Museums: Curators of knowledge or Storytellers
At present I am taking a course called Design Futures, where we are in search of future narratives; possible scenarios. With 11 other class members I spent a week on selecting a topic, ranging from water, food, museums, concept of quality to brand, branding and advertising. Through voting and debate we ended up with museums, my initial reaction was disappointment that we were not working on the big world issues of water and food but instead museums. Well that only lasted for a few days for we were told to write our most current museum experience, or a museum experience that moved us greatly. As I sat down writing my initial museums experiences and the most recent once, a new meaning of museums started to emerge.
Before I talk about the change in my perception of museums and what it means, let me tell you what my previous perception has been. I have always been fascinated by history and that has been my motivation for museum visits. To me visiting museums was like being a kid in a candy shop. Coming from Pakistan most of the museums that I have visited are historical (no surprise there, considering the appx. forty thousand year old history). Having seen exhibits on one of the oldest civilizations in the museums of Moen-jo-daro and Harappa, Taxila to the dinosaur fossils in the Baluchistan University museum. For me museums were curators of history, culture and heritage. They seemed like big tombs of the eras that had passed by, tombs that both sparked curiosity and were fascinating.
But this definition of museums altered after my visit to the Natural History Museum in New York, although it seemed no less than a metaphoric tomb, old, grave, silent, bespoke of the history, of creatures and civilizations gone by. It’s been two years since I visited the museum, they had two special exhibits, one on the first expedition to North Pole and the second was the Silk Route. They were the best designed experiences I have ever had in a museum; it changed my definition of a museum from curators of history to avid story tellers. The narration combined with the artifacts, the visitor’s journey, the engaging of senses with sight, sound, smell and tactile.
The exhibition of North Pole expedition had speeches, newspaper clippings of its eras, the biographies of the people. The images of the people and the conditions, the artifacts (their equipment, clothing, maps) and mostly the environment that surrounded the exhibit tied the story together. The Silk Route was another exceptional experience. The various regions, cities and towns spread on the route was represented by music, smells of the traded goods and the tactile artifacts that could be touched, the daily scenes of the area, histories and achievements of that particular city or town, it’s people and their craft. The visitors moved from city to city as if travelling on the silk route and coming across its wonders and diversity.
Since then I have visited several museums of art, history, science but nothing has topped the experience I had in both of the previously mentioned exhibits. But now I see museums in a relatively different light, I see them as narrators, they tell stories of the past, of art, of science depending on what museum’s concentration might be. In the end, the museums have the power to evoke curiosity and ignite imagination through their ability to tell narratives and stories.