Wonderland of museums
Not so long ago museums were still, as one museologist has put it, "sidings on whose rails treasure-laiden trains had halted for ever." Curators had still not thrown off the collecting and hoarding mentality which wealthy travellers and lovers of the arts bequeathed to public museums of the 19th century along with their collections of treasures. A museum's greatness was measured in terms of how many objects it contained, so every inch of space was used and the museum became a vast necropolis, its walls, from floor to ceiling covered with paintings, its rooms crammed with statues and showcases. It was a dusty, tiring place, to be visited from a sense of duty or "done" as the tourist "does" ruins and other ancient curiosities marked with an asterisk in the guide book.
Even today there are local, regional and even national museums which seem dedicated to the sole task of conservation. But in most cases a new wind has been blowing out the cobwebs from the dusty cemeteries of yesterday. Flexibility and movement are the new watchwords which have replaced rigidity and inactivity. The museum has begun to speak the language of our time.
This change came about when it was recognized that the justification of a museum's existence must be measured by its capacity to serve the needs of the people and by its ability to put at their disposal the vast accumulation of human experience and help them develop their taste and judgment. The recent reconsideration of the whole function and purpose of museum work has been based on the premise that museums are education and not simply ancillary to it.
Sir Harry Lindsay, Chairman of the Council of the Royal Society of Arts in Great Britain, once declared: "If only I had been trained properly when I was a child, I should not only like what I know, I should not only know what I like; but I should also know why I like what I like." One of the great achievements of the modern museum is that it has proved to the hilt its capacity to interest and instruct young people, for it is at the same time book, spoken word and image; it is the living past. In the museum the word "education" takes on its original etymological sense: "E-ducare" "to lead out", and so to foster, to encourage, to cultivate.
But the museum can do still more. "It is", says M. Georges Salles, Director of French National Museums, "one of the places where contacts, exchanges and understanding between different peoples can most easily be established. It is this power of the museum to act as a unifying force, as well as its role as a cultural community centre, that is being emphasised by the UNESCO-sponsored International Campaign for Museums and its special Museums Week in October.
As a contribution to this campaign, the Unesco Courier in this issue has opened a window on the wonderland of museums, a world in which young people can see the shape of things to come outlined more clearly in the light of things past, and where men and women can find a sense of continuity and balance amid the speed and pressure of modern life.