Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do



The idea of opening a new Museum has evaded especially during times when the museum sector was expanding rapidly (2000 - 2009) a deeper reflection about the purpose of museums.  [1]

Therefore, it should not surprise when following question is asked in retrospect: When were the first museums created, for what purpose and how many of them still exist nowadays?

Klaus Heinrich, Philosopher at Science of Religion Institute, Free University of Berlin, equates a museum to something sacro-religious: where items meant for sacrifice are kept. But these ‘places’ need not to be merely temples or temple like buildings as museums have been called for a long time, but they can be already small caves or even more so a window-sill on which items are placed by someone who found it while climbing as tourist over the stones at the coliseum in Rom. It may be a mere fragment of a stone, but it takes on meaning since it serves as a bridge of time to that remote past brought into the present whenever looked at once back home.

In other words, it does not take much to make something into a museum, but still of importance would be to listen to 'voices of certain times', if something reminding remotely of them can be put on display for generations to look at and to imagine how to make these voices become audible. That is, for instance, the problem with Ancient Greek texts with no one sure how the words were pronounced back then. This impossibility marks just one of the many limitations of any display of items of the past. How to translate all the meanings item had in the past and to make them be accessible to a particular, equally moving present, is no easy task. For that present is itself governed by an ongoing change and what people find relevant today, may no longer be today as different set of problems require different solutions and therefore they will look at the past for possible clues quite differently. That is why museums struggle as well with the social relevance question of today. But this has been doing on all the time when looking not merely into the mirror of one's own past, but into the past of humanity in general.

Interestingly enough Klaus Heinrich links museums to vague or even overt signs of suspicion which can prompt transforming an ancient well made visible again at the entrance to a museum into a place into which visitors throw coins for good luck. The reason he gives is the following:

„You don’t have a cave for sacrifices, you don’t own a museum? You don’t have an original woman close at hand? Why all the effort. Take your wallet and put some bare blank coins into it. Perhaps you find even some with a small hole in them. The original woman is pleased. Perhaps you hide this money cat in your back pocket. Here and then you take a look, alone or with friends, and you caress the treasure. Or you stand with the back to the fountain for washing. Rom is a city of grottos. Throw a coin over the shoulder. Say to that the words: “I will come again.” Another advice: take one, two pretty polished little items. Bury these in a small box in the earth. Your enemies will trample over them without noticing them. Later you can in the presence of your friends open up that cave. You will carry that treasure into the room. There the cupboard has been prepared already and also a pair of bottles of wine put out into the cold. Sprinkle the rest on the box. Also the original woman is thirsty. Or you shall not find the entrance anymore. Who knows, who will now lift the treasure. You can be quiet: the future is yours.”  [2]

That reminds of what the Polish journalist and writer Ryszard Kapuscinski said about Armenia when the ‘Armenian book’ was invented:

“Defeated on the battle field, the Armenians seek survival in the scriptoria. That is turning away but this retreat is expression of pride and of the will to survive. What is a scriptoria? It can be a cell, a hut made out of clay or just a cave in the rocks. In the scriptoria there exists a writing desk, and there stands a copyist and writes. In the consciousness of the Armenians there is rooted always the fear of extinction. And with that is connected the uncontrollable wish for rescue. One has to rescue one’s world. Since one cannot rescue it with the sword, then it should be retained in memory. The ship sinks but the log book of the captain should be retained.” [3]


Identification of local population with their museum:

The Brooklyn Museum is less known than MoMa in New York, but it stepped briefly into world attention when the 'Sensation Exhibition' was held there in 1999 and the museum became a focal point of protest against a negative change with regards to artistic freedom. The mayor wanted to close down the exhibition on the grounds that it was not respectful enough of religious feelings. If he had his way, it would have meant direct censorship. For many reasons it is interesting to follow through on that story as to how museums are perceived, and here some authors remind what range of opinions there can exist to make this role more explicit.

Art critic Michael Kimmelman considers the Brooklyn Museum when charged by the then mayor of New York, Rudolph Guiliani, for holding the exhibition ‘Sensation’ as ‘religious blasphemy’ as “one of the least elitist of New York cultural institutions”. This is because, as Carol Becker recalls, everyone in Brooklyn identifies with that museum. For the people of Brooklyn, it is not a sacred temple so much, as a safe haven for thinking about art and life. The museum seems to offer a way of visitation that allows for the usual to meet the unusual:

“While I was growing up in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Museum was the beloved museum of my working-class neighborhood. It was always ‘our’ museum.” People still retain that feeling. “This is enviable loyalty to an institution that probably serves the most ethnically and racially diverse population of any major museum.

