From the Repository to the Agora, the Museum in the Service of History

The author of this article aims to discuss how the role of the museum has been transforming  from the storage of national treasury to an agora, a space for introspective learning, public debate, and inter-community solidarity. The author argues for the significance of such a transition for young people and society at large.

The British Museum: the Zoological Gallery, crowded with holiday visitors. Wood engraving, 1845.

In 2021, with the support of the Heinrich Boell Foundation Tbilisi Office, the organization WeResearch conducted a study to learn about the attitudes of young people toward history and its teaching in Georgia.[1] Following the analysis of the results, a number of recommendations were made, which, in a broader sense, reflect the ongoing changes in the historical discipline as well as the need to rethink history making in Georgia: in particular, it is noted that multiperspectivity should emerge in a historical narrative alongside the existing linear storytelling; passion for searching for absolute truths should be replaced by approaches focused on the interpretation and evaluation of the past; and that national epics imbued with heroic spirit about great kings and their military successes should be balanced with social, cultural and everyday life histories.[2]  The above will allow pupils and students to overcome the two extremes - learning myths, on the one hand, and memorizing dry facts, on the other (which ultimately, of course, distorts the highly complex nature of our past) and engage in a more creative process of understanding the past.

From this point of view, Chapter Four of the named study, which discusses formal and informal sources of transmitting historical knowledge, is particularly interesting to me.[3] My aim in this case is not to establish cause and effect relationships between the information medium and the perceptions of young people. It is difficult per se to determine empirically what influence school textbooks, press, family stories, monuments or museums have on the worldview of the surveyed. Moreover, as it became clear during my conversation with the authors at the presentation of the study, these spaces of formal or informal education were proposed by them as multiple-choice options to the respondents. Nevertheless, some of the results with respect to each variable are worthy of our attention. To begin at the end, the last part of the fourth chapter discusses  the attitudes of youngsters (9-12 graders and students) with regard to topics that Georgian historiography and public space are so saturated with: nations, statehood, the Soviet past, Georgian culture. First of all, it should be noted that these are fixed categories and there has rarely been raised questions about what we mean by Georgian culture, the Soviet past, or even the history of Georgia, etc.  Accordingly, the reactions of young people are shaped by this unquestioned schematic and variate between the binary extremes: they name the country’s unifiers and defenders, kings and public figures as heroes and contrast them with the country’s traitors.[4]

Moving on to the sources, according to the research, the museum occupies one of the leading places among the most reliable sources of information for young respondents: for the absolute majority (86%), information from museums and historical places is trustworthy.[5] This is not surprising either, since the museum preserves and manages the material heritage  defining national belonging. Moreover, in our reality, museums, at first glance, create objective knowledge about the past and disseminate it by presenting authentic objects to the viewer. In fact, though, through the existing practices of collecting and exhibiting, they reproduce traditional frameworks of addressing the past by neglecting and hiding the clear ideological dimensions of its reconstruction.

According to the survey, although young people trust the museum, they turn to it less often than, for example, the Internet and the media, which on the other hand, are less reliable for them.[6] In general, we slowly get used to taking the information distributed on the Internet with a grain of salt, and a good example of this is the critical attitude towards Wikipedia as a medium of knowledge. It is interesting what causes this: the information published on Wikipedia is less institutionalized and open to any user to contribute to it. In the case of museums, as a rule,   such questions are rarely posed, which is due to their historically recognized status and the power of their collections. Likewise, in the historical exhibition, the artifact is presented as evidence to substantiate a certain version of reality.  All this, in the end, may prevent us from understanding the past in all its multidimensionality.

The relatively low frequency of museum visits is also understandable,[7] as each visit requires advance planning and more resources than what it takes to make several clicks on the computer to find the necessary information. However, today's museum and the exhibition practice in Georgia does not contribute much either to the active involvement of citizens by sharing their collections. By active involvement here I mean enabling the visitor to compete with the roles of the curator, custodian or other museum professionals. This opening up is necessary for the museum sector, because otherwise, in light of the contemporary challenges, museums would not be able to reassess their role and their new functions.  On the other hand, if they manage to engage the audience,   this would benefit the entire society in the process of critically rethinking history.

