2011’s provocative questions

A new year seems to be an auspicious time for asking big questions and reflecting and recommitting to what we do as museum professionals. And judging from what’s coming in through my feeds, I’m not alone in that.

One of the last things I read in 2010 was a blog post by Jasper Visser, seductively titled, “What is a museum (as well)?” He provides a long list of things visitors use museums for that all fall completely outside our plans for what they should be doing.  Examples include

  • A place to go on a first date.
  • Cool inside when it’s hot outside.
  • Somewhere to dump your kids.
  • A place to challenge your opinions and ideas.
  • Somewhere to dump your husband/boyfriend when you go shopping.

And so on. A great list, all things I can immediately visualize either doing myself, or watching others do.  This question, “What do our visitors think a museum is for?” stuck with me over the holidays, and today, staring at a clean desk (for now at least) and a new year, it seemed fitting to be rolling a big existential question around.

Plowing through the accumulated posts and tweets I came across Nick Poole’s synopsis of a difficult conversation he had over the holidays with a group of well-educated adults from different walks of life who didn’t see much point to museums any more.  The part that made me feel a bit sick comes near the end,

And then one of our company turned to me, in all earnest, and said ‘your industry is like typesetters, or vinyl manufacturers. Its time has come and gone. The real question is how long it’s going to take you all to realise what has happened.’ But that wasn’t the killer blow. The killer blow was watching people around the room nodding in assent. Yes, they seemed to think, museums could have been great, but they just didn’t keep pace with the times.”

The whole post will probably give some of you a stomach ache, because it reads like a museum professional’s nightmare. You’re at a nice party, and suddenly the whole room turns on you and eviscerates your profession as pointless and irrelevant. That said, the larger question of “What good are museums in the modern world?” can be a challenge to lift our gaze from doing what we’ve always done and be more mindful of who we’re supposedly serving and how we do it.

Just to complete a trinity of calls to wake up and look around, my eyes bugged a little when I read Charlie Carlson’s question to the ASTC-ISEN-L listserv the other day about evaluation. As someone deep in the throes of a couple of U.S. government grant proposals, both of which require substantial evaluation components, it was startling to say the least. It read, in part;

“For some years I’ve wondered about the efficacy of exhibit evaluation, wondered whether or not it is useful, or more directly a bureaucratic hurdle that provides useless and specious validation that satisfies an inner need and social, political need to feel affective.  A CYA exercise by politicians, bureaucrats, and museum professionals.  To put it bluntly: Are museums and taxpayers spending a significant amount of money on something of questionable value?”

Wow! Now there’s a provocative question! If you don’t read this listserv, you owe it to yourself to check out the whole thread as it continues to unfold.

What questions are you wrestling with for the coming year?


UPDATE:  The original questions have generated some interesting commentary. I am particularly struck by Koven Smith’s response to Nick that behind the relevancy issues is,

…that, for the first time, museums have competitors. The choice is no longer between museums and nothing, but rather between museums and something similar that’s more convenient. And in a market with competitors (particularly competitors without the years of baggage that museums have), simply proving value alone isn’t enough. We have to also differentiate ourselves from the competition (even if that competition is mostly benign).

The idea of having to make the value proposition and the differentiation clear is, I think, crucial.  We have a unique set of experiences to offer that we could do a better job of making clear. Pretending that we don’t need to differentiate is basically akin to putting our heads in the sand, or covering our ears and going, “La, la, la!”


  1. Hi Ed, thanks for the mention!

    To add to your list: We see (at least in some European countries) a whole wave of cultural cuts affecting museums. Many people protest against them. I prefer to wonder: Why is it that we are being cut? Probably the mayority of people simply doesn’t believe culture and arts are important nowadays. And that’s not their issue, it’s ours. How can we make ourselves appreciated (again)?

    I think that’s my provocative question for 2011, to prove that culture and the arts can be meaningful to people and make a positive contribution to their lives.


  2. Good point, Jasper. One thing I’ve always found baffling is the mindset if our visitors don’t appreciate what we do, then they need to learn how. I’ve actually heard people half-jokingly say, “We need better visitors.” instead of “We need to do a better job of connecting with visitors.”
    How to get past that is going to be a big question for (at least) the coming year.