And it has done so since 1823.” [4]


“The society whose modernization has reached the stage of integrated spectacle is characterized by the combined effect of five principal features: incessant technological renewal; integration of state and economy: generalized secrecy; unanswerable lies; an eternal present.” -
Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, trans. Malcome Imrie (London: Verso, 1988), 11.

Carol Becker quotes him in her introduction to her book titled “Surpassing the Spectacle – Global Transformations and the Changing Politics of Art” (New York, 2002), 1:

“This quixotic manifesto was Debord’s call to arms to overthrow a system of dominance that he believed turned being into having and having into appearing – thus alienating himself and his fellow citizens from the economic and cultural reality of their situation.”

Debord writes: “There is no place left where people can discuss the realities which concern them, because they can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing pressure of media discourse and of the various forces organized to relay it.” Op.cit., p. 19

Two key problems seem to undermine a clearly defined purpose (mission) a museum can give to itself:

One, if the museum gives in to just offering a spectacle, one which eludes any definition, then the course taken shall follow the economy which favors ‘self representation’ e.g. CNN doing constantly self-advertisement in reference to ongoing programs on its own channel. As such this self representation can equally define social and human relationships once they are solely mediated by images. People will have then no longer the time and/or energy to go beyond the spectacle and the images being created by the spectacle. This is especially the odd case when very high costs are involved and spectacle over in a relatively short time e.g. the Olympic Games which last two weeks. Once there prevails the risk to reduce everything to that of a spectacle, and Umberto Eco understands this as a loss of interest in the 'truth', then public pressure is merely exerted to make sure that the spectacle continues.

Two, once ethical visions are no longer articulated but images dominate, then people become distrustful of political discourse and no longer appreciate how the arts and therefore also what museums display in their collection can contribute to this search for truth. (Carol Becker, p. 2) As such it would put the defining moment of museums at Crossroads [5]

„Much of the media discussion around what happened at the Brooklyn Museum focused on the perception that the temple, or the ‚sacred precinct,’ as the American Association of Museum Directors referred to their institutions, had been sullied. Many believed that the art museum, by taking ‘dirty’ money from Saatchi – the advertising executive, as he is often described – and enhancing the value of his collection, had put its reputation in jeopardy and, by association, of all art museums. Some also expressed anger that the museum had played into the public’s insatiable appetite for entertainment by mixing high and low, by opening the gate; by installing sensational art at best, and bad art at worst, into the temple and, in so doing, legitimizing this work as having aesthetic and moral value. For them the whole incident had little to do with the place of art in society and everything to do with museum policy and practice, and with a betrayal of the public trust in these institutions to only select the best art of the purest reason, to uphold certain values. Months after the “Sensation” vandalism incident had occurred, the American Association of Museum Directors held a meeting and put into effect a new set of guidelines on determining what gets shown in American museums and who pays for it.” [6]

Identity crisis of museum

Ethnographic Museum in Krakow - an example

After 1989 the framework conditions changed for the Ethnological museum in Krakow. The budget was no longer guaranteed by a central Ministry of Culture dictating what the museum had to do in terms of political and educational rhetorics. Now the museum had to open up and was at the same time compartmentalised with people working in one section no longer knowing the others of the other sections. There was less horizontal and vertical integration. Also they were inexperienced when it came to handling loans of items in the own collection e.g. a precious cradle carved out of wood, to other museums which made a lot of money during that time but handed little or nothing back to the museum.

Two other aspects can be added to this problem of museums emerging out of the tight cultural framework which existed during Communist rule: cultural heritage becoming under new right wing governments very quickly national heritage, and the change of the term 'people' as key reference point for an Ethnological museum (in Berlin the famous one is called traditionally the 'Völkerkundmuseum').

