What they do and how they do it: why museums matter

A new books makes a passionate argument for museums


Nicholas Thomas is the director of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, a scholar, curator, writer and a museum enthusiast. He likens museums to regions and nations in which all sorts of disparate elements are brought together, which in different ways express the past vividly embodied in the present. The thrust of his ruminations on the nature of collections is that, like collections of people, the sum is greater than the parts because of the dialogues, conversations, connections and interactions between inanimate objects (animated by both curators and public) as well as people. If this sounds twee, it is not, as his writing is spare, elegant and persuasive. And in small compass, the issues he raises are extraordinarily wide ranging. Above all, the thread that ties all his observations together are the extraordinary histories of actual objects that are continually discovered and rediscovered: for example, the only surviving bird’s egg collected by Darwin on his 1830s round-the-world voyage on the Beagle was identified in a Cambridge museum only seven years ago.

Current reasons, some defensive, for public collections of material culture are cited: social and economic advantages, the “creative industry”, as well as investment, new architecture, social cohesion, international diplomacy, scholarship, research and storytelling.   

But the author’s aim is to expand beyond the conventional and understandable explication of the multitudinous purposes and roles of museums in the 21st century, and to do so across the spectrum. He suggests that museums—whatever their collections (natural history, science, art, history), their size and however diverse—are in the same situation, balancing the needs of the collection and the public, staff and funding, the varied constituencies that make up both the museum and its place intellectually and geographically.

This is all in the context of what is really an explosion not only in the expansion of museums worldwide but in the creation of new museums. He cites a 2013 survey in the Economist: in the early 1990s there were perhaps some 23,000 museums world wide, and now there are about 55,000. Moreover, this number is increasing, for example with China embarking on a huge and immediate expansion of numbers.

Throughout, the primacy of the actual object is stressed, but the care of the object extends well beyond optimum physical conditions. Thomas is not a Luddite: digital publishing, for example, in terms of online catalogues disseminating information is an important ally of the physical museum.

Thomas is trenchantly critical of some assumptions about repatriation, and reminds us that what the West would consider valuable ethnographically is often associated with backwardness and superstition by the country of origin. At its worst, heritage that historians claim as of world importance is sometimes destroyed by hostile passions: for example, at this moment, the Taliban and the Islamic State (Isil). In many situations, iconoclasm reigns, as it has throughout world history. So museums embody historic survival. The modest museums in Kenya concerning the horrendous conflicts that marked the ending of British colonial rule are adduced as effective examples that commemorate and inform in a relatively benign manner.

His compelling argument is that museums can bring people together through objects whose “mute oration” may facilitate ways of accepting—and understanding —differences among cultures and peoples. They provide safe places to look at things in the company of strangers without confrontation. Visitors are enabled to look beyond themselves, to understand and accept difference. It is such curiosity that enables us to better understand who we and who others are. In its quiet, well-mannered way, Thomas’s essay is a passionate polemic, of profound interest to the visitor and the museum professional.

• Marina Vaizey is a freelance lecturer and writer. She was the art critic of the Financial Times and then the Sunday Times. She currently writes for theartsdesk.com

The Return of Curiosity: What Museums are Good for in the 21st Century

Nicholas Thomas

Reaktion Books, 144pp, £12.95 (pb)