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  1. First of all, thank you for this blog and for raising such difficult issues.

    At the moment, I don’t have any additional assumptions to question, just comments on the assumptions that you raised–all of which I think are completely valid and must be re-examined.

    However, what is not mentioned in this post is what effect questioning these assumptions may have on the museum field. For example, several of the assumptions you list directly address museum collections and hence the role of the collections professional. Museum studies programs seem to be blossoming all over the country and all of them teach some form of collections management practices–practices that could be significantly altered or possibly even obliterated were museums to shift to an alternative approach to collecting and collections management. What then would happen to all of the current collections professionals as their skills become increasingly obsolete? I realize that this is a very specific concern and one that is perhaps too short-sighted and narrowly focused–we must look at the survival of museums as a field rather than any one particular individual.

    But what of museums as a field? Right now one of the key functions of AAM is the accreditation of museums. But again, the basis of accreditation is heavily based on collections care and would need to be completely re-thought. So what then of all those museums that have been accredited in the past according to AAM’s current standards? What happens to them when the criteria for accreditation suddenly changes dramatically? Will the result be huge numbers of museums that fail to be re-accredited as they scramble to live up to a new and somewhat foreign set of standards?

    I imagine that this all sounds somewhat alarmist. I am not actually against challenging long-held assumptions. But I think when we do, we need to also think about time-frames and how to help the people of the museum field move forward into the future along with the institutions themselves.

  2. One more thought regarding unlimited growth. Obviously this idea is a fallacy–look where it got our stock market. But I think one of the reasons, aside from mere personal vanity on the part of directors or major donors, is the very real fear of loss of funding. Funders (governmental or private) want to see growth. What’s more, they want to see measurable growth. Grants often come with specific metrics they want to see–did you teach more students? did you offer more programs? So how do we convince our funders that it is quality rather than quantity that they should be supporting? How do demonstrate this through metrics?

  3. This is a terrific list, Beth, and you’ve done a service just by reminding us that collections — oh right, those objects around which museums have traditionally been conceived — are still worth thinking about in these days of excitement about participation and socially networked experiences.

    I’m glad you included the growth-is-good mantra in your list of assumptions to be questioned. That’s something my colleagues at the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center are also doing: they’re starting a large national study of the scope and effects of the building boom in museums, concert halls, etc. over the last decade or so. The study is being led by some really interesting scholars in cultural economics, philanthropy, and decision-making, and it’s funded (generously) by the MacArthur, Mellon, and Kresge Foundations. Look here
    for a brief description.

    I would add to your list a few assumptions about museums’ audiences, starting with the idea that museums are meant to serve the broad populations in their areas. Although few museum people acknowledge it, in practice they’re trying to make their institutions for everybody — a few things to all people. The inability to focus on specific audiences (except through particular education programs or small temporary exhibits) is part of what makes most museums feel so generic and, well, institutional…even many small ones. The irony, of course, is that very few museums actually do serve all kinds of people (the Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand is the only large museum I’ve heard of whose visitor demographics match those of its national population.) But just trying to do so changes the whole vibe of the place.

    One doesn’t have to look far afield for examples of nonprofit and for-profit organizations that serve narrow niches more deeply: more things for some people. This makes possible a stronger, clearer sense of affiliation among the people for whom the thing is really designed. Sure, museums are public goods, but we’ve historically assumed that each one needs to serve its community widely rather than that in aggregate they should do so. Actually, your point about for-profit and hybrid alternatives might open up this audience question further, and to good effect. What if the museum ecology of the future includes institutions that narrowcast rather than broadcast? What could they accomplish — get away with? — that today’s museums, because of their own self-definitions, cannot?

  4. I thought Allyson’s point was excellent regarding funders’ needs to see growth. Part of challenging our own assumptions is challenging the assumptions of our funders (whether we be non-for-profit or for-profit…). Museums could argue for measurable “change” not measurable “growth”.

    And I was happy to read Peter’s point. It is very (VERY) difficult to convince museums that even when they say they are for “everyone” they are not really for everyone. To be for the interest of some but not for the interest of others does not equate “keeping-others-out”. I do not believe museums recognize the distinction.

  5. I would agree with Peter that the assumption that museums serve “everyone” will change. This is a corollary to the assumption that museums are about collections and the collections are for everyone. By shifting the focus to thinking about museums as places that serve communities–whether they be geographic, ethnic, or special interest (which is what Te Papa does)–we may begin to see a real change in how communities value and support museums.

  6. As a policy person a heart I just had to add a quick comment. The discussion about shifting the focus to thinking about museums as places that serve communities–whether they be geographic, ethnic, or special interest (which is what Te Papa does)– to see a real change in how communities value and support museums reminded me of the whole political system of “Majority rule, minoirty rights.”

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