Mystery and Uncertainty in Museums

It’s been a while since the last post, longer than I’d like however all for good cause. In recent months I’ve been applying the final touches to my MA dissertation however it is with great relief that I can now say that it is done, vanquished, complete.

The study itself was on the state of Romano-British studies in modern museums, using the British Museum as my main example. It analysed many aspects of such exhibitions and found some great examples of museum work, however one aspect left a rather bitter taste and it is on that topic that I write briefly today.

Romano British archaeology and history is a hazardous thing, there are few concrete certainties and facts, much of it is interpretation.  So how do museums deal with portraying such a complex story?  If you take the British museum as an example they don’t.  To my despair i found it to tell a simplified tale of the ancient aristocracy in Britain and show little of the complexities within the field, indeed to me it seemed to actively avoid any sense of major debate.  No mystery, no uncertainty,   but theory stated as fact.  The best example of this was the British museum stating that 50,000 Roman troops conquered Roman Britain, whilst the Corinium museum, claimed 40,000 for the army of invasion  Both museums laying claim to a fact with little explanation or hint that these figures are theory, not fact.

Ultimately no one actually knows how many troops were used in the invasion as we’ve yet to find any long lost list of Roman military movements in AD43, but thats fine.  It is ok not to know something, no one knows everything. However it is not fine to falsify facts, or present theories as facts.

When museums do this they strip history of its complexity, and in my view much of its intrigue, but for what aim?  Not to confuse the visitors?  If so that is extremely patronising.  The world could be a better place if people were encouraged to think for themselves rather than accept things at face value.  Or are museums not aware of the wider debates,  a prospect i’d rather not think about.

Museums to me are meant to be socially responsible institutions and guardians of knowledge, however in reality it feels like they’re falling short and personally, I find that quite sad.

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Nevertheless, if not awed by the interpretation the artefacts in museums are worth it for their beauty

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