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Museums are educational institutions. They expose us to things that would normally be impossible to see without extensive travel or a time machine. When I was a child, my school often took me to the Australian Museum in Sydney, where I saw animals and fossils and rocks and anthropological displays that taught me about the world outside my everyday experience. I still visit regularly. A highlight of a business trip I made to the USA was to accidentally find the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, (hiding in a forest of homesickness-inducing Australian eucalypt trees), which was full of young people learning about science. Some museums, like the Australian War Memorial in Canberra or the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, are there to remind us of things that should never happen again. Art galleries show us the aesthetic cultures of other times and places, as well as stretching our thinking about how some people interpret the world around us.
One thing we expect from museums is a commitment to the truth. We expect that the artworks in a gallery are what they claim to be, unless clearly labelled as reproductions or forgeries. We have the right to think that the stuffed animals in natural history museums really are examples of what these animals look like. In a science museum, the science should be based on real research and knowledge except where examples of pseudoscience are displayed to make a specific point. (Every time I go to the Australian Museum I am pleased to see a sign saying "Evolution is a fact", put there because someone complained that the exhibit about evolution was not "balanced".) The objects and artefacts in historical museums are assumed to have a provenance that connects them to the people, places, events and times being described.
On the equinox in March 2003, a local historical museum about 20km from my home (see note below) held a function called the "Celestial Celebrations and Autumn Equinox". The show featured palm readers, astrologers, tarot readers and other nonsenses associated with the superstitions surrounding such significant days of the year. The day marked the culmination of an exhibition of occult nonsense called "Stars Cards and Charms; enter the Mystical Realms" and at first I thought that the equinox event might be a good-humoured way of highlighting the silliness of all this and an appropriate date had been chosen just for the purpose of the story. In fact, the museum seemed to be taking this seriously, and the event was promoted and run by the Pagan Awareness Network and the Astrology Association of NSW, both of whom had been involved in the ongoing exhibition.
A group from the Australian Skeptics thought that it might be fun to have a stall, where we could bend some spoons, do some cold reading, a bit of tarot, maybe dowse for some underground torrents, and generally practise our occult, "magical" skills. Unfortunately we were rebuffed, and it was disturbing to be told that this was because the museum "would prefer it if the day could just focus on the mystical issues raised by the exhibition and provide a space where these ideas can be celebrated in a supportive environment". We have been invited to stage our own show at another time because the museum is interested in providing a "balanced exhibitions program", but the time for balance against nonsense is when the nonsense is being presented. (To their credit, the Pagan Awareness Network wanted the Skeptics there but they were outvoted.)
It is not the purpose of a publicly-funded museum to provide a "supportive environment" for superstition and witchcraft. The museum may profit from this exercise, and that is good because it will provide funds for future collections and exhibitions, but this has to be balanced against the harm done by allowing people to infer that there is some validity to superstition, simply because it appears to have the imprimatur of an organisation which should be devoted to the spreading of knowledge and truth.
It wasn't all bad. One day I am going to buy a magic wizard's cloak (although when I tried one on people remarked that the hood didn't cover enough of my face). There were also stalls selling interesting ornaments and objects which probably horrify excessively religious people but which I wouldn't mind having on a shelf at my place. We met the members of the Pagan Awareness Network and they turned out to be practitioners of a religion no sillier than any other and a lot better than some, and certainly not the Satan worshipers that some of their enemies suggest. Their ceremony was interesting, although I was slightly disappointed because I was sure I had heard someone say that they were going to sacrifice a goat. I was mistaken.
This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the July 2003 edition of
The Liverpool Regional Museum is a local historical museum. Liverpool was one of the early settlements following the European colonisation of Australia, and the museum's aims are "to preserve and promote Liverpool's history and cultural heritage through historical collections, exhibitions and public programs". The city has a rich history, from its foundation as a staging point and commercial centre supporting the expansion of the colony into the farming and grazing lands to the south west, through to today's city with large manufacturing and commercial activities and a residential community with a diverse and harmonious collection of ethnic and religious backgrounds.
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