Tuesday 10 April 2012

Who Needs "Encyclopaedic" Museums?

The western museums which are eager to either get their hands on or hang on to as much trophy exhibits art as possible like to present themselves as "Universal" collections and "Encyclopaedic" museums. They'd like us to think that the Enlightenment has not yet passed and as standard bearers of cosmopolitanism and globalization that they still have a place in the modern world. Is that the case? I cannot help but wonder whether the announcement by the Encyclopedia Britannica that it no longer sees a place for its paper version in the modern world is not symptomatic of a broader change, and whether we should not be examining entrenched attitudes about the place of the physical version of encyclopaedic collections in the modern world.  Could not museums today display a more limited number of prime-quality objects (allowing them to be more widely distributed in geography) with the 'comparanda' placing them in wider multi-cultural globalised 'context' supplied by virtual means (digital, holographic, three-dimensional TV etc etc with interactive hypertext)? Is that not actually the way museums have been going now for some time anyway?

Julie Bosman, 'After 244 Years, Encyclopaedia Britannica Stops the Presses', New York Times, March 13, 2012.

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