Institutional and Cultural Amnesia versus Cultural Relevancy: Do We Risk Losing Our Historical Orientation, If We Favor Only What’s Useful in the “Now”?

Professional Forum
Rae Jung Wilburn, USA

“Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one if its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” – Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

(This was quoted by Craig Owns at the beginning of his essay “The Allegorical Impulse.”)


Many museums and institutions of cultural heritage are privileging online strategies to attract audience members and to provide them with constantly updated online information. To this end, institutional websites increasingly feature ways that audiences can be “info-tained” by up-to-date arts news or dynamic collections information and by event announcements and institutional “happenings” (online or on-site) that might be relatable to their current interests and could fit into their schedules. Technologically enhanced audience participation also encourages social media “liking” or other venues for feedback. Indeed, institutions are tasked with being relevant, useful and responsive to the publics they serve.

Yet, on the other hand, in addition to making their institutions relatable to their audiences, cultural institutions must steward the public’s knowledge of various cultural heritages. This applies not only to information for the general “museum-goer” but scholarly researchers, academics and other professionals. Museums and other cultural institutions still hold decisive authority over the cultural framing of their collections, and, likewise, such institutions are important vehicles for the cultural narratives built around those material objects.  In this context, the pressure to be current also exists.

Notably, in line with this trend, as institutions place more didactic and interpretative materials on their website, some museums are also gearing up to publish current scholarly research or collection catalogues online. One distinguishable feature of the online format from the printed catalogues is its ability to be updated (with comparative ease). Additionally, such information is open to user feedback. Such an approach follows the current tendency to privilege current views on collection materials.

Given all this, there seems to be unsettling questions about the loss of presenting and understanding information as historically contingent and about the perceived benefits of being so current. Is yesterday’s news obsolete? As scholarly information is updated and user input is folded into research, what happens to the public and the institutional understanding of older information and historic points of view? Do collections lose their historical contexts and markers, if such information’s relevancy is contingent on whether it first satisfies the need to engage with audiences in the “now”? Or does that engagement enhance historical understanding? Are we just appropriating objects from the past to make them consumable and relatable to the present? In such a scenario, what is the role of the cultural archive, online or otherwise? Does the archive only exist to be mined and appropriated for the present, or do we make an effort to see the historical contingency in our own cultural narratives? Can we do both? What strategies can we employ to navigate this tension?