Monday, February 10, 2014

The Use and Abuse of Museums

by Drew Martin
I just read an essay from 1882 by W. Stanley Jevons titled The Use and Abuse of Museums from the book, The Emergence of the Modern Museum: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century Sources. Jevons ponders the etymology of museums: temples or haunts of the muses, and questions why we use a term such as concert hall instead of museum even though music shares the same root word. He writes that while books are inherently educational and beneficial because of "the labour of reading," the benefits of museum range "from nil up to something extremely great."

Jevons complains that many people go to the museum only to take a walk or to unleash a household of children on a rainy day. He also comments that large collections are pointless and states that a good lecture on one subject can last an hour. The "glancing over some thousands of unfamiliar specimens" destroys "the habit of concentration of attention, which is the first condition of mental acquisition." Better, he continues, to stand a group of school boys in front of a grocer's shop window where there is a steam mill grinding coffee or to watch "the very active boot maker who professes to sole your shoes while you wait" than to file them cluelessly through the long galleries of a museum.

Jevons favors how the Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen contains, in a single building, primarily work by the artist, which he says expresses a unity in style. He also liked The Pompeian House within the Crystal Palace (pictured here).

"For a few minutes at least the visitor steps from the present; he shuts out the age of iron, and steam, and refreshment contractors, and learns to realise the past."