Many people understand a museum’s central function to be one of preserving culture for display, study and future access. However, the mission to “preserve” is sometimes at odds with communities own visions for the use and futurity of their material culture. Who decides what is “worth” collecting and preserving shapes what knowledge and lifeways museum audiences interpret as legitimate cultural knowledge.
Nathan Sentence’s blog ‘Why do we collect?’ outlines this point neatly. He states that items that are preserved in the wrong context (i.e. without respect for their vitality and community access protocols) are in fact not being “preserved” at all.
Instead of valorising museums as the sole protectors of culture against the threat of extinction, perhaps we can start to change institutional language around conservation, curation and community access to reflect that museums are but one way to preserve cultural heritage. When outward-facing and open to changing practice, museums can be an unparalleled resource for connection with cultural practice, but when we hide behind self-appointed missions of preservation and guardianship we are liable to miss richer bodies of cultural knowledge that can improve our overall understanding.
Useful reading: Nathan Sentance, ‘Why do we collect?’, Archival Decolonist blog, August 2018.