A museum of collective vitality

What are museums for?

One answer to this question comes toward the end of Orhan Pamuk’s epic novel, The Museum of Innocence, as the anti-hero Kemal visits thousands of museums in Europe, Asia and America. He’s planning to open his own house museum in tribute to Füsun, the forbidden love of his life – he’s been collecting objects he associates with her for years, from her cigarette butts to the ceramic dogs on her family’s television set. Pondering the purpose of collecting, he comes to the simple conclusion that museums are time compressed into space.

Looking at it from the direction of visitors rather than collectors… within the space of the museum we decompress the assembled material – expand it to witness something of the flow of time – what happened, how, and what it might mean. But is knowledge and understanding the end point?

In another take on their purpose of museums, New Curator describes museums as the city’s lymph nodes, immersed in its central nervous system, providing immunity against its ills. This model suggests a purpose beyond the (co)production of knowledge and understanding. Here, museums play a role in maintaining public health and happiness.

I’d like to reconceive of the National Museum of Australia in these terms. If a city museum can contribute to a city’s vitality, then a national museum can contribute to a nation’s. And now that we have a new director keen to take the museum into the future and willing to engage with contemporary issues, it is timely to reconsider its purpose. Could it be to promote our collective health in both social and environmental terms?

What would such a museum look like? It would certainly host celebrations – of admirable qualities of people and country. But it would also work to heal historical wounds, to tend to our collective psyche and our ecology. It would enlist visitors as active collaborators in witnessing, in recognising, in empathising, and provide means for us to respond in constructive ways. In this way, the National Museum would cultivate our collective vitality.

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