The Empty Museum Case

There’s a room in the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow with a giraffe standing below a spitfire beside an elephant who’s looking at some floating heads. This is one of my favourite parts of any museum anywhere, largely for it’s seemingly random arrangement that represents the joy of all the millions of things you can find in such places. But museums aren’t usually arranged at random at all, and many of them have layouts designed to tell us certain stories. But what is lurking in the gaps?

Animal Attic, Otago Museum

From my 18th birthday until my 24th, I worked in the largest museum my home town had to offer. For those six years I wandered that museum’s seven permanent galleries and their tantalizing glimpses of worlds I was increasingly desperate to go out and explore. Three years later, thanks to the generosity of total strangers, I’ve been able to do just that. But once a museum geek, always a museum geek, and almost everywhere I go I make sure to visit a local museum. Lately though, I’ve become suspicious of museums that claim to tell some kind of ‘national’ story, and I’ve begun to look at the gaps in their exhibits, as much as the exhibits themselves.

Museums, especially ‘national’ museums such as New Zealand’s Te Papa, are ideal places to discover more about a country. You can see what kind of artifacts are of the most importance to that culture, which elements of national identity are most recognisable, or which pieces of that nation’s history the museum has decided deserve a place in these popular institutions. But the more I travel, the more interested I have become in what is not on display, and what that can tell us about the place we’re trying to get to know.

Replica of Mary Queen of Scots’ tomb, National Museum of Scotland

Naming a museum something grand like ‘The National Museum of Scotland’ for example, is all very well, and brings legitimacy to the institution as well as the nation it represents, particularly in cases like Scotland, which exists as a nation but not as a nation-state. These titles may reflect curious funding patterns (as in Te Papa which commands 100% of central government museum funding), or they may be aimed primarily at enticing overseas visitors. But what they promise is a narrative of a nation’s history. This should automatically put us on our guard. National histories are not linear, nor are they ever simple. They have been written by centuries of ‘victors’, they are dependent on what has been recorded and gone un-destroyed, they are increasingly acknowledged to have happily discarded women almost entirely, and national borders are far more nebulous than we like to think. But we love national histories, and we are all easily seduced by the simplicity these museums offer us in their narratives.

“As carriers of common sense knowledge, narratives contain and express the structures of meaning so that they literally ‘tell’ human beings how to make sense of reality. They are artificial and invented, yet they are seen as natural and authentic markers or identity, of difference from others.”

– Miriam Schroder

As visitors and as locals, these narratives are satisfying, and give us an insight into the worlds we are trying to understand. This is helpful and healthy, as long as we simultaneously realise that whatever version of a national history we are seeing on display is not – and cannot possibly be – the only ‘truth’. Unfortunately, in the meteoric rise of the public museum over the last 150 years, we seem to have adapted a mentality that accepts museum narratives at face value. For example, I remember as a tour guide saying something along the lines of “As you can see by this display, New Zealanders prize pounamu (greenstone) above all other materials”. This would be met with head-nods and murmurs of approval from my largely Aussie and American cruise ship tour audience. But really? All New Zealanders? All materials? Something that simplistically sweeping can surely never be true. What about the distressingly large number of New Zealanders who would rather keep a firm distance from Maoritanga altogether, and continue to reinforce colonial narratives? What about those living in the North Island where pounamu doesn’t occur naturally and has never been a part of life until very recently, if at all? Of course, none of this was likely to be covered in a 45-minute tour!


In the same museum we had a kind of object-based ‘timeline of industry’ in the region, beginning with the sealers and whalers, through grass cultivation, gold mining, meat farming, fruit and veg to the burgeoning wine industry. At no point in that exhibit, or indeed in that gallery, was reference to the complicated history of land ownership in that part of the world which might put significantly alter how we view some of those industries. And what about the industries that don’t make it to the timeline? Are the school children of the region simply never to hear of them? Quite possibly!

