Taking Museum Projects Seriously

Category: Life & Society Views: 619

Museums amuse people. Museums help people relax and provide for interactive learning experiences. Museums sell. Museums are a superior mode of communication and education.

Any superior mode of communication must intrigue people. It must grab their attention, help them relax, and engage them in the process of simultaneously producing, negotiating, understanding, and sharing meanings. Theorists say, people learn and retain more when they are intrigued and relaxed and when they engage in the act of learning.

Museums attract people en masse. On average, Americans visit museums three times each year. In the 1970s, American museums recorded 350 million visits per year. In 1988, the recorded figure of visits was 566 million. With the building of more gorgeous museums in the 1990s, tens of more millions of people must be visiting American museums now. More than 40 percent of some 9,000 existing museums in U.S. were built after 1970.

Yes, museums help people relax, have fun and learn. Museums engage people in active learning. Educators now use museum visits to engage students in the act of learning. Trainers tend to do the same. Museums not only show and tell, they also sell very well. And compared to the so-called theme parks, they sell cheap. They hold more attractions for intelligent tourists.

Museums primarily preserve and interpret the material aspects of human existence, human activity and the environment. There are numerous breeds and categories of museums. There are art museums, science museums, history museums, and so forth. Some museums target special audience groups, such as children, societies, universities, or schools. Some others have particular responsibilities for a defined geographic area, such as a city or region. Many others offer alternative interpretations of artistic, historical, or scientific collections.

Since interpretations are human activity, museums are not innocent, neutral, or apolitical sites of meaning. Like books, movies, or political speeches, museums provide a preferred reading -- a meaning that its proponents want the visitors to internalize. This does not mean that visitors absorb exactly what a museum shows and tells. Yet, museums significantly influence innocent minds -- minds that have not already been influenced by other interpretations of reality than what the museum represents.

Many interest groups, from artists to Zionists, now are using museums as tools for their communications. Since the term "museum" itself has an ethos of universality, some interest groups use it to camouflage their political interests. Even the KKK has an electronic museum on the Internet. The term "interest group," however, should not always refer to groups that seek to brainwash people to believing their mythologies. James Smithson, the Englishman whose generous bequest eventually established the Smithsonian Museum, also represented an interest group in himself, as he had an interest in "the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."

As an interest group interested in global peace grounded in social justice -- an interest group keen on establishing the kinship and well-being of humanity -- Muslims should come forward to share their care, concern, responsibility, and trust through museums. Muslims must provide Americans with alternative fountains of knowledge by using museums as sites of interactive learning. In the least, Muslims must tell the other side of the story that is told by interest groups seeking to enchant people into believing their myths regarding Islam, the Muslim world and hot topics such as Palestine.

Yes, building a museum is an awfully costly and time-consuming project, but equally great is its potential impact on society. Given the magnitude of the need for Muslim understanding in America, Muslim communities and organizations must take the idea of museums seriously. With will and commitment, it is not at all impossible build a monumental national museum in the U.S. and regional museums across the county over a few decades.

For now, to minimize the cost, and to keep the commitment sharp, Muslim groups and even individuals should start by building virtual museums. Virtual museums can integrate and transcend all types of museums, books, maps, movies, artifacts, databases, and representations or recreations of "meaningful orders and things." Yet, just as maps aren't the territory, the virtual museums cannot replace the larger and more "real" representations that conventional museums provide.

Thus as the first step to the journey of a thousand miles, American Muslims should encourage their kids to pursue Museum Studies, which has become a fairly well-established academic and professional field, and turn their web sites into virtual museums, while keeping in mind that the virtual museums alone demonstrate the weakest manifestation of their commitment to social justice.

Mohammad A. Auwal is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Los Angeles and is a regular columnist for iviews.com

  Category: Life & Society
Views: 619
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