This book/work/project/treatise by Luke so enriched my “thinking process” regarding the importance of “museums” to culture–and, indeed, “culture” to museums. While (perhaps) the most practical use I obtained from the selected chapters was the implication that (we as) public historians should not write in Luke’s “style” if we wish our work to appeal to a broad/public demographic/audience-ness, the book does make some important points amidst all of its Andersonian jargon.
I must admit that I have never given much thought to the symbiotic relationship between culture and museums, despite my enthusiastic belief in the importance of museums. This book was valuable to me because Luke articulates (if you can call it that) exactly why they are important and how our cultural and political identities are formed by our museum experiences–and vice versa.
It seems like an impossible task to reconcile what museums feel they need to impart with the differing political views and agendas of the public. I can’t help but think that museums should attempt to remain as neutral as possible in their portrayals of the past. Though it is noble to want to foster an aura of intellectualism among museum-goers (“But I want them to think!” the Smithsonian curator implied during the debate over the Enola Gay exhibit), a simple, balanced presentation may in fact do that better than any number of controversial interpretations which just serve to “induce rage,” as Luke states.
Like it or not, the existence of museums depends on their patrons, and thus they must cater to what the public wants (such as commodified Native American material culture), or doesn’t want (such as reminders of their country’s historical imperfections). As Luke notes, the artifacts themselves are “cenotaphs” of the past; the only way to avoid conflict is to allow the public to interpret the contents themselves. Blatantly advocating certain interpretations of the past–no matter how accurate they may be–seems only to endanger museum attendance (and tax dollars). In the end–though perhaps I am being naive–the public is more likely to be inspired to learn and think critically about an exhibit if the information is presented impartially. Is it possible to create a completely impartial exhibit? Perhaps the cyborgs of the future will be able to do a better job of it than human curators…