loss of memory' that prompts us to create memorial sites in the first place. It is something often referred to often in respect of the older generation for the young, the assumption that they are feckless, wilfully ignorant of the past. It is assumed that society must remember or it will forget and make the same mistakes (or we move the mistake to another area of the world). Oh there is just so much to think about! But thank you for prompting this interesting debate.

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