The Curious Case of Contemporary Museums

Amelia Winger-Bearskin
4 min readJul 28, 2022


Part One

I have always loved museums. Ever since I was a small child, I’ve felt at home in a museum — even when the museum in question literally had my people (or our bones) on display behind glass (I am Seneca-Cayuga Nation on my mom’s side).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) on August 29, 2020, Michael Loccisano / Staff, Getty Images

Sometimes people are surprised to hear me say this. For instance, I recently shared this on a Zoom call with a group of artists, curators, and activists who were discussing the Smithsonian’s forthcoming Museum of the Woman. Almost as soon as I finished what I was saying, my remote meeting spidey-sense went off, alerting me that my comments Did Not Compute. (Isn’t it interesting how we’ve adapted our social sensors for video conferencing in the past few years? Anyway…)

I deeply empathized with those who said they never felt invited to museum spaces, and with those who attested that their experiences were not honored. I deeply connect with these feelings and feel them as well, deep in my body. I also feel this contradiction inside myself, that I do feel as though I belong at museums even if these spaces were created to literally keep me out and possibly to erase me completely, here I am. I feel it is not just a home, but MY home

It’s clearly a very fraught time for museums. Many institutions are doing some long-overdue soul searching as they rethink their relationships to the colonial plunder, artifact hoarding, and exploitation at their foundations. To understand why this is happening right now, it helps to take stock of how museums and museum culture developed.

As a format, museums grew out of the early modern practice of keeping curios — aka cabinets of curiosities — in which wealthy people would show off their collections of rare and unusual stuff, often garnished from imperial ventures all around the world. These collections grew more and more elaborate, and by the nineteenth century, many private collectors decided to open them up to the public in ostentatious displays of munificence.

The Collector’s Cabinet (Cabinets of curiosities). Found in the Collection of Art History Museum, Vienne. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

When the industrial revolution moved masses of people from the countryside into densely populated urban centers, it created opportunities for new kinds of mass entertainment in the form of great buildings, fixed in place, that could showcase strange and unfamiliar objects in a centralized location. Instead of bringing the show to the people, museum owners could count on the people to bring themselves to the show.

At that time museums were still very much about providing a show, and were much less focused on educational rigor than the museums most of us are familiar with today. Early museums were revenue-generating enterprises designed to separate factory workers from their wages by charging modest sums to entertain them. The idea that walking around and looking at stuff could be a viable leisure activity was already part of the culture that catered to a largely non-literate audience with carnivals, traveling circuses, freak shows, and the like. This is why figures like circus impresario P.T. Barnum found natural homes in the world of museums — expectations were different, standards were different.

Sketching of Texas Ranchman, (Original Caption) Barnum’s museum of living curiosities. Woodcut from a circus program book.Bettmann / Contributor Getty Images

Museums developed to serve a different purpose as part of a different society than the one we live in now. We no longer feel great about gawking at the raw otherness of people or artifacts from cultures not our own, and we feel uncomfortable about setting people up for explicitly voyeuristic purposes (although we still do this online). These days, we have questions about the provenance of many objects that find their way into museums. Plus, the mere act of looking at collections of objects is no longer considered to be an especially engaging or compelling form of entertainment, at least not on its own.

We now expect museums to be sites of education more than entertainment. As noble an impulse as this is, I think pitting learning and fun against each other is a mistake that does a disservice to both. Sharing knowledge should be joyful!

Children’s Art Class At MoMA, A young boy looks at artwork illuminated by light streaming from a glass window during a children’s art class at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York, 1948. (Photo by Rae Russel/Getty Images)

We’ve all been to museums that seem to have forgotten about this, but in the next part of this piece, I’ll highlight a few museum shows I’ve been to recently that really get this right. Stay tuned!



Amelia Winger-Bearskin

Banks Endowed Chair AI and the Arts, Digital Worlds Institute, University of Florida | USDAC: Honor Native Land | | She/Her | Artist