In the present article, inspired by the experience I gathered throughout my ethnographic observations in various museums and by the newly opened museum in Göttingen (Germany) “Forum Wissen”, I would like to explain the importance of museums both in terms of reflecting on the past and of fostering civic education.         

The materiality of knowledge and the museum as a repository

In traditional historiography, the absolute dominance of written archival sources has been  gradually challenged by alternative sources and various interdisciplinary methods of historical analysis. This has its intellectual, practical and moral prerequisites. For example, knowledge about peoples without a written history is scattered in their folklore, material culture, oral, or other living traditions. However, this does not apply only to those who have a different understanding of temporality and varied practices of fixating on the past than the Western one; to some extent, it is the daily life of each of us. We capture with our bodies, the arrangement of space, actions, sensations; we take pictures with our eyes and the old and the new impressions are mixed together (and this comes in contradiction with the laws of linearity of time, which historiography has so accustomed our consciousness to). This totality can be called implicit knowledge. Moreover, knowledge itself, we must remember, is not purely scientific, while the boundary between scientific and non-scientific, although institutionalized and codified, can often be fragile and ambivalent. And since the former gradually and covertly grew out of the latter, it is oftentimes difficult to understand the essence of science and the mechanisms of its functioning without revealing the complex historical connections between the two. This is where we often uncover traces of violence and the fragments of knowledge created by the oppressed slowly comes to the surface. These paths, almost completely lost by now, are nearly impossible to track today without thorough ethnographic research, if we only resort to written sources. In this sense, objects can be of invaluable service.

 Even when it comes to scientific knowledge in its traditional sense, it is necessary to look at its material aspects, as it would not be enough to browse the statutes of the academies of sciences, transcripts of scientific council debates, dissertations or lectures to make sense of the ways science is generated.[8] This becomes easier to understand if we, the researchers, think about our own practices: the knowledge we produce today will be stored in our personal computers and memory chips. Without examining what type of 21st-century computer was the tool I was using to develop and write this very article, for example, it would turn difficult for future historians, present ethnographers or those interested in my biography as an ordinary researcher to reconstruct my working practices. To restore a more general picture, that is, to understand the regularities of the creation of historical knowledge in our time, objects can always share some different meanings. The computer affects the way I sort sources and literature, my decisions on what I keep and what I delete: its keyboard, capacity, speed, even weight are a kind of commentary, for example, on my social status: how I can afford to buy a light MacBook and carry the device with me everywhere, which optimizes the data processing time and changes the dynamics of working with them. All these technical and, seemingly, banal details, in the end, determine what will come out even of this article and generally, of the texts I create. After all, the erase-recovery function of the document allows the story to be structured in a different way, and the story, as Hayden White explains, is epistemological to the historical argument. The latter does not exist beyond the former. An argument is always embedded in a narrative (which brings history closer to literature, with the difference that history is not fiction, of course). This distinguishes the field of history from other adjacent disciplines.[9]

Broadly speaking, it is the duty of the museum to protect our laptops or phones from disappearing and to provide access to them for historians, ethnographers or simply interested citizens. Here I mean the museum, in its current form. However, whether an ordinary researcher's laptop or, for example, some craft tool from the 90s will end up in the collections where King Vakhtang VI’s astrolabe is kept, depends on the museum policy, whose and what kind of history it eventually intends to preserve.

Even during archaeological excavations, it is a common practice to bury fragments, parts of objects, which are considered to have no “historical value”, back in the ground, because space in museum storages is always limited. Therefore, in this case, the “baptism” of an object as an artifact is the result of long negotiations between archaeologists and museum bureaucrats. This, in its turn, is followed by a multidimensional and lengthy process of selection, systematization and study of the collections.

If it is not possible to change the long entrenched collecting practices at once, we should be interested in at least nudging the museums to speak out about the selectivity of the process. In fact, this is what determines the reliability of the knowledge acquired through collections and exhibitions.    

