I recently re-visited our local natural and world history museum and was struck by what narrow slices of history were up for public viewing. Imagine if our society was only shown through the homes and possessions of movie stars and high-ranking government officials a thousand years from now. The picture it would paint of life in 2010, while elegant, would be miles away from how the vast majority of people ever lived. I think many museums are suffering from a similar problem. In every gallery or display, especially within European history, the artifacts presented are almost without fail items that would only be found in the homes of the rich or powerful (or within the four walls of a church or other religious institute.)
Part of the reason for this, of course, is that poor people don’t leave much behind. Until just a few generations ago almost everyone owned very few material possessions and what they did own was generally used until it was worn out. A coat or chair or pair of shoes that belonged to someone who only owned the one of them is probably not going to preserved for hundreds of years and eventually end up in the possession of a museum. Keeping something safe for all of that time requires money and a fair amount of social/political stability (or a very good hiding spot.) A wealthy family or community is much more likely to access these privileges.
Institutionalized racism, sexism and classism explains another chunk of it. If the ideas and work of wealthy white men is what is valued most in a society then it would make perfect sense for more of their work to survive or even be created in the first place. A slave, a woman who gives birth every other year until menopause, someone who works six or seven days a week, 12 hours a day in a factory is going to spend much more time trying to survive and what they do create is less likely to be recognized as something extraordinary. Some level of discrimination will probably always be with us but it is becoming much less acceptable to display open prejudice against many groups. It just hasn’t yet really filtered down to how it is we represent our history or traditions in most cases.
Still, it would be so compelling to visit a museum and see gallery upon gallery that showed what life was like for slaves, women, ethnic or religious minorities, the poor, and people with disabilities in various times and places. What did they eat and drink? What did their homes (or institutions, in certain times and places) look like? What sort of clothing did they wear? How did they worship their god(s)? Were they able to access some sort of formal education? How was their career path or vocation determined? What sort of medical care was available to them? How many of their children could be expected to reach adulthood? What happened to their bodies after death?
I am on a wait list at the local library for a book about the history of the common (wo)man by Howard Zinn called A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. It won’t cover all of eras that interest me but I am definitely looking forward to reading what Zinn has to say on this subject. Hopefully one day a museum will follow in his footsteps!