Today’s Museums: Temples or Forums?

Today’s Museums:  Temples or Forums?

According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, a museum is a building for preserving and exhibiting artistic, historical, or scientific objects. While the original purpose of the museum was to be a “Temple of the Muses,” today’s museums have become much more than just repositories for artistic, historical or scientific objects. They have become forums for the community — a place for sharing stories, for exchanging information about different cultures, and for creating links between people. But some of this change has been at the expense of the original purposes of the museum.

What is a museum?

Today, even the word museum has lost its power to adequately define a type of institution that has similar missions, goals and strategies. The differences are so vast between a local volunteer historical society, a major urban art museum, and a research-driven science museum, that it is no longer a useful term to describe them all.

One of the things that is exciting about museums is that they are a paradox.– in many ways, the museum needs to be careful and deliberate, conservative; but simultaneously bold and creative, and at times even prophetic These expectations have created an almost schizophrenic personality when it is presented to the public On the one hand the museum is perceived as being a caretaker and protector of material culture, preserving objects for future generations, and interpreting cultural values. Yet on the other hand, they have become giant marketing machines, producing blockbuster exhibitions, doing economic impact studies on their programs, and rivaling theme parks and entertainment centers with their attendance figures.

A critical component of a museum’s specialness results from the experiences it provides. For the museum visitor it is one seamless experience that must compete with a whole series of other experiences. Hotels, casinos, resorts, and malls, all collect and display objects. While museums offer food and retail and entertainment experiences. How can they be differentiated? The uniqueness of museums in the future will no longer be focused on the uniqueness of their collections, but on the authenticity of the experiences they can offer.

The museum of the future

Some issues have accelerated since we have arrived in the 21 century, but no one in the museum field knows what the museum of the future will be like.

Will they be  the meeting places for the development, interpretation, and certifying of images as well as educating people about them?  Will they become the local resources for images — eg.  the clipart depository of the 21st century?  Will  people do their research through the networks and come into the museums and have access to everything without touching or seeing a single artifact?

In the future, all institutions, including museums, will be judged on their distinctive ability to provide value to society. As competition intensifies for increasingly scarce funding opportunities, will museums be tempted or forced to modify their mission or to cloud that mission in favor of securing financial resources? There is no question that objects remain the physical heart of the museum — and objects stimulate a strong effective response, and connect people with the world around them.

But it has become a world where it is the numbers of visitors that count, not what they are doing there, what leads them there, or what they gain by coming there. Ernest van den Haag succinctly described the drive for attendance figures in his essay “Art and the mass audience,” in Museums in Crisis. “Democratic snobbery seems to imply that only what attracts great masses is good, and conversely, what is good does attract great masses, and finally, if it does not seem to, it must have been insufficiently advertised.”

As Stephen Weil summarized in his paper to the ICOM Committee on Management meeting in London in 1994, “At a time when far too many museums are preoccupied with their survival, it is also imperative that we accomplish our purposes. Survival does not necessarily equate with success.”

Changing Expectations

There is enormous pressure today on museums to change the way they plan their exhibitions and educational programs. The realization of the educational possibilities of museums has transformed the way they deal with their different publics. There is a realization that lifelong learning is growing. The increase of access through electronic means such as the Internet and social media has accelerated the trend.

Museums provide a kind of experience that can connect people to bodies of knowledge in ways that can’t be received in other ways — not through schools, not through television, not through other institutions. And objects will always remain at the core of museums — but museums have moved from an object-centered approach to an institution that has to be more responsive to its audience.

Another change has been in questioning the intellectual authority of established museums. A key element of specialness is the fact that the museum is expected to be an authority in whatever discipline it specializes. It is in this area where much of the present controversy over the role of museums has been centered. Thirty years ago, most museums would not have claimed the authority to address many of the subjects and topics that they are routinely covering today — ecological and environmental, political, religious, and ethnic, racial, and cultural issues. Today museums have an assumed authority that makes them vulnerable to criticism.

The key to understanding museums in this millennium may lie in part to the fact that there is a difference between authority and information. Authority is about power. It’s about position. And information about which one can be an authority, is egalitarian, can be shared, learned, used by many, shifting power to the individual for whom it is increasingly available.

The universalist claims of value and authority which gave museum people a strong, almost religious sense of calling, now seem to be a barrier to preparing them to consider the legitimate expectations of a more pluralistic society. it is not easy for museums, eager to please a large public, to avoid betraying the works and the values entrusted to them, or to confuse that trust in other ways by housing unworthy objects. The public expects to find authoritative standards of excellence and is certainly confused by work which more properly belongs in a more experimental realm.

The idea of authority is also closely related to another area of change in museums — that of “voice” — or the point of view in a museum or exhibition. In the more traditional museum of the past, the voice was thought to be neutral, not expressing a particular point of view, but one of scholarly impartiality. We now know that a neutral voice is impossible — there is always a point of view, and an impression is always created. And whose voice an exhibition expresses has become an important issue. There has been an increase in the well publicized attacks on museums by groups with very diverse and very different interests.

In Canada, Native American groups have scrutinized the stewardship and scholarship claims of museums and found them in deep contradiction to their own values. The result was a negotiated settlement and one that weakened the universalism of traditional museum claims.

And in the United States, other groups, and ethnic and racial minorities, have often looked at museums to legitimatize and validate their claims for inclusion, and found to their dismay and often anger, that there was either no record of their existence or the record was skewed or hopelessly fragmented. While the traditional museum always spoke from one authoritarian perspective, the museums of today try to provide a place for the expression of multiple perspectives on whatever the disciplinary base of the museum may be.

Another changing expectation has been in the idea of connectedness. The successful museum in this century is  connected to the community far more continuously and closely that it was in the past. It means that the museum has become a listener as well as a talker. The focus has changed from being one-directional — the museum providing information in one direction from the authority of the museum staff to its publics — to two-directional communication.

This process requires close working relationships with artists, local community organizations and their staffs, to explore ways in which their experiences intersect, exploring local common grounds and differences.

There is much discussion in museum circles, conferences and symposia about how to make the museum more relevant in today’s society, how to reach new audiences. The fact that these topics are being discussed so vehemently shows that the basic premise and goal of the museum has already changed. These issues would not have even been discussed in the traditional museum twenty years ago, since the concerns in those institutions were caring for the collections, and exhibiting them for the public edification and enlightenment. There was no thought of the museum being a center for discussion of controversial issues, or for presenting the cultures of under-represented populations.

In the final analysis, museums collect not only things, but also ideas. They are a fundamental resource, like the natural environment, that must be preserved as an enduring obligation to future generations. No other institution can inspire a similar sense of wonder and a sense of place. They provide an interface with the public for researchers and their collections, and must continue to provide a context for understanding difficult concepts of all kinds. While the debate will continue about the role of museums in society, and what museums are for, the museum world will continue to re-invent itself, and constantly redefine its role in the changing nature of the society it serves. In the end, the importance of museums is that they can help society to make better decisions.

by Shirley Reiff Howarth, Director, The Humanities Exchange