Museums: What They Are And What They Must Be. The Example Of America

We think too often that a museum is a repository where you discard all sorts of objects. Arts, history, natural sciences, technology, curiosities. You place exhibits from all these domains into bright and spacious halls; you range them nicely one next to the other and sometimes even tag them, providing explanatory inscriptions. Then you invite people – who either know or don't, either understand what they are all about or don't – to look at them. In the office the director works on the administrative correspondence, the staff calculates the number of the exhibits and, most important, the attendants take care that nothing is touched, and, what's more, stolen. And these trustworthy people look at the clock very often so that a quarter of an hour before the closing time written on the entrance door they make noise and let everyone know, even the most stubborn of visitors, that it is high time to leave.That's how it is with us, that's how it is in countries more advanced than ours in this Europe which in many regards has remained so dry and formal that the culture it prides itself on is, in fact, as proven by all those tribulations and revolutions, utterly superficial.Actually, America, the country of enlightened democracy, is a brilliant example at this point, too.Museums, which are naturally fraught with numerous drawbacks, must by all means attempt to become something else.Let us think of one thing first: the objects brought together were not made for such a purpose. Not one painter or sculptor, not even our coevals, who when creating also think of seeing their works brought, hung and ranged in a museum, have in mind these walls, one like the other, on which nails are driven in to support the canvasses or near which statues are placed on wood or metal pedestals. Or the glass cases where vessels or knickknacks or wonders of nature are arranged, that have not been made either to be stuffed, or mothballed behind cold glass.What represents a creation of man's hands, just like what pertains to the giant thesaurus of nature, has always been connected to an environment.Animals and plants mingled in the grandiose symphony of the worlds and it is only thus, under a certain sky, close to woods, hills and waters that they had a purpose. From this vantage it is at least partly that the Zoology Museum on the promenade – we are still waiting for the Botany one to be opened – can be deemed to meet a different concept than that frozen in time.Here I am thinking of the artistic or historical materials in museums.These are parts of a life span, and around them, the life from which we took or tore them away, must be magically conjured.If we are dealing with something extracted from a house, it is this house and its surroundings that we must see. That is why what was done first in Stockholm, and then in Oslo, and I think also in Denmark, the happy renewal by a great lover of things and people, the so-called "skansen", replacing the old ditches of the city. There man himself was brought with his animals, and a house built equipped with furniture suited to his class, thus giving him the opportunity to live as in his native village. I also saw the Eskimo in his hut, around the red flame of the fire, and in the garden herds of reindeer led by old men, going to chew at the appropriate hour, as if in the vicinity of the Pole, their daily food consisting of moss from the extreme North. Something else! No more shelves, cases and coffers with objects or dolls![1]But besides this resolute need for a type of harmony to correspond to the realities arbitrarily broken and which we should replace as much as possible, there is more.A museum setting must not be eternal so that, except for those beauty fans all the others should leave satisfied that they have "seen" it all, and consequently "know" it all, and won't come back ever again. Outside permanent reconstructions that correspond to a great educational need, there should be new arrangements for various occasions. Thus the staff of a museum could be constantly busy not only with receiving, classifying and exhibiting, once and for all, every possible object but also with those passing displays that awaken and satisfy a constantly new craving.It was in this sense that the National Library of Paris worked a few years ago, its huge dowry being, in a way, that of a museum. The thousands of precious objects were evidence of various connections, with each new invitation to the public a new chapter in the life of the human civilization being opened. The public rushed immediately there, prompted by the warm desire to learn more, and the effect for general culture was acknowledged as considerable. Some similar exhibitions at the Romanian Academy, too little researched, showed that Mr. I. Bianu, so diligent and so in step with the times at quite an advanced age, is praiseworthily bent on spreading knowledge.Finally, a museum must create around it other complementary abodes, other supportive institutions, without which it cannot accomplish its mission.In this respect America teaches us a lot.[2] The staff, that has an excellent knowledge of all the things entrusted to them and who keep in many lockers the thousands of exhibits that are not on display. Thus, when I came with tens of Romanian rugs in gift, I was thus shown by young ladies who had the respective department in care, exhibit after exhibit, all sorts of weavings that they found immediately with amazing certainty. The staff seek, encourage and guide the public even when they are dealing with people almost without any culture. Schoolchildren fill the halls and the objects are explained to them with parental care and you can even see kids sitting down on the floor and copying, under the rejoicing eyes of the teachers and guide, what they find more beautiful and more interesting. In places, the catalogues are not simple lists but a genuine history of art with the stress on the objects held by the museum.In the neighboring halls, just like in the libraries so warmly and humanely welcoming, conferences, get-togethers should be organized. A cozy atmosphere of brotherhood between those who know and those who don't know, between those who understand and those who must be taught to understand is absolutely necessary for a society befuddled by the material cares of the day in order to be awakened to a life that is the sole one worth living.Will we have to wait long for a people so intelligent and light-desirous as ours to manage to have at its disposal what it takes to resume its best traditions and thus give civilization what many generations were prevented from doing at inauspicious times?
[1] There are several paragraphs omitted in the 1936 edition. See them in the final notes, p.695.[2] N. Iorga made a single trip to the United States of America, in 1930 (January 27- March 20). The organization of museums and libraries in that country made an excellent impression on him and therefore he would ceaselessly give the States as an example. See America and the Romanians in America, Travel notes and Conferences, 1030, in N. Iorga, On Distant Roads, Minerva Publishing House, 1987, vol. III, pp.5-224.

by Nicolae Iorga (1871-1940)