Every year for the last 42 years, 18 May has been marked in calendars as ‘International Museum Day’ and has been observed by thousands of people around the world. 

With around 37 000 museums participating in the celebrations last year, this is an occasion where museum lovers can convene to celebrate what museums represent. But, what exactly do museums represent, especially when there are perceptions of museums being merely huge, old buildings where historical objects are neatly stored to waste away in the privacy of their glass boxes. Following the fast advancement of technology in recent years, many adjustments were made to keep up with the digital age. You can now virtually ‘tour’ the Louvre and you can learn about almost any piece of art work or historical article that you would find in a museum on google. So it can be questioned if there is a point in keeping museums around.

Museums collect and preserve artefacts that have had a meaningful impact on the past and continue to impact life as we know it. It is one thing to stare at a picture of the Mapungubwe collection in a history textbook, but it is another thing entirely to look at it from one metre away and understand the depth of history behind it. The preservation of these artefacts not only certifies that certain events occured by providing a reliable, historical record, but it also reminds and teaches future generations about the past – so they can avoid repeating certain horrific faults and be empowered to do better. This is something that has allowed museums to keep their esteem in the wake of modern technology. 

Visiting museums can also pull us back down to Earth and force us to think about the world in front of us. It is easy to forget that history is not as abstract as we think and that there have been hundreds of generations of people before us who lived full lives, and struggled through many hardships. 

Visiting museums also facilitates the creation of community connections, which is something material that can be relied on while everything else is being digitised. Museums create unity amongst ordinary people on a local scale. Whether you are discussing the intricacies of an artwork or debating the symbolism of the hollowness of an ancient bronze sculpture, people can be brought together through discourse and storytelling, with museums being the perfect place for it.

Instead of diminishing the importance or intrigue of museums, the digital age could potentially enhance the experience for the museum-goer. Curators are presented with an opportunity to optimise tools like augmented reality (AR) as an add-on to normal museums creating a unique blend of technology and heritage. For example, there is only so much wall space for descriptions and labels alongside artefacts so having supplementary information alongside these artefacts  can assist in providing all the information necessary for an accurate representation of events. The possibilities with technology are endless and there have already been a few of these AR museum experiences in South Africa. 

In 2021, UP Museums became the first South African museum to have curated online collections presented through Google Arts and Culture. According to the UP Museums’ website, “Google’s mission, like UP’s, is to make the world’s information more accessible”. Furthermore, an increased knowledge of the contributions of the collections held by UP implores us to go deeper in our exploration and appreciation of South African history.

PDBY interviewed UP Museum tourist’s guide Steven Motena regarding the relevance of museums in the digital age:

What are some unique features that museums offer that might never be digitised?

The first is having the guide in the space, while most of the objects may have the description and acknowledge the artist, the person engaging with you on the tour is always a unique experience: able to answer any questions you may have and weave in their personal experiences. Tour guides can relay stories and give you the space to perceive the artwork by yourself. They are also skilled in sparking meaningful conversations across a vast span of topics from religion to politics and much more.

How can students benefit from visiting museums?

The University of Pretoria museums supports several modules and hosts educational opportunities for many students in related degree programmes. When students are not attending in-training at UP museums, it is open for tours. In your free time, it can be refreshing to take a break and be entertained (and educated) by the iconic exhibitions. Throughout the month of May, UP museums have opened their doors to tourists. UP Museums displays an exquisite collection of historical artefacts and artworks accompanied by in depth descriptions and highly skilled and engaging tourist guides. [Students] can expect new exhibitions: Southern Ceramics and the iconic Corobrik Collection.

[Students] can book a tour by emailing museums@up.ac.za (please allow up to five working days to schedule and confirm your tour) [or] find UP Museums at the Old Arts Building and the Old Merensky Library. 

According to the International Council of Museums, “museums are an important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among peoples.” Museums represent history, art and community. While information can be put online and pictures can be uploaded at the snap of a finger, the museum experience is unique, beneficial and cannot be digitised … at least, not yet.

Photo: Jaime Lamb

Vuyiswa Fumba

Originally posted on the PDBY website: Museums in the 21st century, ancient or substantial?