In celebration of International Museums Day (Saturday 18 May), Robert shares a blog about the stories shared through local museums, their history and the education they offer us.

For many of us, museums are where we get our history. If we move to a new city, or pass by one on holiday, there’s a good chance we’ll find ourselves wandering between some marble columns and into the treasure-trove within, filled with stories that let us learn about this new place and ourselves as well. A quick internet search will tell us that a museum is supposed to be a place of contemplation, suggesting that the contents are very much up for debate – though many of us might not see it that way. In fact, academics who step out of the ivory tower into the world of public history often report being mystified by what people think history is; apparently we are taught that it is unchanging, with dry ink and other clichés, not an endless quest for understanding. The museum, then, has a crucial role to play in how we understand history and its contents – and in underlining that the conversation will never be over.  

Museums can take many forms. Traditionally we might think of the columned buildings in city-centres throughout the global North-West, especially coming from a Eurocentric background such as my own. But even here, museums can take many forms – they can be country houses and castles as well, and even small plaques crammed with information about a ruin on a woodland trail. Those plaques usually tell local stories, connecting the viewer to the landscape and to the people who came before. 

A window into the past at Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet

In my local area around Sheffield, it is impossible to escape the remnants of industry that put the city on the map, with the rivers dotted with mills and their accompanying plaques to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about spoons. The smattering of traditional museums within the city serve much the same purpose, and the result is that the story of Sheffield steel is absolutely inescapable wherever you go. This is the power of museums, forging that narrative (forgive the pun) to connect us to our surroundings, so that we understand our place on the timeline of our local world. 

Weston Park Museum, nestled into the University of Sheffield campus, illustrates this best as its exhibitions are essentially a summary of the city. One room gives you the industrial city, with a video explaining how to make a knife and a series of testimonials on the more modern multicultural Sheffield. The next room takes you through thousands of years of the Peak District, from the animals who used to roam its jungles to the heather that litters its landscape today. Then there is archaeology, again telling the story of this place through a timeline of Roman rule to Victorian glassworks and everything in between. What really encapsulates the story, though, is the small art gallery at the back of the museum which gives snapshots of cityscape through the last two centuries or so. Parts of the city look familiar, others have changed entirely, and the effect is to hammer home the story of Sheffield’s expansion from the Industrial Revolution onwards. In this way, the museum connects us to the stories of the places we live or simply visit, allowing us to understand them so much better. 

A bear with stories to tell: Nottingham Castle Museum

You’ll find the same stories at a country house or castle, and there are so many of those in Britain (to the amusement of my American friends). If you’ve ever been to a country house, you likely will have seen a volunteer wandering through the halls in their best Georgian gown, complete with a monstrous wig and perhaps a pink umbrella. Museums don’t just tell stories of places, but of people as well. How do we make sense of the endless lists of individuals and family members and the marks that they left on the house? Museums will focus on one or two and present the house as it existed in their time, and this might be the housemaids just as often as it is the aristocrats. Perhaps we can relate to the cooks giving away so many hours of their lives to fulfil the fickle demands of the wealthy, or we like to imagine ourselves with the butler’s dignity and authority but none of the carelessness of those on the upper floors. Regardless, there will always be something about these characters that we recognise and this is what compels us. Stories are at the heart of history, whether they revolve around people or places or something else, and this is the draw of the museum. 

We should also recognise that these stories can change. There is often a sense that history is only a timeline, a series of events that will never move and that can only have a single interpretation. Country houses grappling with their historical links to slavery are accused of “rewriting history”, as though history isn’t rewritten and re-interpreted on a daily basis by both academics and members of the public. 

Anyone who has worked in heritage will likely be familiar with the idea that a museum should be a nice day out, and any education should present a strictly positive view of the past. This is perhaps the greatest challenge facing museums in the 2020s as they work to stay relevant in a world that is increasingly aware of its problems, and countries like Britain are forced to reckon with the violence of their past. Museums should be educational because that is why people visit them in the first place, and any story ignoring the negatives is undeniably incomplete. How can we call this education? 

Museums have a profound role to play here, in underlining the changeability of history. Often they present their stories as a simple fact, but behind the scenes there have been hours spent agonising about precisely which story to tell and which artefacts or individuals to place under the spotlight. Exhibitions are often organised to celebrate anniversaries of key moments in history, and this commemoration will shape our collective memories and decide which story we remember. Other times, exhibitions might highlight queer history or decolonial narratives or women’s rights, driving forward social progress with a careful choice of storytelling. Perhaps more could be done to make this process transparent to the public, so that they understand the need to rewrite the stories we think we know as we learn more about ourselves and the world, relating the past to the present.

Recreated street in Kelham Island Museum

The new stories we are beginning to tell don’t even need to be negative. Sometimes museums come under fire for seeming ashamed of how their collections were built, as if colonialism is something we should not be ashamed of. But within this story there are also tales of resistance and people who did speak out against injustice, and activism in the face of extreme brutality. The People’s History Museum in Manchester (whose collection is the basis of my PhD research) is a leading example of giving voice to the activists to present a positive story of resilience that reckons with our past. These people are as central to British history as those whose crimes they opposed – more central, perhaps, because their legacy is the lasting change that has improved the lives of millions. 

Museums are where many people get their education, and this is what makes them such powerful forces in a confusing world. They can tell stories that engage us, move us, and inspire us. They can teach us things about our past that we have never learned before, or learned long ago on school syllabuses that need to be brought up to date. This makes them a fantastic vehicle to showcase the process of revising history, introducing new ideas and broadening our horizons, and underlining that every story we tell is pieced together from incomplete fragments. Most of all, museums can give us thought-provoking narratives that change the way we approach the world around us, inspiring us to be more engaged with it and to see the diversity that has often been ignored. So on International Museum Day, we can celebrate what they do but also how they can continue working to broaden our understanding of self and place, including narratives that have yet to be told. 

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