The history of the museum from the repository to the Agora

The museum in its modern sense, collects, preserves, translates the knowledge and “high culture” into a language understandable to the ordinary citizen, and conveys the values ​​of a democratic, secular state to its audiences in the process. Public museums, however, grew out of the complex interrelationship of the imperialist and national contexts. Donna Haraway,[10] Londa Schiebinger,[11] Tony Bennett,[12] Sharon McDonald,[13] and Albert Gouaffo[14] in their texts, critically assess colonial forms of collection and representation, their racial and gender dimensions.

The first public museums were created at the dawn of the Enlightenment, although the objects exhibited there (in this period the repository and exhibition spaces were not divided) were only accessible to the learned communities and the representatives of the upper classes in general.[15] New discoveries, exotic species of animals and plants brought from the colonies were housed in the museum. In line with taxonomic orders, flora, fauna, minerals and even human body parts were classified, all these to back up the colonial efforts with theoretical foundations.  Therefore, the museum was indeed a political project with its target audiences changing in the wake of global transformations. Ultimately, from a bourgeois public sphere, it formally turned into a place open to all,[16] although museums still maintain their  elite profile: the spaces are arranged in such a way that restricts access to the exhibits.      

Whereas before the objects were openly displayed, offering the visiting upper class the possibilities to touch and even taste the artifacts,[17] now new barriers were put in place in the form of display cases, supervisors and a strict protocol of behavior in the exhibition space. Exhibitions have also been given a different function: educating and disciplining the lower social strata and instilling a patriotic spirit in new constituents brought together under the roof of common national values. The museum managed to do this by exerting a strong emotional impact on the visitor, through huge canvases and impressive relics of the past, which made the “imaginary” national unity tangible [18] and easy to grasp especially when literacy was not yet widespread. National museums later emerging in Asia and the rest of the world  following  French and pan-European models,[19] also acted and still act as conservative institutions (it would be more correct to say, networks) with these deeply-held  hierarchical structures.

The Museum of History of Georgia named after Simon Janashia presents itself as the successor of the Caucasian Museum, because of shared collections and archives passed down into the hands of the Georgian State Museum after the collapse of the Russian Empire. Following from this, the History Museum considers itself a regional player and claims ownership on collections gathered regionwide. Despite the diversity of objects under its custody however, the exhibitions at state museum are so framed that they tell us a purely Georgian story, be it an exhibition of treasures for example or the exhibition on Soviet occupation. Here, the visually stunning objects unearthed from the ancient burial mounds  are arranged in a way as to emphasize our uninterrupted inhabitation on the territory of Georgia and situate Georgian culture among the most civilized.      .

The Soviet occupation exhibition tells about a rather traumatic episode of our recent past. It too shows a continuous chain of events, this time from short-lived independence after the dissolution of Russian Empire to the restored independence. Curators here present Georgia, and in particular, its political, cultural and religious elite as the exclusive victims of Bolshevik aggression.

Exhibitions are multi-level media different from the written, oral or visual forms of storytelling, in principle including all of these, but going beyond their simple sum total. By navigating through the space, looking at the exhibits, reading the curator's texts, listening to the guide, smelling the displays and perceiving the colors, the visitors get into different layers of representation.

In order for the representation not to resemble a spectacle, the curator should render it possible to remove the single objects from the plot and make them readable separately: where the objects come from, under what conditions they were obtained, and how they became part of the museum collection. Similarly, as it is essential for an archeologist to decipher the context of their discovery, visitors need to learn about the provenance of an exhibit. Moreover, it might be interesting how an artifact was previously exhibited and what was the feedback of the audience observing it in the past. Objects branded as “historical” or scientific have high claims to a certain kind of value-based truth orders. Therefore it is necessary to de-sacralize them by revealing how the meanings ascribed externally change over time  in the hands of different historical actors; also how they transform in relation to the exhibition concept, the physical environment or the neighboring objects. Exhibitions should  lay these conditions bare and engage viewers in the process as informed and responsible co-curators. At the same time, the audience can be expected to hold competent opinions on  where to place even an archaeological exhibit and why.    

