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Museums and Society

What is a museum? How does one define a museum? What types of museums do you know? Let’s say that you got an invitation from a friend to visit a museum; how many of you would you accept the invitation? Have you ever visited a museum? What are the functions of a museum? How do we relate museums to a society? How many of us visited the Museums in Eritrea?

In this paper, the concept and definition of a museum and its relation to society will be broadly discussed.

Museums are far from just buildings and collections, they are cultural institutions, determined to realize their full potential for society. Museums bear out a relationship with the past that attaches value to tangible traces left by our ancestors, and, therefore, play a key role in fostering social cohesion. They improve peoples? lives through stimulating inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They have two-way relationship with society, drawing a wide range of skills, knowledge, experience and networks. Museums create relationships by welcoming people as active participants.

Information related to museum and its definition is abundant on the web. For example, after googling the word “museum”, about 129,000,000 results appeared in seconds. These digital archives are embedded with huge volumes of information referred to different schools of thought. The most accurate definition of Museums, according to UNESCO is: “ non-profit-making, permanent institutions in the service of society and its development, and open to the public, which acquire, conserve, research, communicate and exhibit, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of people and their environment “.

Museums’ primary purposes are to safeguard and preserve the heritage as a whole. They carry out whatever scientific studies are required to understand and establish both their meaning and their possession. Generally, museums are centers for conservation, study and reflection on heritage and culture. Museums’ educational mission, whatever their nature, is every bit as important as their scientific work. There are many types of museums, including art museums, natural history museums, science museums, war museums, and children’s museums. All are represented by ICOM, embodying the global diversity of the museum community.

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) is an organization created in 1946 by and for museum professionals. Today ICOM has a unique network of more than 37,000 members and museum professionals who represent the global museum community. It has, a diplomatic forum made up of experts from 141 countries and territories to respond to the challenges museums face worldwide. ICOM works for society and its development. It is committed to ensuring the conservation and protection of cultural goods. The International Museum Day (IMD) under ICOM’s supervision is celebrated every year on the 18th of May. This day is an occasion to raise awareness on how important museums are in the development of society.

Museums shape society`s knowledge and understanding the collection, preservation, presentation and interpretation, of specimens, objects, artifacts, materials, monuments, and historic sites. The role of museums and their contents in societies both past and present are related to their political, cultural, legal, ethical, and economic significance. This is normally achieved through close attention to objects and their material, social, and political status. Cultural heritage professionals promote meaningful interpretation of these cultural objects and create links with museums.

To create sustainable and strong links between museums and society, a proper documentation of all sorts of cultural heritage materials is essential. Museum professionals agree that a museum is simply documentation (Museum = documentation). Without documentation a museum cannot operate strategically. It is a systematic way of conserving and cataloging all types of heritage resources. It works through a trust document guidance and proper inventory works.

In Eritrea, given its huge heritage resources, there are two museums. These are the National Museum in Asmara and the Northern Red Sea Regional Museum at the port city of Massawa. The National Museum was established in 1992 while the Northern Red Sea regional museum opened eight years later in 2000. These museums’ display sections generally include collections of archaeological relics, arts, and the military as well as natural collections of marine and terrestrial animals. This sections exhibit remnants of cultural, ecological and fossil artifacts.

Both museums have similar mandates and range of activities. They are responsible for the storage, exhibition and conservation of Eritrea`s cultural heritage. Moreover, they engage in documentation, restoration, and inspection of heritage related activities. Outreach activities are another fundamental mandate of these museums. However, so far, very little work has been executed related to this activity.

Relations between museums and society are explicitly earned through handworks and successive awareness activities because society benefits from museums and museums work with communities to collect and represent a place’s diverse and collective history and heritage. To achieve this goal the initial plan starts with the establishment of a favorable ground that permits interaction with the communities. These plans could be, for example, achieved by organizing seminars, regular site and museum visits, publications, etc. Such activities are essential in creating a strong bond between museums and society.

Museums play a decisive role in consolidating national identity and stewardship. Eritrea’s priceless resources must be preserved and disseminated on at regular bases. Our museums should be used as learning, economic, cultural and historic grounds, not merely buildings and collections. However, in the case of the Eritrean museums this task is at its nascent stage. Much remains to be done in terms of reaching out to the wider society to use museums for educational purposes. The dissemination of knowledge about our cultural heritage still needs a strong base to transfer the knowledge to all sectors of the society. Having highlighted the relationship of museums and society, the next article will feature practical examples from Eritrea to explore how the museums in Eritrea have exerted efforts to engage with the wider society to disseminate knowledge about the cultural heritage of Eritrea.

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