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A behind-the-scenes museum tour offers insight into the once and future roles of these iconic institutions

Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present

Steven Lubar
Harvard University Press
2017
416 pp.
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Inside the Lost Museum, by Steven Lubar, gives readers a privileged peek into the storerooms, boardrooms, and curatorial offices of many storied institutions. In doing so, the book offers a scholarly snapshot of the role that museums have played throughout history, as well as the challenges they face today. Although students and interested laymen will undoubtedly gain much from Lubar’s comprehensive overview, even the most experienced museum professionals will likely learn a thing or two.

The book derives its title from the Jenks Museum, a defunct natural history museum at Brown University. Woven throughout are vignettes about the museum’s founding curator, the naturalist John Whipple Potter Jenks, the institution’s colorful past, and a recent project—led by Lubar, artist Mark Dion, and a group of students—to recreate the museum as an art and history exhibit. These stories provide a narrative wedge into the history and philosophy of museums.

Objects are central to the book, which begins by considering the complex act of collecting. What do curators collect and why? What might be useful for research or exhibition? What is worth saving, and who decides? “Objects,” Lubar writes, “are important to museums, but they need to be the right objects, collected thoughtfully, documented thoroughly—and not too many.”

Organizing, preserving, and maintaining collections, Lubar shows, are essential components of museum work, albeit ones fraught with difficulties and controversy. Assuming the role of caretaker for a collection, as many curators do, can sometimes evoke possessiveness that may not always serve the best interests of the institution. Moreover, collections care can be very expensive, accounting for up to two-thirds of the operating budget of some museums.

JODY GOODNOUGH

The office of naturalist John Whipple Potter Jenks was reimagined as part of an exhibit in 2015.

The display of collections is also a vastly more complicated problem than the typical museum-goer knows. The costs of exhibition alone are enormous, and the politics can be surprisingly contentious. Here, Lubar cites the crisis that unfolded in response to the National Air and Space Museum’s 1994 plan for an exhibit on the Enola Gay—the Boeing B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on 6 August 1945. Air Force veterans felt that their input was ignored in the initial planning process. Japanese survivors of the atomic bombing, who lacked political clout, were then cut out of the revisions. Compromise failed, and the final exhibit “was more technological than historical.”

Aside from their roles as the caretakers of collections, what use do museums have in their communities? How do museums help their constituents understand history, science, and art? Lubar goes well beyond the typical museum mandate (to inform or to inspire) when he argues that museums “offer connection and empathy. They can change lives.” Here, Lubar catalogs the shifting role of museums over time, maintaining that they “strengthen communities by providing a shared history and usable past, saving things and telling stories that seem important.”

Perhaps most provocatively, Lubar also considers the future of museums. Borrowing from museum guru Stephen E. Weil, he argues that to stay relevant, museums need to be both “about something and for somebody.” “A museum will only survive as long as it has something to offer and provides a valuable service,” he writes. “To do that it needs to be alert to society’s needs, and ready and willing to change to meet those needs.”

Lubar challenges museums to make a difference in their communities. I remain somewhat skeptical of the author’s faith in the power of museums to “repair the world,” but I’m glad that there are those in the museum community who believe this so strongly.

So, who should read this book? For the curious outsider with more than a passing interest in museums, this book tells something of museum history. There are many things here for museum professionals as well. Indeed “skiascope,” “the dialogic museum,” and “e-patriation” were all new terms to me.

The obvious audience for this book is the teachers and students of museum studies courses. Although not especially long, Inside the Lost Museum is a surprisingly comprehensive book, covering museums of nearly all stripes and exploring the diverse roles of founders, curators, registrars, collection managers, conservators, educators, exhibit planners, and more, often in insightful detail. The book will also help trainees make sense of museums by relating their complex histories as well as their philosophical foundations.

“Museums are too important to take for granted,” Lubar argues at one point. His book is an excellent contribution to the “loving, critical analysis” they so richly deserve.

About the author

The reviewer is at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh, NC 27601, USA.