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Museums: The Old And The New

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Do you remember going to museums when you were young? They were wonderful places for a kid, from the huge dinosaurs and the full suits of armour to the weapons and the stuffed animals in the zoological section. Of course nothing could beat the ancient mummies in the Egyptology sections; nothing like dead bodies to enthrall groups of kids.

In Toronto, where I spent a good chunk of my childhood, we had The Royal Ontario Museum (R.O.M.). It was a treasurehouse for kids. Including the basement, it was four stories of musty rooms filled with things from all over the world to excite the imagination and scare the willies out of you.

The R.O.M. of my memory is a lot different than the reality today. Back then it was still an old-fashioned British-styled museum with row upon row of glass-fronted display cases filled with bits and pieces of civilizations and animal life that had been collected and gathered by field workers for years.

It was where I was introduced to the fact that there were other cultures that existed in the world aside from ours. Giant statues of Buddha were down one corridor while up another flight of stairs stood the elephant-headed Ganesa. Around another corner stood Tyrannosaurus rex with wide open jaws ready to rip and tear.

Standing in the main foyer you could see the magnificent totem polls that ran from the basement to the top floor as the staircases wrapped around them. Of course these were more innocent and naïve times back then, when the words cultural theft and appropriation hadn’t even entered our vocabulary.

We could look at tribal masks from the Haida and Iroquois nations without feeling the regrets we do now. Although, every time I would make it into the basement for the displays representing life in villages, a palpable wave of sadness would hit me. The frozen faces of mannequins of men and women locked forever into a tableaux of planting corn, cleaning skins, and sitting around fires were so forlorn that you almost wished you could wake them up.

But those moments were few and far between for 10-year-old children who were easily diverted by the 25-foot stuffed python on the third floor, or even better, the actual live one that was brought in for a visit. Its animated 15 feet were easily as impressive as the stuffed one’s 25.

Planetariums were still new back then in the early seventies. When the R.O.M. first opened, the planetarium attached to it was like another world having been opened for us. None of us kids had ever experienced anything like it, laying back in chairs and watching the stars and planets sweep overhead; it was almost frightening in its immediacy and size. The universe was right there in front of your face and you couldn’t ignore it or how small you were compared to just the size of our solar system.

Museums have changed in the 30-plus years since I first explored the R.O.M. No longer can they simply display history in glass-fronted cases and hope to be able to capture the imagination of children. They’ve been forced to integrate technology into their displays and make them “sexier” for kids.

Some of the technology is great because it enhances the experience by allowing for the recreation of events in ways that could never even have been thought of when I was a kid. But some of it seems to be mainly to prevent the kids from figuring out that they might be learning something. There are bells and whistles that light up and go off for no apparent reason except to flash lights and make noise.

Even the architecture has changed. For the R.O.M., a lot of this involved the essential building of additions to bring more of its exhibits out of storage so the public could see them, or opening existing galleries to more natural light. Items that used to be hidden away in dark corners, almost invisible due to poor lighting, are now exposed and awaiting their public.

The museums themselves are becoming works of art and the R.O.M. is no exception. They are rebuilding and renovating on a massive scale in order to bring even more exhibitions into the public eye. They are claiming that Renaissance R.O.M. is one of the largest Mmuseum renovation projects in the world today, but at what cost?

I don’t mean simply the financial cost; what is it doing to the experience of going to the museum? Will these grandiose buildings springing up to house collections of art and artifacts in major cities around the world serve the public they are designed for, or just alienate them with their splendour?

Part of the attraction of museums was their comfort. Sure, they were cramped in places but they felt homey. These were places that you’d want to spend time in, in quiet contemplation of some interesting point of history. Or perhaps sit in a corner and sketch the designs inscribed on a sarcophagus in the Egyptology room.

According to a report in today’s Globe and Mail newspaper, Canada’s museums are in crisis. Governments have no problems putting up huge amounts of money for massive renovation projects like that of the R.O.M., but are unwilling to do anything about maintaining them after they are up and running.

Museums like the R.O.M. should be all right, but it’s the mid-size museums across the country that are in serious trouble, according to the article. In some ways these museums are almost more important than their glamorous big city cousins, because they concentrate on one area or one topic of history. Without them, the knowledge they preserve could be lost forever.

Our museums are vital links to our national past and, for some of us, our first introduction to the wider world that lies beyond our doorstep. While it is important that they attempt to keep abreast of the times so as to be able to attract new audiences, it is also important that they maintain the ability to make its guests feel at home to study and learn.

These are not just for entertainment; they are for studying and learning. They don’t need to tell this to the young people they are trying to attract if they don’t want to, but they shouldn’t lose sight of it themselves.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.