Developments in the museums sector - an example: TePapa in New Zealand

Document: TePapa  - A Summary of Strategic Issues for the Museum Sector for 2002 and beyond as identified by the national museum of new Zealand [7]

SECTOR ISSUE: Initiating, leading, and managing change


As an overview, Te Papa provides a range of multi-media services, including:


New role: museums giving recognition through cultural heritage

Alan Riding refers in his article about ‘Culture’s subtle role in fighting terrorism’ [8] to the first report published by the Commission on “Delivering Shared Heritage”. I find it remarkable because it finally touches upon the main problem of museums. For if the British Museum, in reality housing an ‘imperialist collection’ e.g. Parthenon Marbles, can continue to suppress the ‘pain of conquest’ by calling them the Elgin marbles as if this appropriation can be justified, then this is no way to provide access to universal cultural heritage as claimed. According to Alan Riding who quotes Jack Lohman from the Museum of London Group this ‘pain of conquest’ is till virulent in how museums like the British Museum present their collections.

However, Alan Riding misses the point when he interprets cultural heritage to mean something like crafts and the arts, customs, traditions etc. and not fore mostly the ‘intangible heritage: the meanings of things preserved over time’. By not including this other aspect of cultural heritage, and collective memories, story telling, myths etc. belong to that, he will not perceive really what tools museums have at their disposal to give active recognition as to how communities create life in and around them.

Partners of the HERMES project started to refer to cultural heritage as contained as well ‘memories of the future’. This implies in the past some insights into solutions were articulated but could not be realized at that time, for the conditions were not ripe at that time. It is like waiting for the right moment to realize the demand for social justice, but that social justice does exist, this is important to be preserved as insight and as measure for the development of mankind on this earth.

Something similar applies to the real problem which prevails when it comes to integrate minorities in Britain. Integration is made impossible, if only one way of life is emphasized. This Tony Blair did immediately in the wake of the July 7th 2005 bomb attacks. Moreover the BBC started to praise British defiance of all odds as this was a clear linkage to how everyone had withstood the Blitzkrieg of Hitler during Second World War. So the model of multiculturalism of London was negated although it was the very reason why London was awarded the hosting of the Olympic Games in 2012. Multiculturalism has not yet been recognized at policy level. Likewise museums have not followed really through in terms of what it means to recognize achievements when it comes to bringing community life together and forward.

Europe has been repeatedly marked by xenophobic forces which tend towards an absolute exclusion of foreigners. Over and again it means to promote only national poets, artists, philosophers etc. to the detriment of a vitality every community needs if to stay in touch with the world and therefore able to listen to a plurality of voices.

To come back, then, to the general question about the purpose of museums, then more can be highlighted by discussions around both tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Other aspects need to be looked at as well. For instance, Fran Hegyi at MLA mentioned that museums have already a problem with getting volunteers who are not white people and under sixty. The staff question is a difficult one to handle. More so is also the question as to what openness exists at galleries and museums such as Tate Modern to give recognition of the experimentation going on amongst especially African and Asian artists living in London but who still focus on identity issues back home? To read and write in another language but your own and then not get recognition for whatever you do means to be a stranger both at home and abroad. Many are caught in-between and it is not easy for museums to give these people coming from two different places a sense of belonging, never mind home.


Objectives of Museum Studies and of educational courses for workers in museums

Main programme themes

Three main themes permeate the whole programme.

  1. Communication
  2. Intercultural Perspectives
  3. Co-operation and Inclusion


  1. Communication

The understanding of museum's place in society and the way each chooses to communicate is paramount for the successful professional. How museums communicate with the surrounding world and what messages they are mediating are questions of increasing importance. Museums and museum professionals take part in the construction of 'cultural heritage' through the collections, interpretations, research and meaning they give to objects and stories through their panoply of communication vehicles. The perspective includes discussions on right of interpretation and collecting, the relation between knowledge and power and the mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion. Communication includes the practices of museum exhibitions, accessibility, and process of administration, education and learning. It also encompasses a critical perspective on the possibilities and limitations of new technologies including how to decide when to use them.

2. Intercultural Perspectives

In a more diverse world there is a new relation between the local and the global, which creates new challenges for museums. Through their history, museums and museum collections (in Western or non-Western countries) often reflect the aspirations of a nation, their conquest and paradigms of colonialism. How does this affect museum practice and interpretation in a world of new alignments and loci of power? Intercultural competence is a key to the understanding, interaction and exchange between different groups of people (or different cultures) and is an over-all theme of the programme.

