Why does every museum need to have propaganda?

If it’s a natural history museum, it will have a section on how we’re destroying the earth. If it’s an aquarium, it will have a section on how we’re destroying the oceans. If it’s a historical museum, it will have a section devoted to the atrocities we’ve committed against whatever peoples. Etc.

You sort of learn to ignore these things, as obligatory tics of whatever sect it is that runs museums. But really, why are they necessary? Have we forgotten how to make museums that are just museums?

Also, the museumers seem not to realize that these things are just too ‘topical’ for what they’re supposed to be doing. Suppose (for example) that 1000 years elapse and the oceans still don’t get destroyed. Surely future aquariums in the year 3113 won’t still at that time include the whiny lectures on plastic bags, the exhibit of the soda bottle covered with seaweed, etc. There is a tension between the (supposedly) timeless nature of a museum and getting them all caught up in the cause du jour that I don’t think is being fully priced in here.

As it stands, it renders the experience somewhat akin to passing around the offering plate at Sunday service: something obligatory, part of the ritual, that you don’t particularly enjoy but you know is coming and is part of the price you pay.

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25 Responses to Why does every museum need to have propaganda?

  1. Dave says:

    These days, I find that museums rarely cover any subject as well as Wikipedia does.

    Perhaps someone should build a museum of museums. Browsing its corridors, I suspect that one would find that the modern version of a museum reflects modern education: pandering and shallow.

    • My Fake Name says:

      A History of Propaganda Museum would be quite an ironic twist. Its propaganda would be, “You just can’t trust Propaganda! (Now send us some endowment money!!)”

      • They could also have a Very Special Exhibit covering the damage done by the growing use of propaganda (in, e.g., museums), thus compounding the irony.

  2. Tim says:

    I always wondered about that to. I stopped visiting the cracked humor website when it posted a few articles about how libertarians are stupid whiners, it wasn’t even an attempt at being funny or making a point.

    It gets rather tiring to see and her all the propaganda everywhere.

    • Simon Grey says:

      In fairness, a lot of libertarians are stupid (see: Caplan, Bryan), and a good number of them are pretty whiny (see: every twenty-year-old pot-smoking “civil libertarian” ever). Of course, that doesn’t make Cracked’s articles funny, but it doesn’t necessarily render them incorrect or propagandistic.

  3. Anonymous says:

    They do it because it secures their funding from government or whatever activist patron is “sponsoring” the exhibit.

  4. aretae says:

    Teaching IS propaganda. Museums exist to teach. QED.

    • Ok; but then I can restate my question as, Why does every museum need to have that particular kind of propaganda?

      • josh says:

        Because *they* want it to. Duh.

  5. Pastorius says:

    Maybe in the future we can have a museum which covers the history of all the various Alarmisms by which Liberals rob the people of the world of the joy and wonder of life.

    • That actually sounds interesting. You would cover e.g., eugenics, etc etc, on up through global warming and ‘diversity’ dogma in this era, and presumably whatever comes after them once our current dogmas become dated.

      • Pastorius says:


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  8. My Fake Name says:

    Ya know how occasionally Christian Rock music is really pretty good? But it just doesn’t sit well with you, ya know, because there’s a message there, sometimes buried pretty deep, so it isn’t merely good music, but a type of propaganda that you may (or may) not really support… or support with qualifications that aren’t made in the music.

    Well, that’s how museums (and newspapers and universities) are. Some of them are pretty good, but there’s a mission and a message under there that they more or less try to hide.

    Ya know how people think the Constitution gives us separation of Church and State? Well, this isn’t that.

  9. Simon Grey says:

    “Why does every museum need to have propaganda?”

    Because a museum that exists merely as a collection of facts is boring as hell. There has to be a message, a point, or a lesson to be learned. History as a list of facts is boring; history as a collection of lessons to be learned is interesting. An aquarium as a collection of random sea animals is mostly boring; an aquarium as its own world/ecosystem is more interesting. Facts demand interpretation. Interpretation is the only thing that make facts interesting.

    Unfortunately, it seems that only leftists get to interpret things these days, which is why all museums have propaganda. Ironically, the propaganda is more than the “facts” upon which it’s built.

    • Simon Grey says:

      “Ironically, the propaganda is more than the “facts” upon which it’s built.”

      Should read: ironically, the propaganda is more boring than the “facts” upon which it’s built.

    • I guess I have a different view, that museums are (or at least, were) about something different than what you and Aretae are describing. Seems to me that historically there had once been this conceit that there were things Worth Preserving And Commemorating – and *that’s* why we have museums.

      In other words, they’re not about ‘teaching history’. They’re about Museumizing History (or sea life, or art, or whatever). It’s a different function.

      You are right that an aquarium as a collection of animals is mostly boring. Guess what: AQUARIUMS ARE BORING.

