Museums are about us, all of us—who we are, as individuals and families, who we are as members of a village, town, city and nation, and who we are as human beings, and inhabitants of planet earth. Our individual identity is social, spatial and embedded in time. As individuals we are part of human groups, geographic regions and the era into which we were born. In order to understand ourselves and our place in the world, we need to see ourselves as part of this spectrum of human groups deeply rooted in history.

Museums play an important role in perpetuating and sharing the knowledge we all look to for this understanding. Museums are entrusted with the care of ‘things’ or artefacts, the material culture of a society or region, but each of these things is actually a story, and together with other things tells a longer and more important story, the story of who we are. These things, or artefacts, are thus portals to our identity and we can see reflected in them a sense of our ancestors and the legacy we have inherited. Without museums, libraries, archives and the oral histories of many peoples (now often preserved in museums) we would be as the Northwest Coast Gitksan say wa’ayin, someone without identity, culture, or a place in society.

These things or artefacts are also creations—they represent an idea or an image that grew from someone’s collective identity but was expressed with his or her individuality. They can be scientific innovations, intellectual ideas expressed in words, or spiritual creations expressed in works of art. Together these creations are ‘material culture’, a manifestation of the intangible culture that defines us. ‘Culture’ and ‘civilization’ have the same meaning when they both refer to “a particular shared way of thinking about the world as well as a reflection of that world in art, literature, drama and a host of other cultural happenings.”

Museums—and libraries, archives and oral tellings—may be something we take for granted, but our lives and our societies would be unrecognizable without the knowledge and understandings these institutions care for and pass from generation to generation.

Value your museum—visit your museum—learn and enjoy.

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