Seeing the Past as Present: Why Museums Matter


Cambridge – Colleen Ritzau Leth, Vice President of TRIP and an MBA student at the University of Oxford, was recently invited to deliver a TEDtalk at TEDxOxbridge, an annual TEDx event co-hosted by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. This year’s event included speakers from across the business, academic and social sectors.

Colleen is a specialist in museum management and the history of collecting. During her talk, she asked audiences to consider the role of art history and museums in a post-digital world. In an age replete with entertainment stimuli, visitation rates to encyclopedic museums around the world are rising. But why do museums matter today more than ever before, and what do historic objects and images tell us about ourselves?

The following is a condensed and edited excerpt. You may enjoy Colleen’s complete talk here.


We live in a world of advanced technology. Much of our cultural production has gone online; we can access millions of images, centuries of art and endless information with the click of button. And while attendance at concert halls and theatres is down throughout most of the world, museum visitation is up by as much as 50 percent in the past 10 years in many countries. So how does the traditional art viewing experience manage to compete for our precious time?

The answer might be found by considering a well-known painting by Paul Gauguin. Gauguin was broke and slowly dying on a remote Polynesian island, without career prospects, indebted to friends back in Paris. And still, he painted for perpetuity’s sake. Facing the end of his life, he added a small detail in the corner, at the border of his last creation. It reads: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Every year, 1.2 million people stand in front of this painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and ponder this question. Gauguin got to the heart of it: art seeks to provide answers to these essential questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Sometimes the answers are found in giant oil paintings, more often they’re glimpsed in everyday objects: a small Greek urn, a 16th century map, even Edward Snowden’s laptop now on view at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Museums are not graveyards of dead art or storehouses of the past: they are active records of ‘us’ in the broadest most universal, global and cosmopolitan sense of the word. To wander and wonder is to activate a special kind of enlightened curiosity about the world, in which we see ourselves in the creations of someone else and come to know ourselves as part of a continuum of shared human identity. This is so critically needed in today’s world. Museums are a means of dissipating ignorance and promoting tolerance.

I’ve spent most of my life in the art world. And people often ask me: if disaster struck, and you had to save one object, what would it be? Would it be the Rembrandts, the Mona Lisa, the mummies, the $120 million contemporary sculpture?

No. It would be the Lamassu—a towering, odd, enchanting hybrid species. Part bird, part lion, part bull, part bearded king, created 5,000 years ago by the ancient Assyrians. I’ve been curious about lamassus for as long as I can remember, and I still get a bit of childish delight when I turn a corner in a museum and see one staring down at me. Lamassus were once as prevalent throughout the Middle East as representations of Christ would become throughout Western Europe 4,000 years later. They stood at the gateways of cities and temples in an empire that stretched from present day Egypt to Iran. They were believed to embody the power of the rulers they protected. Lamassus were icons of a tremendously imaginative world; they drew their power by straddling that intriguing, liminal zone of sign and signified, animal and human, terrestrial and mythological, local and foreign.

If the art of art history is the ability to use images to trace relationships between disparate cultures, to find connectivity and shared conversations across place and time, then the Lamassu is an exemplary place to start.

They were prevalent throughout the ancient world, appearing on coins and inscribed onto clay seals—the original email signature. This hybrid animal deity went on to form the basis of many of the world’s great art historical traditions. The Lamassu appears not only in the art of ancient Babylon and Assyria but also in the arts of ancient Persia, Judea, we even see traces of it in depictions of the four Gospels in the early Christian period when the Tetramorph took on the wings of the eagle, body of the bull, and feet of the lion to depict the spread of Christianity. By 1860, the birth of archaeology led to a mass excavation of these monumental sculptures from the sands of Iraq, shipped overseas to the secular temples of new national museums in Berlin, London, Paris, New York and beyond. 100 years later, they began to appear in French, British and U.S. military insignia, including during the Gulf War.

These images exemplify the continuum of a conversation we as a human race have shared across cultures and across time. They are not merely antiquities fixed in a lost past, but cultural capital that has been borrowed, reused, and revalued in fascinating ways that have much to tell us about the linkages between us and others, here and there, then and now. They remind me that culture knows no political boundaries; it has always been dynamic and hybrid, formed through contact and exchange.

Which is why their present use as pawns in a disastrous war of iconoclasm and backwards anti-idolatry is so deeply troubling. Today, nearly all of these beautiful ancient sculptures of the Middle East have been severely damaged if not destroyed by ISIS or Daesh. A part of our story is being erased. The ongoing conflict in Iraq and Syria is the most significant humanitarian crisis of our age and the most widespread loss of historical material since the Second World War.

The Baghdad Museum was once home to 7,000 years of art history. I’m happy to say it’s reopened 12 years after its looting in 2003 when 15,000 objects were lost. Of course, this is but one success story in a sea of casualties. We live in a time of resurgent nationalism and sectarian violence, factionalism and narrow-mindedness.

If we are to foster mutual understanding and appreciation for our shared past, and if we are to remain curious about difference rather than destructive of it, we must do a better job of protecting not only historical objects, but also encyclopedic museums—microcosms of the world’s cultural legacy where curiosity can thrive, where we can learn to forget who we think we are and see ourselves as part of a broader historical narrative.

There are 55,000 museums in the world, thousands of heritage sites and many of them need your support. Continue to visit, continue to remain curious, let yourself wander and wonder, be captivated by an object made 5,000 years ago. For only by valuing and protecting the remains of where we have come from, will we know where we are going.

Colleen Ritzau Leth