What Are Museums For?

We visited a number of major museums while we were in Europe – the Paris Musee de Armee, the Belgian War Museum, and the London Imperial War Museum in particular. Maybe I’m spoiled, but I found myself a bit disappointed by most of them. I think that with the emergence of the internet, the role of the museum needs to change.

It used to be that books were readily available, but photos -lots of good detailed photos – were not. I’m probably from the last generation to really use a brick-and-mortar library, and I remember doing research there. Being able to visit a museum and see real artifacts behind glass was a great opportunity that the library couldn’t offer. Today, that’s not the case. Today, I can learn as much about World War II from Wikipedia (more, actually) than I can by spending a day in the Musee de Armee. The Musee is dimly lit, and all its exhibits are behind glass with a one or two sentence description at best. If I want to learn how something worked, or why it was adopted, or if it was effective, or what replaced it I have to pull up Wikipedia on my iPad.

The Belgian War Museum was better, with a lot of artillery exhibits in the open where you could really get a feel for the proportions and walk around them. They also had some neat pieces like production boards showing the incremental steps involved in manufacturing something. Their British MkI tank has several pieces of armor replaced with plexiglass so you can see inside. This is much more valuable than objects behind glass, which provide little more utility than photos on the ‘net.

It feels to me like many museum curators are attempting to turn their museums into choreographed multimedia walkthroughs of particular historic periods. A selection of standard uniforms and artifacts (poorly lit and behind glass), plus some vintage film clips playing in loops, and a few important quotes printed in large text on the wall. For the folks who are brand new to the topic at hand, that’s decent – although still pretty much on par with what they could get on the internet in an afternoon. These places aren’t doing anything to make use of their greatest asset, which is possession of large collections of physical items. Museums have the opportunity to be really extraordinary teaching institutions today.

I realize that most museums struggle for funding already, but if they had the money here’s what I would propose:

  • First, make more exhibits hands-on. Touching and feeling something is far more valuable than looking at it on a shelf. I realize that the rare items cannot be handled by lots of people without being destroyed, but there are plenty of things that can be. For a military museum, you could have things like sections of tank armor or inert artillery shells. Some fairly common items or reproductions can be put out on the floor with the understanding that they will need to be replaced periodically because of use – things like gas masks (what does it really feel like to wear a WWI gas mask?).
  • Second, offer classes for the visitors who want to know more. Charge an admission fee to defray some of the cost and to limit attendance to people who really care, and really go into depth on some aspect of the museum. Let people put hands on the exhibits, and help them really grok the material.
  • Lastly, allow serious researchers to use the collection. Several really amazing public (or theoretically public) firearms collections in the US have become closed to anyone at all, including the most serious and scholarly of researchers. It appears to just be a case of apathy and an unwillingness to dedicate any staff time to any visitors. What is the point of a collection that sit locked up in a basement hidden away from everyone?

I understand the archival instinct to protect collections from human contact, but museums have a dual purpose of preserving history and also teaching history. I think we need to pay more attention to the teaching aspect.

What do you think? Am I being hopelessly utopian here?


  1. i totally agree, too many museums and curators want to guide the visitor through their vision with selected pieces of evidence to prove their point. i always want to see as much evidence as possible and draw my own conclusions. the metropoltan museum of art has a terrific greco roman section with cases and cases of well lit artifacts.

  2. Have you been to the J. M. David Gun museum in Clearmore, Oklahoma? Clearmore is North of Tulsa. Look at the web site. It worth at least a few minutes. My dad took us on a family vacation to the Davis Gun Museum in the 60s. It was in the original hotel.


    I enjoy all the posts. I have learned so much.


