Why I am afraid of museums

As you will know, it was ‘Why I love museums day’ yesterday, and all I could think was…”but they’re scary”. I’ve always held them with a little suspicion, museum trips at school tended to be one big piss up (switch beer for strawberry laces). I knew you were supposed to be able to stand there and see something that was hundreds of years old and feel connected to the past, but I never did. In fact the first time I felt that was in an archive on a 6th form school trip  (for everyone who looked 25 switch strawberry laces for beer, for me, well I like strawberry laces anyway). We were shown a seventeenth century Bible and it was great, you could see the delicacy they must have used for the gold leaf, you could imagine it being read out and we were left with questions to go away and research. Not once have I felt like this at a museum. Even if I see something fascinating I always assume there is something I am missing and I must be terribly stupid for not knowing it and therefore I should walk away and buy a souvenir pencil from the gift shop.

This feeling was only compounded during my MA last year. In one of our modules we were encouraged to choose an item from the Leeds HPS museum and write a short report about it, basically an opportunity to try our hand at writing a material history. I found my object, wrote my report, went along to the seminar and found I was completely and utterly rubbish at it. I hadn’t answered some of the most simple questions (who might have used it?) and had spent too much time trying to be a smart arse. I had been told that the object, a Laennec stethoscope, was put together incorrectly and all I had to do was point this out, attach a smug grin and prepare my back for patting. Turns out it wasn’t, and that arguing with the most distinguished historian of medicine that I know about it was not the safest route to success. So that’s that, objects are stupid and museums are where they hang out, being stupid and making me look fucking stupid.

Or are they….?

I have recently joined the Leeds HPS museum task force for the same reason I sometimes drink in Weatherspoons, it’s good to face your fears. I also joined because it’s one of the few ways I can currently ‘do’ something for HPS. I’ve not done much so far but it’s already changed how I view museums. For starters, it’s OK to just be a geek about something without knowing how the object fits into wider historiographical arguments, or how it demonstrates a decline in empire or a turning point for agriculture. IT’S OK TO LEARN THINGS THERE! Who knew!? For instance the other day I was lucky enough to be shown around a beautiful biology museum on our very own campus (I assume a proper post will soon follow about this on our museum blog so I’ll go no further for now) but they had tonnes of seed samples. I am particularly interested in seeds as their production, sale and development form much of the core of my thesis. But I knew next to nothing about these seeds or the origins of the collection, often how these collections are put together is a fascinating story in its self. So thanks to the museum a whole load of questions that I might never have been presented with have opened up. The only difference was that the perspex didn’t make me feel like an idiot. Knowing that people make museums has been enough to make them manageable. It’s very similar to the way I now feel about school. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that all my teachers like to get pissed in the evening and couldn’t give a fuck about the limerick I wrote. Yes they know more than you, but that’s the point of them. And that’s why I love museums.


One thought on “Why I am afraid of museums

  1. I have recently joined the Leeds HPS museum task force for the same reason I sometimes drink in Weatherspoons …. Because they actually serve a surprisingly good range of ales at comparatively low prices? I must head over to the HPS museum some time…

    I’m surprised at your old distrust of museums; I’ve always loved them, from a long-standing childhood obsession with the London Transport museum, a continued appreciation of Oxford’s (astonishingly awesome) Pitt Rivers museum and my current favourite, London’s Design Museum.

    That feeling of being in a place that, as you said, knows more than you is fantastic and exactly why I like libraries too (and, I suppose, the internet). There’s that real sense of excitement at how much STUFF there is in the world…

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