“Memory box” museums forget experience of objects, historian says

In presenting visual experience through objects, old museums gave a sense of culture happening in the room, historian Steven Conn said Tuesday.

By Tarika Khatar

Historian Steven Conn traced the evolution of museums into commercialized “memory boxes” at a workshop at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies Tuesday.

Conn, a professor of history at Ohio State University, began with the question that titles his 2009 book: Do Museums Still Need Objects?

Conn outlined two golden ages of museums: the first between the 19th and 20th centuries and the second ending with the recent economic downturn.

He said the first golden age of museums, which didn’t have acoustic and interactive technology, emphasized visual experience in objects, highlighting The Art Institute of Chicago as a museum of the first golden age. He described its architecture as a signal that “culture happens here.”

But where museums used to be a cultural refuge from “the messy world of commerce,” they have become commercialized through the increase in museum cafés, gift shops, and focus on museums as tourist attractions.

With this commercialization and the rapid proliferation of museums, Conn said the purpose of museums has turned towards immortalizing the present in “memory boxes” that repackage the ephemera of the present age as historical artifacts.

“Those two worlds, which a hundred years ago we could pretend to keep separate, have merged,” he said.

Some audience members objected to Conn’s “memory box” argument in the question-and-answer session. They suggested that even “memory boxes” can be educational.

Clarifying, Conn left the audience with a question: “I wonder whether museums lose their particular power to enchant and educate if more and more of our lives are seen through the lens of a museum. Are they becoming less magical, more commonplace?”