Musings and Visions from the Director’s Desk – Winter 1995

By: Jeremy A. Sabloff

Originally Published in 1995

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“museum: an institution devoted to the procurement, care, and display of objects of lasting interest or value.”
-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary

The 12th century A.D. Temple of Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Photo by Thierry Zéphir, 1993

One of the most important and worthy goals of an archaeology/anthropology museum is to preserve a material record of the past. However, museums also must strive to show how aspects of that record are relevant to today’s world. This mission clearly can be accomplished in many ways, through educational outreach, lectures, and exhibitions. It is particularly challenging to create exhibitions that show the relevance of objects from the past, but when successful, these can he tremendously rewarding for both the public and museum staff alike.

The relevance of the past (from the Far distant to the very recent) for people today can be illustrated in many ways. First, an exhibit can highlight the accomplish­ments—aesthetic, technical, or organizational—of a past culture. It can focus the viewer’s attention on, say, how a culture overcame technical and environmental limita­tions to produce architectural triumphs that are still marveled at today. Angkor, whose celebrated technological and artistic achievements are featured in this issue, provides a good example. In so doing, the exhibit can foster an appreciation of cultures other than our own, in general, and the achievements of these cultures in circumstances far differ­ent from those of the modern world, in particular.

Second, the study of the past can provide useful perspectives on problems fac­ing the world today. That is to say, museum exhibits can and should explore “the lessons of history” that recent archaeological scholarship has shed light on. For exam­ple, as I have argued elsewhere, new understandings of the demise of Classic Maya civi­lization in the southern Yucatan Peninsula offer important insights into the long-term potential and limitations of rainforest environments and the consequences of large pop­ulation growth, forest clearance, and agricultural intensification.

Third, an exhibit can point out the direct utility of the past. New archaeologi­cal research has begun to reveal practical applications of some scholarly finds, as I men­tioned a couple of months ago in this column. For instance, Dr. Clark Erickson’s fieldwork in the southern Andes and most recently near the headwaters of the Amazon has uncovered the workings and advantages of raised field agriculture. He and other colleagues have been able to reintroduce this productive technology to modem peasants in the areas.

Fourth, archaeological and ethnographic research has often revealed interest­ing cultural continuities (and discontinuities) over long periods of time and these can be presented through exhibits. Such exhibits can help illuminate the nature of various cul­tures around today’s globe, and can lead viewers to a better understanding and appreciation of modern cultural practices. Our new permanent exhibit on “Living in Balance,” now on display in the Ruth and Earl Scott Gallery, offers some nice illustrations of how studies of both the past and present can offer insights into modern cultures of the American Southwest

By emphasizing the relevance of their research and collections, archaeology and anthropology museums can help show visitors why “procurement, care, and display” of objects of the past and present can and should make such material cul­ture have “lasting value.”

Jeremy A. Sabloff

The Charles K. Williams II Director

Cite This Article

Sabloff, Jeremy A.. "Musings and Visions from the Director’s Desk – Winter 1995." Expedition Magazine 37, no. 3 (November, 1995): -. Accessed May 29, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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