As I’ve visited other museums in various parts of the world, I’ve begun to wonder more and more about what I’m not being encouraged to look at, as much as wonder at what I’m actually being presented with. One conflict common among museum boards, curators and

Exhibit from the War Remnants Museum, Vietnam

other staff the world-over I am sure, is what ratio of objects is appropriate for each display. In the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, there is an entire floor that is virtually object-free, if we consider objects in the traditional sense. What there is instead is images, blown up newspaper headings, and copies of articles written, all from Western countries demonstrating condemnation of the ‘war of aggression’ in Vietnam. Clearly, this was a story the museum wanted to tell, objects or no objects.

How many times is a lack of objects an excuse, I wonder, to keep those parts of national histories that were marginalised to begin with out of our museum narratives, and therefore continuing to privilege certain stories? Kept away from the public sphere for so long, women’s history is notoriously underrepresented. As government ministers, writers, scientists, public figures, of course men have left a far bigger footprint on the museum world. In an object-based medium, those who had objects in their own name, left clear traces of themselves, are always at an advantage. Likewise those on the losing side of a conflict, or part of something that is no longer easy to talk about. In Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, for instance, the memories of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence ring loud and clear. We can read Patrick Pearse’s letter to his mother before he was executed, we can see the chapel where the condemned Joseph Plunkett married Grace Gifford hours before his death. We can walk inside Eamon de Valera’s cell. But at one stage when an understandably confused tourist from the States asked our guide why one of the War of Independence prisoners found themselves back at Kilmainham during the Civil War only a year after independence, the guide hastily explained that some of the anti-British fighters became anti-Treaty fighters and so were again imprisoned. After such detail regarding the more ‘straight-forward’ independence conflict, the Civil War which followed and reached its bloody height in the early 1920s, was only touched upon under duress, and dismissed as quickly as possible. The reasons are understandable. This is a tension that is not confined to history. But after this incidence I suddenly noticed that those executed by the Irish Free State were noticeably less visible, if not entirely missing from display, than those executed by the British in that same Gaol. Surely the very contemporary nature of the conflict should make it all the more worthy of inclusion in an educational institution?

Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, Ireland.

Likewise in Vietnam, in any of the museums which deal with what we in the West know as the ‘Vietnam War’, there is a significant group missing from every exhibit, tour and history book I saw: the pro-American Vietnamese. There was a whole government full of people, as well as troops and civilians who supported the US in various ways, but this group is entirely absent from the narrative in Vietnam. One of our tour guides told us how, as a child of a Viet Cong veteran, the government had provided him with a free university education. The political allegiances of one’s parents or even grandparents still dictate the opportunities of my generation in Vietnam – so what about their less fortunate contemporaries? My grandfather espoused the values of apartheid South Africa. I’d rather no one today took that into account in their dealings with me!

Throne room, Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen, Denmark. The throne on the left is made from Narwhal tusk!

Denmark is often hailed as a paragon of democratic virtue.The nation that created the welfare state, the most educated population, the most transparent government, the least unequal society and so it goes on. But if you were to visit Rosenberg Castle or Amalienborg where many of the royals still live, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was still an absolute monarchy. In several languages the virtues of royals past and present are lauded, their positive impacts hailed and the tyranny of 250 years absolute monarchy all but vanished from the figurative record book. I’m opposed to monarchy in basically any country, and yet I still found myself thinking quite warm and fuzzy thoughts about the Danish royal family, their Aussie daughter-in-law and their fond family memories. If there is or ever has been a republican sentiment against the billion-kroner-a-year royal family, you will not find out about it by visiting a Danish museum.

Perhaps we need to start leaving empty museum cases in our exhibits. ‘Here is the revolver used in an attempted assassination of Queen Victoria that we never found’. ‘Here is the manuscript of perhaps the finest novel of the 19th century, that we never got to read because it was penned by a woman’. ‘Here is the traditional wedding garment of the tribe that lived here once, but has dissapeared entirely from the narrative of this nation’. I suppose that would make for a very boring display. But I hope that as the museum begins to develop and change in an era where technology allows us to display all sorts of things we never could before, that we begin to consider what is missing from the narratives currently on display.

The Hunterian Museum, c. 1842, one of the world’s first modern public museums

“We need to be alive to the pertinent silences – the omissions and unmentionables – that surround even the loudest controversies and the most vocal speakers” – Richard Toye


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