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Excerpted from

The Darker Side of Museums

By Jeff Hoke

What makes museums so tedious? Why do they give us a sense of apathy...even dread? Originally intended as places of inspiration, museums have become mausoleums for the enshrinement of objects. The dread we feel comes from how these objects were collected and why, for reasons that are never explained on exhibit labels.

There are other reasons behind the lofty goals of science and cultural enrichment that historically have their source in the manic obsessions of the collectors and their patrons. What turns a collector's curiosity to compulsion? To uncover these dark secrets we'll have to peek into the tortured souls of collectors.

Psychologists tell us that fixations begin in early childhood. We have needs as infants and when those needs aren't met we find ourselves powerless and vulnerable. This causes anxiety. We cry. We look to our mothers to meet our needs for warmth, food and affection. Her presence means instant gratification. But what if she's not there? What does a baby have that will substitute for its mother and stop it from fussing? THE THUMB! Even though a thumb won't produce food, sucking it can be very satisfying. It becomes a replacement for mom and our first magically potent object. We soon grow out of our thumbs and need other things to amuse us and give us satisfaction when we're alone. We find toys!

Some toys we imbue with magical properties. In our imaginations they can develop an intrinsic life force or mana. Who hasn't become attached to a teddy bear or a doll that had a name and a personality, a companion when no one else was around? This is normal. Control over these first objects helps give us a sense of independence and self-reliance. They become springboards for the imagination and help us exercise our powers to think and feel.

But what turns musing into mania? When does it become not normal? It lies in the degree of attachment to these objects and the degree to which they're used as replacements for simple human warmth and acceptance. When faced with the trauma of rejection in early childhood some people seek solace in inanimate objects. In adulthood these objects become substitute companions to those who have failed to maintain meaningful relationships with other people. Obsessive collectors try to fill the void they feel by amassing objects that will bestow a magical aura of completeness.

Museum history is rife with stories of conquest, hoarding and monument building by people who had tremendous needs for power, possession and prestige; people whose personal emptiness drove them to do unspeakable acts and whose unconscious guilt caused them to dedicate their ill-gotten gains in the name of the gods, patriotism and even science. The monuments they've built, and invite us into, become acts of contrition asking for our acknowledgment and validation.

No wonder museums can be so tedious.

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