How satisfactory is a museum gallery display in explaining the culture of people? Give examples from your own experience of a museum.

Before we move forward and reach a conclusion of how successfully museum galleries explain the culture of people, we need to understand two terms: museums and culture. Let's first define the two terms.

According to the Museum Association of United Kingdom, museum is defined as follows:
“They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society.”

Culture, according to the Oxford Dictionaries is “The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.”

From the above definition of museum, we can derive that museums, basically, collect tangible objects for display. The question now arises that whether the collection of these tangible commodities are able to explain the culture of people. Let’s take the help of a few examples to understand the same.

Objects provide a link between the past and the present. Various aspects of an object, such as the materials used in making that object, the condition it was found in and the use of that object provide us with important information about the past. It helps us to understand the value and beliefs of the people. Let’s take the example of the ‘dancing girl’ excavated from Mohenjadro (preserved in the National Museum of New Delhi). This statue helps us to sketch the image of a society where dancing was one important way of entertainment. It can also be inferred that girls then had confidently established themselves in the society and nudity was not a taboo.

Often, specimens can be more expressive than words. Objects have the advantage as they help us to directly relate to the past. Let’s understand this by citing the example of a brick from Babylonia with the seal of King Nebuchadnezzar II. This is kept for display in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of Pennsylvania. If one observes this evidence carefully, there is a distinct footprint on the brick. This specimen takes us back to the urban culture of the Babylonian Civilisation. The political culture too becomes evident from the seal on the brick.

The above stated examples prove that museum galleries help us to understand the culture of people. But let’s think differently. Is culture only limited to tangible entities or does it extend to include the intangible cultural resources too?

To really understand the past and its culture, we need to understand several intangible cultural resources like cosmology, social organisation and also the knowledge required to use and preserve the tangible materials. It needs to be understood that, as stated by Makio Matsuzono, Director of  National Museum of Ethnology, Japan, “the tangible is always embedded in the intangible. It is u
nreasonable to divide the two forms of heritage.”

There are several civilizations and societies where there has been no practice of preserving the tangible cultural heritage. They rather believe in the transferring personal memories and communal histories and music and religion orally. Museums have failed to preserve these intangible cultural entities. It is only recently that the UNESCO has taken measures to safeguard heritage,  including identification, documentation, research, preservation, protection,  promotion, enhancement, transmission (through formal and non-formal education) and revitalisation of the intangibles such as expressions, knowledge, skills and practices of individual and groups.

Thus, we can conclude that museum galleries can provide only a glimpse of the culture of the people but not the whole picture. We can understand it only if we study the tangible along with the intangible elements of the cultural heritage.

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