I have always liked museums, and I guess this is still true after a fashion. I like some of the objects which are now only available in museums, and definitely believe that those objects are better off in museums for people to see than in private collections for just the wealthy. The problem is that, increasingly, I see history as a flowing thing, rather than a static one. It is something that cannot be expressed by a singular narrative or pile of objects, the blurbs that accompanying them giving some measure of information, but largely the narrative or the curiosities.

My (first) problem with museums is that they present a distinctly static view of history. They do so because their objective is not history, but the objects in the collection, which themselves give a glimpse into a particular time and place–the problem of course is that for them to mean anything to the average observer, they need to look at the blurb, and the blurb gives only a very limited version of the history. Nonetheless this is the same problem I have with diluted history across the board, including elementary, middle and high schools and may stem from this being my life’s ambitions.

Related is that the removal of these objects from their original place dilutes the meaning. Some were clearly intended to be placed on walls an observed, or in buildings, but others were intended for outdoor or other public spaces. On one hand their removal may have actually saved some, on the other the impression is changed.

The second problem I have is that museums present a specifically constructed history. This is more obvious on controversial topics, and patriotic ones, but is there across the board. For example, today I saw a exhibit on horses and native culture in America. It was an apologetic account, for better or for worse, and emphasized a few choice issues in the history. Yes, the United States government did some awful things to the aborigines of this continent, but there is much more to the cultures than just that.

Museums and Displays

One of the problems I have with going to a museum that touts its history collection and suggests that it will teach the visitor something about history is that for the most part the audience will take for granted that the museum will tell “the truth.”1

Often these displays will not actually lie to said visitor, but they will certainly mislead. For example, the USS Constitution Museum2 wanted to give a very, very basic overview of what the age of sail was about, that era of American Naval History (mostly the Barbary Wars) and, of course, the USS Constitution. In part because of not going into that detail and in many ways regardless of the detail the museum promoted glorification of sailing ships, the US Navy and the founding heroes of that body. For example, Stephen Decatur had a little bio, including his exploits on the Intrepid and as captain of the Constitution; William Bainbridge also had a plaque (both men won gold plaques for distinguished service and bravery), but while Decatur’s death was mentioned, what was not mentioned was that Bainbridge hated Decatur, was his second in the duel where he died, and did not intervene when Decatur had things set against him.

Another display talked about the foundation of the original six frigates (Constitution, United States, President, Constellation, Chesapeake, and Congress) and how Joshua Humphrey won the contract to design the fleet. It didn’t mention that Josiah Fox also won the contract, that it was shared between the men and that Fox believed that Humphrey was wrong and therefore changed the design where ever he felt necessary.

The section about how the Philadelphia ran aground in Tripoli Harbor was glossed over, whereas the emphasis was on Bainbridge’s communications out of the prison and to Commodore Preble (who was praised as a hero and for Preble’s boys, without mentioning that he was unpopular and sickly), and, of course, on the daring raid to sink the frigate before the Tripolitans could refloat and rearm her.

I suppose that if someone wanted a passing understanding of that era’s naval history and a generic tale of what happened, then the museum was passable, but a bit small. It just seemed in many ways to be a glorification monument to the United States.

1 Very much the same is true for books, tv documentaries and teachers, but I visited the USS Constitution museum today, which is what made me think of this.

2 Which was decidedly underwhelming.