Museums offer what movies do not: a way to view the past with our eyes, but, for the most part, accurately. Reading is kept to minimum, as museum workers understand that more than just historians will be perusing their display cases. Museums offer venues to both view and learn. Some can be admittedly dry, but they represent some of the best venues for combining the visual stimuli of uniforms, guns, pipes, and pottery, which giving an accurate, though brief, description of how the object fits into history. Not only must the history of the object itself be found, but so too much its role in its period of history.
The conciseness, so well known in museums, can back fire though. Many will recall the debacle of the Enola Gay exhibit. I will not express my opinion one way or another (see here, my struggle for objectivity), but the Smithsonian found themselves under fire for the caption accompanying the display. In their quest to be succinct and to avoid a loss of interest, the museum suffered a backlash in offering what many referred to a biased perspective of the Enola Gay. This can be especially difficult with displays and objects from World War II, where many of the participants are able to see for themselves. Additionally, living the experience will always greatly differ from documenting it.
So there is a fine line museums must tread. Remain concise to hold the attention of visitors, but remain objective and as accurate as possible. It is amazing how rarely the two coincide, mainly because few stories in history are cut and dry enough to fit on the caption card of a museum display.
Museums therefore offer a more accurate visual experience than movies, but at a high price. They are held to stricter standards and do not have the advantage of melodrama, comedy, and looks to hold their audiences if things get a bit dry.
Museums also face the difficulty of acquiring pieces for the collection. Depending on budgets, donations are often the best and most effective ways to expand a museum collection. More often than not though, the museum must buy items. Many have displays which include replicas, to demonstrate the full effect of an exhibit, but it sometimes detracts from the exhibit. Replicas and reproductions are expected in movies, but again, museums have that higher standard.
However, one place where replicas are acceptable, and the history attempts more accuracy than movies is in reenactments.
Reenactments occur in most Western countries today, usually using warfare as the topic. The American South is most noted for its Civil War reenactments, whereas in Chile, men reenact the crossing of the Andes, led by Bernardo O’Higgins (guess the heritage of his father), to reclaim Chile from the royalists, and earn her independence.
These reenactments are treated often in a most sacred way, with many of the participants feelings the same burden, a direct link, to their ancestors. While it is unlikely that any of these events perfectly mirrors the actual events, they provide an interesting medium, falling between museum and movie to offer the audience something more accurate than a movie, but livelier than a museum.
The people participating in these events have a direct and vested interest in doing so, which also must be kept in mind. While movies make no claim at accuracy, and museums strive for objectivity, reenactments portray historical events from a certain perspective and do claim historical accuracy. So watch out for blatantly patriotic acts in reenactments, seeking to idolize historical people or events. It can often be embellished on the battlefields.
One more idea on reenactments. The purpose of them, while to demonstrate a respect of history, is also to memorialize it. It is equivalent to consecrating a grave of one you loved. Participants will remain true to the story, so long as their objective is not diminished or tarnished in any way. Because of this, reenactments can be a bit one sided, although to be fair, many do attempt to show both perspectives. These people are not always obligated members of the historical community (though they most certainly can be), and therefore, are not held to the same standards as professional historians. These “pro historians” are held to even higher standards than museums in their medium of history: monographs.