Book review | The Museum: From its Origins to the 21st Century - Museums Association

Book review | The Museum: From its Origins to the 21st Century

Owen Hopkins' generously illustrated and thoughtful global history of museums has gaps but is a joy to read
Architecture Museology
Sheila Watson
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The Museum of Modern Art, New York, is one of the museums featured in the many lavish images in the book Ian G Dagnall/Alamy Stock Photo

This is a book for the general reader rather than the academic and an excellent example of the type. Hopkins draws on a range of theories relating to museum studies, art history, sociology and the like but does not cite them in an academic manner (indeed, does not always attribute them). So while the writing  is confident, insightful and thoughtful it is not too concerned with detailed theoretical underpinning. The book is meant to be read for pleasure and is, indeed,  a joy to read – in part thanks to its images, mostly in colour, often taking up a full page, which illustrate and add to the argument cleverly and beautifully.  

At the same time, Hopkins presents some interesting ideas about how and why museums have existed and continue to exist, tracing their origins back to the temples of ancient Greece. The book is international in scope, with fascinating examples from around the world.  

It falls into two halves.  The first outlines how some societies came to develop museums and what sorts of museums they created. In later sections it becomes a history of museum architecture with relatively little reference to politics or museums’ collections.  

By Owen Hopkins, £40, Frances Lincoln, ISBN 9780711254565  

Various key topics are considered generally, such as regeneration as a motive for museum development, but this is always brought back to the opportunities it gave different architects to demonstrate their talents.  

For Hopkins, the smaller, regional and local museums and galleries that are the lifeblood of museum culture, are of little interest. This book is all about ambitious projects and the cities that contain them.

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We do not hear much about the modern role and purpose of museums, or how these have changed in the past 30 years, apart from a short conclusion, titled The Museum Now, which has brief sections on current issues such as repatriation, colonialism and creating spaces for competing voices.  

Hopkins’ lightness of touch and swift narrative will keep most readers engaged, but the book’s balance sometimes tips too far towards the architecture of museum buildings at the expense of other interesting topics, mentioned in passing, such as the reasons people go to museums.

Nevertheless, Hopkins – an architectural historian, academic, director of the Farrell Centre, University of Newcastle, and former curator at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London – claims that what makes museums exciting is not their architecture, the grouping of collections or the design of exhibitions but how they act as “lightning rods of debate and contestation that make museums such integral parts of our culture, politics and collective identities”.  

Several times he points out that museums are about the future, not the past. Despite these promising comments he only returns towards the very end of the book to some of the debates and difficulties museums are navigating, and then in a cursory manner.  

I used to work in museums and spend a great deal of time visiting and studying them; and like the author, I am fascinated by their variety and inventiveness. Unlike Hopkins, I do not go so far as to think that without them “we would drift untethered in a perpetual present, unable to imagine any kind of future as we have lost our connection to the past”.  

Museums are only one way we commemorate the past, revise it and provide various versions of communal memories. I agree with Hopkins that museums provide an infinite variety of experiences and are “inescapably a reflection of society as it is now”, and that, as such, they are an important part of the cultural landscape worldwide.  

While the text lacks discussion of this societal role, the reader will enjoy the tour of the great monuments to culture that have been used for so many purposes in the past and the present, and will delight in the lavish use of pictures. 

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