Recently, the Christian Science Monitor ran this article examining the ways museums are engaging with their communities on a number of fronts. The reporter chose one quote from James Chung (co-author of the CFM report Museums & Society 2034), out of a long interview, that makes it sound like collections vs. community focus is an either/or proposition, with collections on the losing end. Chris Norris picked up on this in his blog Prerogative of Harlots, after being irritated by some of the enthusiastic responses it drew on a friend’s Facebook page. Speaking of the Peabody Museum of Natural History’s after school program that gets local high school students to work with collections, Chris says:
“We’ll never abandon programs like this, because we have a responsibility to maintain and improve access to our collections. We also have a responsibility to care for those collections, so that future generations can access them. At the same time, because we are a museum, our activities, public or otherwise, are collection-centered. Museums are all about objects and collections. If not, we wouldn’t be museums. We’d be galleries, or science centers entertainment venues or research institutes; schools or retail outlets.”
James and Chris aren’t really disagreeing, but they’re looking at museums from very different perspectives—a researcher working with museum visitors, who for the most part only see and appreciate what is on exhibit, versus a collections manager aware of the hundreds of thousands of valuable research specimens that will only ever be seen by specialists.
But this dust-up dramatizes how hard it is to find common ground to discuss something as fundamental as the primary focus of a museum, and strikes at the heart of a controversy that has come up again and again over my years at AAM. What is a museum? As a group, do we really have one unique element or set of characteristics that unite us as a field, while distinguishing us from other types of organizations? Are children’s museums (three quarters of which do not own or use collections) really in the same business as art museums? What about science centers? How much do museums that primarily exist to serve the general public have in common with museums like the Peabody MNH, where the majority of the collections serve a specialized community of researchers?
And collections are just one parameter—there are many others, some very complex and hard to characterize. For-profit museums like the International Spy Museum or the Museum of Sex look just like any other museum to their visitors, but their governance, accountability, and regulatory environment are so different that the National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums don’t cover them.
I have dodged the question “what is the definition of a museum” for years, by referring inquirers to this wonderful compendium of museum definitions compiled by John Simmons. I didn’t think it necessary to grapple with myself because I was not convinced it was important enough to justify the hours I have heard people argue about it. Now I’m coming round—if we are going to present a united front as a field, decide on common performance metrics on which we should be judged, and collect and report data about “us” we need to tackle this question. Even if we end up agreeing there are different definitions for different purposes.
So I am going to turn the question around and throw it open to the wisdom of the crowds. Have at it, guys. Are museums, as Chris says, “all about objects and collections,” or are they about any interpretation of the world in a physical environment (as another friend of mine contends). How will increasingly sophisticated technology affect our definition–does a virtual museum that provides digital information about real objects (like the Virtual Museum of Surveying) belong to our field, while a physical museum that presents only wall text does not? If being a museum requires collections, how many objects does it take? One? A dozen? What about a museum like the Museum of Jurassic Technology or the Umbrella Cover Museum where the objects are, in many ways, just props to unhinge your mind and force you to question the nature of truth and authority? Go to it…start with your comments here, and we will find the best way to continue the discussion.