What is a museum? Throughout our trip to the United Kingdom with the Museum Origins course, we tackled this question from a variety of angles, settling on no single definitive answer. Like a profanity, we “know it when we see it;” a belief derived from the historically recent empirical idea that “[t]o see is to know.” From our experiences in London and Oxford, where we were exposed to countless types of museums and collections—from the public to the private, the global to the local, the professional to the personal—I came to see that the museum is a technology. Museums are a tool used to organize materials and the knowledge which they embody (Foucault and his ordering of things is truly inescapable in our Western intellectual paradigm).
The museum is a technology of meaning-making of the physical world, which operates via organization and display. The institutions we visited in London and Oxford employ this technology to communicate a variety of values, from the aesthetically beautiful to the scientifically useful. They express these values in different ways, from the physical to the intellectual. What we as museum studies students must learn is how to read and decode these unique knowledge systems, so that categories ranging from “animals that just tipped over the water pitcher” to “those that look like flies from a distance” possess as much meaning for us as they do for those who first used them to understand and place the wonders of our world.
On our last day of the trip at the Linnean Society, my thoughts turned toward taxonomies and museums as the embodiment thereof. Over the course of our travels over the past ten days, we had seen many organizing principles, some more arbitrary than others, govern a variety of collections. At the Pitt Rivers Collection, for example, there were entire cases devoted to ball sports or boat-shaped artworks. In the mammal halls of London’s Natural History Museum, curators grouped specimens according to their attributes: “Toothless Mammals,” “Mammals with Pouches,” “Gnawing Mammals,” “Scaly Mammals.”
While Linnaeus deserves special attention for his creation of the taxonomic system still used today in the biological sciences, he also merits mention for his development of physical forms of organization as well. I was stunned to see realized versions of Linnaeus’s intellectually ideal herbarium cabinet in the Tower Room of the Society; to witness the actual cabinet he used was also a treat. I see museums, which are physically structured according to categories pertaining to the objects they hold, as the logical conclusion of Linnaeus’s cabinet. I admire the intellectual efforts to plan for these vessels—such as that done in Samuel Quiccheberg’s treatise on how to structure a Wunderkammer—and also those who take these ideas to form practical containers that house the wonders of the world. The simple act and methodology of organizing things has intellectual weight. The categories that we use to describe things make statements about their shared and disparate attributes and change the way that we view what—in essence—they are. This is the intellectual power that all museums share.
Anna Toledano was a student in the 2017 Museum Origins course and is pursuing a PhD in history of science at Stanford University. Follow her on Twitter at @annatoledano.