Museums Gain New Relevance in the Modern World

April 11, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015
Photographers at the unveiling of the Cyrus Cylinder at the National Museum of Iran in Tehran last year. The artefact dating from the 6th century BC has been returned on loan to Iran by the British Museum in London. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)
Photographers at the unveiling of the Cyrus Cylinder at the National Museum of Iran in Tehran last year. The artefact dating from the 6th century BC has been returned on loan to Iran by the British Museum in London. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

Everyone has heard of blockbuster movies and sold-out theater performances, but we do not usually relate blockbuster exhibitions to museums. Now we can, as the dusty shelves and creaking floorboards of the C20 (Culture 20 Summit) museums fast become a thing of the past.

Today, well-considered and relevant exhibitions can be found in museums with artifacts from the past cleverly presented to interact with multimedia, digital displays, and even live performances. Witness, for example, “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition,” which continues to enthrall audiences around the world, attracting more than 20 million visitors.

Andrew Sayers, director of the National Museum of Australia, which is based in Canberra, says museums have had to reconsider how to engage the public and be relevant, and often that is a multi-layered, constant process.

National Identity

People often expect a museum to reflect a national identity. This, however, is a complex process, Sayers said. He cited the fracas surrounding French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s suggestion that a new museum of French history, to be established in the National Archives building in Paris, would “reinforce national identity.”

Critics of the Sarkozy government’s immigration policies immediately raised concerns that it would further drive anti-immigration sentiment. “Many French historians and museologists have an uneasy feeling that the museum will attempt to entrench an insular idea of what it means to be French,” Sayers said.

While an assumption of national identity cannot be predicated on one dominant identity, Sayers said all members of a country were indelibly linked by one commonality, and that is place. “From this point, we can move to the idea of citizenship and from there to the interpretive responsibilities of the museum,” he said.

Soft Power

Interpreting responsibilities of museums involves not only thinking locally, but also increasingly internationally, Sayers said. Speaking at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, Sayers noted, for instance, the increasing “soft-power ambassadorial role” for museums.

The British Government, for example, has a clear and defined strategy of cultural exchanges as a way of furthering country relations, Sayers explained. He cited U.K. Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt, who, in a recent letter to the British Museum, emphasized how important the museum’s cultural exchanges were to the Foreign Office by offering directions on which countries to particularly engage.

The museum director hastened to add that cultural institutions should not be seen as mouthpieces for government propaganda. “This is an important point. Cultural institutions are proudly independent when it comes to content,” Sayers told the audience at the Lowy Institute.

To further illustrate, Sayers read out comments made in a media review of an Australian Indigenous exhibition titled “Cultural Warriors,” which was touring in the United States. “Though the show acts as the most civil of diplomats, it also subverts expectations; more important, its very existence acknowledges a country’s history of state-mandated racism,” the reviewer wrote in “The Washington Post.”

Sayers said the exhibition was considered “a success for Australian interests in the United States precisely because it was tough, critical, and political—not in spite of these things.”

Museums, too, are well-aware of their role in bridging gaps and create their own initiatives, Sayers said, noting the British Museum’s loan last year of the ancient Babylonian cuneiform cylinder—the Cyrus Cylinder—to the National Museum of Iran.

He quoted Karen Armstrong, a British Museum trustee, who said: “This cultural exchange may make a small but timely contribution towards the creation of better relations between the West and Iran.”

Repatriation of Artifacts

Museums have benefited from the digital revolution, Sayers said, but were already well-connected. “Indeed, colonial museums saw themselves as parts of an established worldwide community of scientific and material exchange,” he said.

The British Museum, the Louvre, and the Smithsonian based in Washington were all renowned for their international collections and were considered “world museums.”

World museums, however, have sparked debate about national or international ownership of artifacts, Sayers said, referring to the ongoing challenge faced by the British Museum from Greek authorities over the “Elgin Marbles.” Extended friezes and other pieces were taken from the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis in Athens in the early 1800s, by the then British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin.

While the stand-off between Britain and Greece remains, repatriation of cultural artifacts has become an important part of a museum’s role. Sayers referred to the National Museum of Australia, which has returned the remains of over 1,000 individuals and 360 secret or sacred objects to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

“It is a two-way international exchange—the National Museum assists in the repatriation of remains from willing overseas museums (many of which happen quietly, without publicity), and culturally sensitive material has been repatriated from Australian collections, for example, to Maori and Native American communities,” Sayers explained.

While museum directors looked for ways to be worthwhile and to engage audiences, Sayers remarked on an important factor in the increasing relevance of museums in a modern world.

He noted the performance element in the Australian exhibition “Culture Warriors,” which included speaking opportunities for artists, as well as music, singing, and dance performances.

“This human element, often overlooked if we see museums only as collections of objects, is a vital part of our role into the future, and it is where the most lasting impacts will occur,” Sayers said.