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The Story of Museums

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Museums preserve our heritage. They carefully store, display, and provide explanations of historical objects. These objects can be everyday items, such as an ancient toy from Mohenjo-Daro or the profound and beautiful statue of Nataraja representing Shiva found in New Delhi’s National Museum.

We now enjoy the pleasure and edification of entering museums free or at a nominal cost. However, museums are mostly a modern invention. In earlier times, wealthy people collected rare or historical items, and only a select few were allowed to see them.

Then, starting in the 18th-century, museums began to be set up by Governments to allow their citizens to see the wonders of the past. Today the most visited general-purpose museum is the Louvre in Paris, where 2.7 million people visited in 2020. The most popular natural history and science museum is in Tokyo, and it attracted 2.5 million visitors in 2020.

Preserving the past for the joy of all

Unfortunately, millions still do not regularly visit museums. Instead, the allure of a movie or some social media chat leads people to pass the time without any gain. A visit to a museum, in contrast, is “a search for beauty, truth, and meaning in our lives. Go to museums as often as you can,” said the writer Maira Kalman. 

A visit to a great museum is so rewarding an activity that it can and should be done several times each year. Recently an ancient tablet known as the Gilgamesh Dream was found by US law enforcement officers. The tablet had been stolen from an Iraqi museum during the 2014 Persian War. The stolen tablet was sold multiple times, including for USD 1.7 million in 2014. It was finally found in a private collection in Washington. The tablet has now been returned to Iraq for the pleasure of all people to see. 

A space to meditate on human genius

Some critics say that the digitization and display of art and objects on websites is as good as traveling to a place and going to a museum. In fact, say these critics, it saves the hassle of going anywhere other than one’s home. But museums are like temples. They are places where one can meditate on human genius and activities. There is no substitute for being present in a high-ceilinged hall, the soft hum of other people, and the actual large painting, of say, the Mona Lisa, in front of you.  

The painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir explained this by saying, “The only way to understand painting is to go and look at it. And if out of a million visitors there is even one to whom art means something, that is enough to justify museums.”

A place of ideas

In the final analysis, says Jeanie Kahnke, a curator, “A museum is not a place of artifacts; it’s a place of ideas.” Each object not only tells a story of another person but points to an idea that has been thought about and developed. These ideas influence us and make us who we are. 

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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