  3. All good points you’ve made. I think part of the problem with military museums is that the curators develop a, perhaps subconscious, sense that they’re the only ones who can handle something. I am not only talking about the physical aspect but also the emotional impact of a item; its perhaps dark and serious nature. I’m sure most of us has have experienced handing a firearm to someone, hoping they don’t scratch it, and in the back of your mind knowing that holding something is far below really understanding it. I know the first time I saw a M1941 Johnson Automatic Rifle in the steel I had a pretty strong reaction: After all of that reading, poring over detailed pictures of it, wishing the Garand had that rotary magazine instead of the clumsy en bloc clip system… And there it was! Who else would understand and not think me crazy? I think this is the reaction quite a few curators have over and over when the public comes into their domain. Museums need to become archives of learning rather than purely archives of preservation.

  4. The Army Museum in Delft has deactivated Garands and Stenguns! Why? Fear of theft? You could easily replace serious parts like a bolt by 3d printed painted aluminium. They do have lectures on specific subjects and their collection is presented in an interesting and lively manner. Still, would they open this museum if they had to start from scratch? I would go for a very very large website (pics, videos, 3d presentation) and make an appointment for a fee every now and then with the seriously addicted (plus tv crews) to a large warehouse somewhere.

  5. I completely agree with you Ian. I would suggest a little modified version of your first propose (maybe a little expensive): So let the original guns remain behind the glass not to damage those parts of history and make exact replicas of the exhibit just hang or lying near the original copy and available for people to take them on hands, try how the mechanism works etc. Let those copies even not being fully functional (not shooting) but it will still be very useful and educating to handle , dis/reassemble and just have a physical contact with a real size and weight copy of some iconic guns. Just imagine it! Besides museums can make some money by selling such replicas to visitors!

  6. Excellent article and discussion, Ian. How nice to read and ponder literate comments made by adults without political axes to grind.
    The video you made of the WW2 semiauto meant for their home guard is a good example of the power of the Internet to use museum pieces to educate via the ‘net. A really well done video. Maybe the arms museums need to collaborate with you and your crew to make a series of videos like the one I mentioned. They could post the videos, you could sell DVDs to those who were serious collectors/researchers. Probably not enough interest but these collections need to be documented and shared.

  7. Ian

    This situation also occurs in Brazil. In museums have the same problem. In Sunset Boulevard, Sao Paulo, Brazil, we have various old rifles and very well preserved. Unfortunately the access to these weapons is virtually impossible.

    I do not know if it happens there in the United States, but in Brazil we have a situation worse.

    There are some prototypes of semi-automatic rifles and assault rifles that are forgotten.

    Some of them are military owned enterprises, as IMBEL. Access to this material is very difficult for researchers and historians. We have some prototype assault rifles that were never seen.

    Here we have yet another problem. We have other rare weapons in private collections. The problem is that we have a war of egos. The owners of these weapons do not allow you to take pictures, study or review them.

    For example, Brazil has built a copy of the G-43 rifles and there are some in private collections. It is very difficult to find anyone who has this gun. And who knows who has them, do not speak as you find them.

    In other words, history, culture and information that are lost with time.

  8. Only been to two war museums. The Patton Museum at Ft. Knox (30mins from Knob Creek) and the IL Nat Guard Museum in Springfield IL. Both had a “worn out” appearance – likely due to shoestring budgets. “Cool” items on display were various tanks of US and foreign armies; some with plates removed to see inside. And as you say, many were just locked cases with misc stuff tossed in it with vague/no descriptions.

    The IL Guard museum has – of all things – the wooden leg of Gen. Santa Anna. Got a good laugh from the watchman when I asked him if they also had the dress he was captured in. http://www.il.ngb.army.mil/museum/current.aspx One curious/baffling item there is an M2-A1 howitzer out front – that has NOT been deactivated (breech ring assy and barrel intact – not even tack welded). I suppose the close proximity to the Guard base keeps folks honest. 😉

  9. One of the best war museums that I’ve been to is the Texas Military Forces Museum at Camp Marbry, Austin Texas. They have dozens of armored vehicles including WW2 German halftracks. Really a nice collection that is very accessible. If you’re ever in Austin, I suggest that you visit.

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