      I guess we’re not ok with boring enshrine-type museums though, and we want them to ‘teach’. Ok. But something has been lost in trying to morph them into places for ‘teaching’ or ‘interpretation’. What has been lost is the central conceit of having ‘museums’ in the first place, which I consider a shame. I may be alone in that however.

      • Simon Grey says:

        “Seems to me that historically there had once been this conceit that there were things Worth Preserving And Commemorating”

        You would still have to have some sort of moral or value judgment on what needs preserving and commemorating, and you’d have to provide some justification and context for why you did so.

        My grandparents were born in the great depression and developed the nasty habit of never throwing anything away. They now have a collection of wonderful artifacts and old stuff, but I’d hesitate to call their basement, attic, and various sheds museums. I mostly tend to call them collections of junk.

        The difference between my grandma’s junk collection and a museum isn’t necessarily the artifacts available for display. The difference between the two is that a museum explains why an artifact on display is significant in some way whereas my grandma just doesn’t give a fuck and simply keeps whatever she wants.

        • I think traditionally (or at least in my imagination) this moral/value judgment was implicit and unstated. Michelangelo’s David “belonged in a museum” because everyone agreed it was so, so there. No one explicitly articulated a philosophy/ideology from which it followed as a logical necessity. The ideology was there, as you rightly point out, but it was in the background and maybe often unconscious.

          I think I find that charming.

          The overt and conscious use of the museum to ‘teach’, by contrast, punctures that charm. Worse, when it veers, as it so often does, into the crisis du jour – global warming or whatever – it becomes Topical. And Topicality is pretty much the opposite (IMHO) of Museumness. “This is timeless and needs to be remembered” is pretty much the antithesis of Topicality.

          • Simon Grey says:

            I see what you’re getting at. Your view is that good art, good history, good exhibits, etc. were self-evidently good (which is similar to the implicit thesis of John Gradner’s “On Moral Fiction”), and so they needed no explanation for their inclusion and display in a museum. The failing of modern museums is that they have a bunch of turds that they’re trying to convince you is chocolate. So basically, museum curators’ moral sense is perverted or dead, which makes their exhibits seem propagandistic. Basically, they take some good stuff (say, a Manet or Rembrandt) and toss “Piss Christ” right up next to it and then tell you that all those different pieces of art are basically identical in value and meaning when clearly they are not. Basically, your complaint is that museum curators are soulless, amoral shitheads with bad taste.

            • Dave says:

              That comment wins a free beer.

              Not only do you have the Turd effect, but it also the case that the median adult is pretty dumb. Most of the exhibits from museums past would bore or confuse the modern adult. Thus, most museums have devolved to a “let’s take the kids somewhere today” type of experience.

  10. Tim says:

    I wonder if there is a positive correlation between the percentage of government funding and the percentage of propaganda in museums and art exhibits?

    I don’t mean that the government intentionally supports propaganda in this case (although, I suppose they do that too). But I doubt that many museums would survive without government funding. No one would go see exhibits on global warming.

  11. My Fake Name says:

    Whereas teaching is the principal goal of a museum; and whereas teaching is, at least in part, reliant upon propaganda, i.e., to reach the affective domain, and make the student not merely more knowledgable but indeed a better person, therefore it really is not surprising that every museum needs its propaganda.

    What IS surprising is the monochromatic hue of that propaganda. I mean where is the pro-slavery museum, or the pro-Franco museum, or the pro-Joe McCarthy museum? It wouldn’t surprise me if a Joe McCarthy museum exists… somewhere… probably in Wisconsin… but I’m sure that even there all the good deeds he no doubt did will presented along side a healthy helping of how he went off the rails a bit… and oh, poor alcoholic Joe McCarthy-n-all… let that be a lesson to you children.

    It suggests a conspiracy, yet there really are no conspirators (at least none consciously conspiring). This suggests instead a religion–a dominant religion, where the obvious group think of a conspiracy is so pervasively dispersed, and trivially variegated, as to cloak all sensation of a conspiracy (we stand for nothing but truth and light), while retaining its large-scale effects; a religion so “low church” that the tendrils of (rather obvious) power simply vanish as you trace them to the top. Those tendrils just happened to disappear in academia and the mainstream press, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

  12. Matt says:

    Aww, I actually like aquariums.

    The kind of people who run museums are SWPL types who are very concerned about “raising awareness” for this or that bugbear that irks them. At this point, I just expect the coming propaganda and it doesn’t faze me much. I remember a museum in Virginia that was largely propaganda free, but then in one of the historical boat exhibits made a snarky comment about how the Europeans believed themselves more “civilized” than the Native Americans. Well yes, they were.

    Another museum here in a small town in Washington had an exhibit on Japanese Americans that lived in the area. It was an interesting enough exhibit, but I don’t need to tell you that there was plenty of anti-internment propaganda, as though the morality of Japanese internment was a hot issue that needed to be expounded upon to ensure we all reached the correct conclusion.

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