Change in old museums comes slowly, however, since with huge collections and centuries-old traditions of their care, the museum is one of the most rigid and closed to outsiders places.  On the other hand, its very core, the collections provide abundant resources for understanding museum’s complex legacy and much more. The objects accumulated in storages and often forcibly removed from their original contexts, represent, in many cases, the “unruly” witnesses of idealized chronicles first of empires and then of nation-states. In the case of the Simon Janashia Museum, another layer of history is added to this: the Soviet past. Consequently, each object preserved here has a body and biography of its own that, if approached in a nuanced way, often contradict with the dramaturgy of linear narratives presented both in history textbooks and exhibitions. Therefore, museum staff and the general public can certainly make good use of this resource. For example, ethnographic collections previously serving to demonstrate and strengthen the power of dominant groups, today can be recontextualized and shed a new light. And an important question arises here about who has access to the collections, who controls the knowledge stored there, and whether the perspective of the rest of society, especially of the periphery and namely, of those deprived of representation in the past is eventually taken into account when displaying these objects in the exhibition.

How to interest young people in the museum

Visitors cannot visit a museum every day, however, museums, by digitizing their collections, increasing accessibility to their catalogs, and disseminating the curators’ commentary in the media, can enter families and educational institutions. Especially so, since according to WeResearch, online museums enjoy popularity among the youngsters.[20] Museums related courses could be included in school and university curricula, assignments such as holding an ethnographic diary could be introduced in a class work; Teachers should organize and encourage visits to exhibitions and promote a critical reading of the exhibition concepts (although phenomenological approaches criticize the reading metaphor in the sense that the museum experience cannot be translated into a text): what is exhibited, how and why? What kind of space is a museum, what kind of emotion does visiting an exhibition evoke? What does it tell us about the past, present and future? Young people should also visit repositories, various museum departments and work spaces; observe the artifacts before and after restoration, how the object is cleaned and processed, feel the prosaic nature of the process to critically reflect on the aesthetics of knowledge order and, thus get used to self-reflection. In this regard, the museum is not only an analytical space, but also an important center of civic education. For this reason, schools should actively cooperate with museums, collection and exhibition curators and the staff at large.

Moreover, young people should be motivated to share their stories through exhibitions, as there are many ways and methods of telling history, which is not only a written record, after all! Such an approach will inspire them to study history more critically and fall in love with the subject by discovering their own creativity within its confines.

Objects have the power to instill solidarity and empathy in people, and make them feel part of something in common if the visitors can identify with at least one of the artifacts on display or in the collections they are granted access to. History is not a compilation of monographs about famous monarchs and elite groups, it is also simply the story of our beloved grandmothers, grandfathers, their grandmothers and grandfathers,  anecdotes about their struggles, achievements, mistakes, sufferings and hopes which now the objects they used to own embody. And the physical contact with these objects could help establish an emotional connection with the past.

 What is history and why a museum?

History is each of our encounters with the past. We can create it while resting in the shade of a huge three-hundred-years-old tree in the park, pondering by the ruins of an old building, listening to the sound of church bells at the same time every day, wondering: what place did this tree occupy for the people who lived here centuries ago, and conversely, how did the people alter the landscape and environment they lived in? What feelings did the sound of bells evoke in a Christian or a representative of another religion in the Middle Ages? Today, when history is increasingly used as a tool to launch new wars and manipulate public opinion, young people must be equipped with the necessary skills in every way so that they can make sense of the meta-levels of historical knowledge production taking place in canonized texts, urban spaces, museums, and families. The task, of course, goes far beyond the importance of critically reading the sources and the need to reintroduce once-forgotten figures in a historical narrative. And museums can really help the public take on this task and justify the trust that the young respondents of the WeResearch survey have invested in them.

