Museums: a place for questioning..?

Image, The Benin Tusk on display at The Manchester Museum

Image, The Benin Tusk on display at The Manchester Museum

In anticipation of our conference paper in July on ‘how to teach controversial issues using museums’, I have been doing some research online. It seems like this is a hot topic at the moment, with a lot of resources recently highlighting potential topics and guidance for teachers on how to approach discussion and debate in the classroom. A simple search for ‘teaching controversial topics’ can bring up a multitude of potential resources. Mostly, this links directly with the secondary Citizenship curriculum but, of course, the subject matter can refer to topics which span the whole of the curriculum – science, economics, art, technology, religious studies etc.

The important thing for me, as a museum educator, is how this all relates to the collection we house at The Manchester Museum. I used to think that museums were fairly impartial places, where debates had already taken place and the most objective viewpoint was on display. Since I started working in museums, however, my own viewpoint has altered somewhat. Collections can engage people in controversial discussions simply by being on display. The rich history behind objects and their origin can bring to life potential stories that highlight the topic under debate, making a direct link between the past and the present moment.

Image, Frogs from The Manchester Museum Vivarium

Image, Frogs from The Manchester Museum Vivarium

Objects from Africa collected during the colonisation period, for example, can create an understanding of the complexities of the history and religion of a people who were struggling to maintain tradition when faced with conversion to Christianity. A display of taxidermy animal specimens reminds us of environmental issues and the possibilities of losing species to extinction as we accelerate through the 21st Century. The Manchester Museum’s vivarium, with its camouflaged reptiles and amphibians, highlights this further, but can also pose questions about the benefits and/or drawbacks of keeping animals in captivity. Archaeology displays may bring to life histories passed, but latent information is sometimes destroyed in excavation – should we be preserving historical sites, or investigating them?

This is just a snapshot of what a museum collection can add to a controversial topic and I anticipate I will find even more. But the thing I’m looking forward to the most is discovering interesting ways of drawing students into these types of discussions whilst on a visit.

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