Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Role of Museums

An interesting theme of this chapter of the course seems to focus on the significance of museums and preserved historical sites and objects in order to better understand American history. In one way, the reading on the National Museum of the American Indian by Amanda Cobb emphasized the importance of transforming a traditional understanding of a museum into a more interactive encounter that allows Native American visitors to gather in a shared history of past knowledge and experience and to celebrate the living Native American cultures. In another way, “An American Icon” by Dell Upton offered a perspective on Monticello that stresses the opportunity to learn about Jefferson and his time through the architecture and relics at Monticello. In this sense, Monticello serves as a kind of museum. Cobb and Upton seem to stress different understandings of what a museum should be as Upton maintains the preserved aspects of Monticello that places visitors in a more observatory position while Cobb argues that the unique approach of the NMAI situates museum goers in a more participatory role as contributors to the continuing Native American experience.

With this in mind, I found an interesting article in The Washington Post pointing out changes to the Monticello tour. The writer, Anne Applebaum, suggests that the Monticello tour has recently undergone some changes to make it a more interactive experience. For example, she says that her son was able to actually use a replica of Jefferson’s polygraph machine as opposed to just look at it, as she had done thirty years ago. In this way, Applebaum argues that the Monticello experience now allows visitors to explore and learn in a participatory way that encourages them to engage as active members of this cultural history. To me, this development highlights Cobb’s idea that while this form of museum experience differs from past museum organization, it allows visitors to integrate themselves more fully in the encounter with history.

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