A Musing on the Museum
This, from Neil Postman’s The End of Education, might make for an interesting discussion, activity, or research assignment. (Postman’s language is quoted; mine is italicized.)
“I recommend a subject that, so far as I know, has never been taught in American public schools. I am referring to the study of museums—not only art museums but museums of all kinds; that is to say, we would broaden our view of art to include artifacts of various forms and meanings. Why such a subject? Because a museum is an answer to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be a human being?” –Neil Postman
For me, part of my goal as an educator is to encourage young scholars to perpetually consider the above question: what does it mean to be a human being? and others: how do we use schooling to help us create our life? –Aaron Sherman
“There is a great museum in Munich that is filled with old automobiles, trains, and airplanes, all of which are meant to signify that human beings are preeminently toolmakers and are at their best when solving practical problems. The Guggenheim Museum in New York City rejects that claim; there is nothing displayed in the Guggenheim that is, or ever was, of any practical value. The museum seems to argue that what makes us human is our need to express our feelings in symbolic forms. We are human precisely because so many of our creations are impractical. To this, the Imperial War Museum in London says, “Nonsense. You are both wrong. We are at our most human when devising ways to kill one another.” To which Yad Vashem in Jerusalem adds with inconsolable sadness, “That is true. But we are not merely killers like sharks and tigers; we are cruel, pointless, and systematic killers. Remember this above all.”Т Go to any museum in the world, even one that serves only as an archive, and ask, “What is this museum’s definition of humanity?” You will be rewarded with some kind of an answer. In some cases, the answer will be timid and even confused; in others, bold and unmistakable. Of course, it is folly to say which museums convey the right answers. All of them are correct: We are toolmakers and symbol makers and war makers. We are sublime and ridiculous, beautiful and ugly, profound and trivial, spiritual and practical. So it is not possible to have too many museums, because the more we have, the more detailed and comprehensive will be the portrait of humanity.Т Go to any museum in the world, even one that serves only as an archive, and ask, “What is this museum’s definition of humanity?” You will be rewarded with some kind of an answer. In some cases, the answer will be timid and even confused; in others, bold and unmistakable. Of course, it is folly to say which museums convey the right answers. All of them are correct: We are toolmakers and symbol makers and war makers. We are sublime and ridiculous, beautiful and ugly, profound and trivial, spiritual and practical. So it is not possible to have too many museums, because the more we have, the more detailed and comprehensive will be the portrait of humanity.”
I wonder and I want my students to consider: What does The Wexner Center for the Arts say to our community of students? Is it, by its very existence, arguing something? If so, what? why? how? What part of the human picture does it give us?
“But in saying that every museum gives us part of the picture, I am not saying that every museum is equally useful. To paraphrase George Orwell, all museums tell the truth, but some tell more important truths than others. And how important a truth is depends on the time and place of its telling. For at different times, cultures need to know, remember, contemplate, and revere different ideas in the interest of survival and sanity. A museum that was useful fifty years ago might be quite pointless today. But I would never wish that such a museum be closed, for someday, in changed circumstances, its usefulness may be restored (and in any case, the dialectic of museums requires that all the voices be counted). Nonetheless, for a specific time and place, the truths conveyed by a particular museum can be irrelevant and even harmful. Scores of museums—some of them new—celebrate ideas that are not needed.
To help clarify my point, imagine that the year is 1933, that you have been given unlimited funds to create a museum in Berlin, and that it has not occurred to you that you might be shot or otherwise punished for anything you will do. What kind of museum would you create? What ideas would you sanctify? What part of the human past, present, or imagined future would you wish to emphasize, and what part would you wish to ignore? In brief, what would you want your German visitors to the museum to contemplate?
In asking these questions, I mean to suggest that a museum is, in a fundamental sense, a political institution. For its answers to the question, “What does it mean to be a human being?” must be given within the context of a specific moment in history and must inevitably be addressed to living people who, as always, are struggling with the problems of moral, psychological, and social survival. I am not urging that museums be used as instruments of cheap and blatant propaganda; I am saying that a museum is an instrument of survival and sanity. A museum, after all, tells a story. And like the oral and written literature of any culture, its story may serve to awaken the better angels of our nature or to stimulate what is fiendish. A museum can serve to clarify our situation or obfuscate it, to tell us what we need to know or what is useless.”
What kind of museum would our students create if they had free reign to do so?
In his The Quintessence of Ibsenism, George Bernard Shaw tells us precisely why museums are necessary. He addressed the question, Why do we need theater? But his answer applies just as well to museums. He said, ‘It is an elucidator of social consciousness, a historian of the future, an armory against darkness and despair, and a temple in the ascent of man.’
Can you imagine “museums” as a specific subject in high school or college? Can you imagine a high school or college without such a subject? I am perhaps expecting too much. But in case I am not, may I propose a project that asks students to write a prospectus for a new museum in their community. They would be required to indicate what the museum would try to say, as well as what objects of art, custom, and technology would best say it. Such a project might be the final exam of a year-long course devoted to an analysis of whatever museums are accessible in the community. The course would probably require two or three teachers working together, for it would certainly be, to paraphrase a notorious Iraqi leader, the mother of all interdisciplinary courses. But I believe it is not beyond the range of high school faculties, certainly not of college faculties, and I can think of few better approaches for demonstrating the great story of human diversity.”
Postman’s above idea about creating a prospectus for a new museum sounds like an amazing idea for a workshop or culminating capstone project for a humanities course.
“The study of museums is likely to lead students in many different directions, perhaps as much away from artistic creations as toward them. Artifacts are not necessarily art, and it is important to keep in mind that the study of the former is no substitute for the study of the latter. I referred earlier to art as the language of the heart. But not all hearts are equally open to the variety of languages in which art speaks. There are, as we know, different levels of sensibility. … There is, in short, something missing in the aesthetic experience of our young.”
Surely there is, and I would make the argument that programs like Pages seek to fill this “aesthetic experience” gap.
“The task of a school is to increase students’ capacities. That means to have them move from lower to higher modalities of thought and feeling. … The purpose of public education is to help the young transcend individual identity by finding inspiration in a story of humanity.”
Postman’s closing here isn’t in the Common Core State Standards, but I see no reason why I can’t add his suggestion on as an amendment to the standards I currently teach in a mutually beneficial manner (for student, parent, teacher, administrator, ed-reforming politician, and the community writ large).
Finally, it occurs to me, as I write the above sentence, how much I prefer to teach skills to approach the standards as opposed to strictly teaching the standards themselves in isolation. Perhaps, this is one way I can pass on what I know so our young scholars can continue our human narrative with greater sensibilities, wisdom, and awareness than we have.