The content of the publication is the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Heinrich Boell Foundation Tbilisi Office - South Caucasus Region.


WeResearch; Georgian youth and history, Research of experiences, attitudes and values; December 2021. Available here at:; Last accessed: 20.10.2022.

Anderson, Benedict; Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Revised Revision); Verso, London, New York, 2006.

Bennett, Tony; Der Ausstellungskomplex in: Der Documenta 14 Reader München: Prestel Verlag, 2017.

Bennett, Tony; The Birth of the Museum: history, theory, politics; Routledge, 1995; pp. 89-95

Classen, Constance; Museum Manners: The sensory Life of the Early Museum; in: Journal of Social History

Vol. 40, No. 4; Summer, 2007; Oxford University Press; pp. 895-914

Gouaffo, Albert; Prince Dido of Didotown. Human Zoos in Wilhelmine Germany. Strategies of Self-Represantations under the Othering Gaze, in: Robbie Aitken/Eve Rosenhaft (eds.), Africa in Europe. Studies in Transnational Practice in the Long Twentieth Century, Liverpool; 2013; pp. 19–33

Haraway, Donna (1984); Teddy Bear Patriarchy. Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden; In: Social Text 11; pp. 20–64

Macdonald, Sharon Jeannette (ed.); A companion to Museum Studies; Blackwell companions in cultural studies; Blackwell Publishing; 2011.

Schiebinger, Londa; Plants and Empire. Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World; Harvard: Harvard Univ. Press; 2007.

White, Hayden; The Structure of Historical Narrative, 1972 in: Hayden White; Tropics of Discourse: essays in cultural criticism; John Hopkins Univ. Press; 1990; p. 119


[1] WeResearch; Georgian youth and history, research of experiences, attitudes and values; December 2021. The study is available online at:;       Last accessed:  20.10.2022.

[2] ibid., pp. 93-95.

[3] ibid., pp. 55-62.

[4] WeResearch; Georgian youth and history, research of experiences, attitudes and values; December 2021. The study is available online at:; Last accessed: 20.10.2022, pp. 48-54.

[5] ibid., p. 62.

[6] ibid., p. 9.

[7] ibid., p. 55.

[8] My fascination with the materiality of knowledge is connected to the impressions received in the newly opened Forum Wissen (Forum Knowledge) museum  in Göttingen. A source of inspiration was also the conversation with Margaret Forringer, Professor of the Materiality of Knowledge at the University of Göttingen, to whom I am very grateful.

[9] Hayden White; The Structure of Historical Narrative, 1972 in: Hayden White; Tropics of Discourse: essays in cultural criticism; John Hopkins Univ. Press; 1990; p. 119.

[10] See Donna Haraway (1984); Teddy Bear Patriarchy. Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden; In: Social Text 11, pp. 20–64

[11] See Londa Schiebinger; Plants and Empire. Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World; Harvard: Harvard Univ. Press; 2007.

[12] Tony Bennett; Der Ausstellungskomplex in: Der Documenta 14 Reader München: Prestel Verlag, 2017.

[13] Sharon Jeannette Macdonald (ed.); A companion to Museum Studies; Blackwell companions in cultural studies; Blackwell Publishing; 2011.

[14] Albert Gouaffo; Prince Dido of Didotown. Human Zoos in Wilhelmine Germany. Strategies of Self-Representations      under the Othering Gaze, in: Robbie Aitken/Eve Rosenhaft (eds.), Africa in Europe. Studies in Transnational Practice in the Long Twentieth Century, Liverpool; 2013; pp. 19-33.

[15] Tony Bennett; The Birth of the Museum: history, theory, politics; Routledge, 1995; pp. 89-95.

[16] ibid; p. 24.

[17] Constance Classen; Museum Manners: The sensory Life of the Early Museum; in: Journal of Social History

Vol. 40, No. 4; Summer, 2007; Oxford University Press; pp. 895-914.

[18] Benedict Anderson; Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Revised Revision); Verso, London, New York, 2006.

[19] ibid; p. 178.

[20] WeResearch; p. 55.