3. Co-operation and Inclusion
As museums embrace diversity in their collections, staff and interpretation, there is a need for a corresponding shift in management towards a participatory approach based on respect and problem solving. Issues of ownership and empowerment extend to all aspects of organisational culture and interpersonal relationships, and avoidance of conflict, actual and potential, can be embraced as a route to greater understanding. This philosophy has a long tradition in Scandinavian countries and the benefits of a non-competitive approach and group work are explored throughout the programme.




[1] Donald Preziosi and Claire Farago, Idea of a Museum (Ashgate) December 2003

ISBN 0 7546 0829 8

This anthology explores the very existence of museums and plots a critical, historical and ethical understanding of their origins and history. A radical selection of texts introduces the reader to the intense investigation of the modern European idea of the museum that has taken place over the last fifty years.

[2] Notizen über das Museum als Opferhöhle, in: Museum des Geldes. Über die seltsame Natur des Geldes in Kunst, Wissenschaft und Leben I, zusammengestellt und hrsg. v. Jürgen Harten und Horst Kurnitzky, Düsseldorf 1978, S. 11-15 und auf S. 105: Das kleine Geldmuseum oder Wozu der Aufwand? "Sie haben keine Opferhöhle, Sie besitzen kein Museum? Sie haben auch keine Urfrau zur Hand? Wozu der Aufwand. Nehmen Sie Ihr Portemonnaie und stecken Sie ein paar blanke Münzen hinein. Vielleicht finden Sie sogar eine mit einer kleinen Durchbohrung. Die Urfrau freut sich. Vielleicht bergen Sie die Geldkatze in Ihrer Gesäßtasche. Dann und wann nehmen Sie Einblick, allein oder mit Freunden, und streicheln Ihren Schatz. Oder Sie stellen sich mit dem Rücken zum Waschbecken. Rom ist eine Grottenstadt. Werfen Sie eine Münze über die Schulter. Sagen Sie dazu die Worte: 'Ich komme wieder.' Noch ein Rat: Nehmen Sie ein, zwei hübsche blanke Kleinigkeiten. Vergraben Sie diese in einem Schächtelchen unter der Erde. Ihre Feinde trampeln achtlos drüber weg. Später können Sie im Beisein Ihrer Freunde die Höhle erbrechen. Sie schleppen den Schatz ins Zimmer. Dort haben Sie schon die Kommode gerichtet und ein paar Flaschen Wein kalt gestellt. Sprengen Sie den Rest über das Schächtelchen. Auch die Urfrau ist durstig. Oder Sie finden den Eingang nicht mehr. Wer weiß, wer jetzt Ihren Schatz heben wird. Sie können beruhigt sein: Die Zukunft gehört Ihnen." –Klaus Heinrich

[3] Ryszard Kapuscinski, Sowjetische Steifzuege – Imperium, Frankfurt a. Main (Eichborn Verlag), 2000, p. 67 (transl. by author)

“Geschlagen auf dem Feld der Waffen, sucht Armenian seine Rettung in den Skriptorien. Das ist eine Abkehr, doch dieser Rueckzug ist Ausdruck der Wuerde und des Ueberlebenswillens. Was ist das Skriptorium? Das kann eine Zelle sein, eine Lehmhuette oder auch nur eine Felshoehle. Im Skriptorium befindet sich ein Pult, und an diesem steht der Kopist und schreibt. Im Bewusstsein der Armenier ist stets die Angst vor der Vernichtung verankert. Und damit verbunden der unbaendige Wunsch nach Rettung. Man muss seine Welt retten. Da man sie nicht mit dem Schwert retten kann, soll sie in der Erinnerung bewahrt werden. Das Schiff geht unter, doch das Logbuch des Kapitaens soll erhalten bleiben.“

[4] Carol Becker, “”Brooklyn Museum: Messing with the Sacred”, in: Surpassing the Spectable, New York (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers), 2002, p. 43 - 58

[5] AAM (American Association of Museums) Annual Meeting & Museum Expo 2005 1-5 January 2005Indianapolis, USA Contact: T +1 202 289 9113

E annualmeeting@aam-us.org

W www.aam-us.org/am/

[6] Op. cit., Carol Becker, “Brooklyn Museum….”, p. 55

[7] Source: www.tepapa.govt.nz

[8] Alan Riding, “Culture’s subtle role in fighting terrorism”, International Herald Tribune, Thursday, August 4, 2005, p. 2

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