Museums and the Democratic Order

Museums and the Democratic Order

Miriam R. Levin

How the museum evolved, from Egypt, to Fifth Avenue, to Bilbao, to the Web

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The origin of the museum is inextricably linked with the storms of history. "Again and again, museums have received new impetus from lurches of humanity," Lawrence Vale Coleman noted in the three-volume study of American museums he published on the eve of World War II. "And now, with turmoil everywhere, these institutions are gaining ground more surely than ever before."

Almost 60 years later, Stephen Weil, a former official of the Smithsonian´s Hirshhorn Museum, startled the more conservative members of his profession when he wrote: "Discomforting as the notion may be to many of its advocates, the museum is essentially a neutral medium that can be used by anybody for anything. . . . Museums are at their best and most distinctly themselves when they deal with `stuff.´" The process by which that "stuff" is chosen, displayed, and interpreted is how these storehouses of detritus function as agents of social change.

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