What is it that makes us who we are? What are the experiences that shape and define us? The circumstances that create our beliefs and values? What are the factors that have made Scotland the country it is today; the country we call home? Intriguing questions that lead in turn to the question of how we preserve our identity, both as individuals and as nations. How do we protect the integrity of our past, our history, our heritage? And crucially, who is it that decides what is important, or significant enough to be preserved? Why are some people and events remembered and celebrated, while others are brushed to one side, forced into obscurity? These were some of the questions I put to Dr Elspeth King, director of the Stirling Smith Museum, and her answers were enlightening.
A woman of great erudition and insight, Elspeth firmly believes that museums are at the very heart of our national memory: the key to knowing and understanding our identity. They hold the objects that mark the great moments in our history. The moments that had a lasting impact on our parents and grandparents and beyond. Museums preserve, display and interpret artifacts that are at the very core of our lives, our values, our passions. Our tangible, but also our intangible, inheritance. And reflect our place in the world. From local to global.
We need museums. But we need to ensure the history they portray really is our history. Museums, like newspapers and television, can be only too easily manipulated to distort history, just as they were by the totalitarian regimes of which there were no shortage during the 20th century! Yet it’s a sad truth that most countries today still have their own ruling elites, those people who use their power and wealth to influence the selection and interpretation of artifacts, to create a view of history that reinforces their own position of dominance and control.
Stop for a moment and just think how many national museums are littered with antiquities looted from more ancient, but poorer, nations. Antiquities stolen on an international scale by European empire-builders, with the British more often than not setting the worst example. There’s nothing noble about theft under the guise of imperial aggrandisement. It would be interesting to know whether any of these national institutions are hurrying to give back what they stole: the on-going saga of the Elgin Marbles being a very sorry case in point!
But local museums are a very different kettle of fish and more likely to genuinely reflect the history and heritage of the communities they serve. Yet they are all to often neglected and underfunded. Why? Is it because the holders of the purse-strings are exactly those people who control the decisions about who or what is important, and who ensure that it is their elitist view that prevails – whether in the world of art, music or museums?
It’s a challenging situation for the dedicated staff and volunteers of local museums, and there are a lot of issues involved. But, as I hope I demonstrate in this month’s iScot article, there are countries like Estonia and Australia where museum staff are showing clearly that different attitudes are possible. There’s a whole lot going on out there! And here in Scotland, Elspeth King has been at the forefront of saving the past that really is ours from oblivion.
One country which faced just such oblivion is the small Baltic state of Estonia. They finally regained their independence in 1991 and with great joy, and amidst much celebration, opened their wonderful new National Museum in 2016 (with not a stolen artifact in sight!) At long last, after centuries of some of the most horrific foreign subjugation, they been able to present their own history, culture and identity. And it’s not without a wonderful touch of irony that the new museum is built on the site of a former Soviet airbase!
In the foyer are these heartfelt words: ‘Not only the Estonian National Museum but the entire Estonian people find themselves in a new era… But Estonians have not forgotten that one becomes a citizen of the world through one’s own culture, which is why it’s important to know one’s roots. And it is not only necessary, but also interesting and lots of fun.’ Then they add these lovely, hopeful, words, saying that the creation of their own national museum is ‘the end of a long journey and the start of a hopefully even longer one.’
So, if you’ve ever wondered how you became the person you are, or why you live the way you do, or why some objects fill you with joy, sorrow or pride, or why you feel so strongly attached to the values of the country that you call home, then, to misquote the immortal bard, ‘Read on, Macduff!’, for you’ll find this article a pertinent read indeed!