  3. These are sobering thoughts and comments for the new year. I do remember two more hopeful stories that make me, a museum professional, feel better. Years ago a young woman I know was working with Head Start as a summer job. She told me a story of loading kids on a bus to go to Boston for a museum visit. One of the very young mothers was really upset about the trip and she said to my friend – “But I wanted to go to a museum first”.

    I also heard Henry Louis Gates and Cornell West on a talk show once saying that when they were young all they kids dreamed of going on a trip to the Smithsonian. They said their hopes for the future of African-American kids was to instill the dream of access to the world of museums and education.

    To me, these two stories show museums as representatives of society to which many aspire because they have a deep meaning about who we are. When I was in Australia on my International Partnerships Among Museums grant, I remember taking in the culture through visiting museums. It was the first time I thought of museums as keepers of the values of the culture or cultures.

    Therefore, the question I wrestle with is – what at this juncture in time will museums chose to represent our values?


  4. This opinion piece from Museum Identity magazine speaks to the relevancy and audience issues beautifully. You should read the whole thing. Paul Fraser Webb writes:

    If I could only give one piece of advice to anybody working in a museum at the moment it would be this: spend one hour per week to sit and reflect.

    Museums are currently in a state of enormous flux. … Perhaps the most potent comparison that I have heard recently is that we are awaiting a tsunami: we know the earthquake has hit, we have seen the sea draw back and we are now sitting in the quiet phase before the wave hits. The trouble is that we do not know how big the wave is going to be.

    The article is steeped in the grim context of UK museum funding cuts, but the message is universal. Going about business as usual doesn’t seem sustainable, but what will replace it? Hence Webb’s advice to reflect on the big issues. He proposes a long list of things to consider that include:
    • What is your core purpose? Look at your founding document, your charitable objectives or your mission statement.
    • Look at your USP. What makes you different? And I’m not only talking about the difference to other museums but also to other service providers that you will be competing against?
    • How can you get your advocacy and evidence ready for your internal and external stakeholders? You’ll need these when you are developing your new partnerships.


  5. * A place to go on a first date = a place to find out whether you have common interests and can have a conversation about them; a public place where you can be alone; being in the presence of inspiring objects and ideas is conducive to romance!
    * Cool inside when it’s hot outside = an escape from the daily reality;
    * Somewhere to dump your kids = a place you trust to do some good, keep them safe and ignite their imaginations;
    * A place to challenge your opinions and ideas = enough said
    * Somewhere to dump your husband/boyfriend when you go shopping = an assumption that men will find something of interest in a museum if left to their own devices, which goes counter, I think to the prevailing wisdom that more women than men choose to go to museums.

    By the way we were at AMNH over the Christmas break to see the Human Brain show. It’s a good 3-dimensional interactive text book, and yet, it was jammed. People of all ages and types of groups were following the narrative path text panel by text panel, reading, looking and talking to each other = Museum as a place for a happy group experience where you learn a little something and have a comfortable time.


  6. Hello, Ed: First time I’ve visited your blog. nice post. It
    is interesting how science museum people carve out a distinctive
    niche from collections based institutions. I’ve worked (for 30
    years now!) at both, and find that the vocabulary is radically
    different. I spent a few hours with my college age kids and wife at
    the Brooklyn Museum this past weekend. The BMA has done a great job
    of teaching/engaging with unique objects. It definitely was a “do
    not touch” environment, but I still think that the power of
    objects, thoughtfully displayed, shouldn’t be dismissed. This is
    something that can not be readily replaced by other forms of
    engagement, whether digital or simulated or replicated. The aura
    around an original object still resonates. This may have value to a
    diminishing number of people at this moment in time, and lord knows
    the business model for collections-based institutions has been
    challenged and challenged again. But, along with the social
    function of public spaces, I do think that engagement with actual
    objects and phenomena will turn out to be the durable aspect of
    museums when interactivity pervades all of our communications and
    media. Oh no! I’m old and conservative! Eric


  7. Thanks for your post, Eric. Good stuff, and I agree completely. I’m more of an object guy myself, having spent so many years working on traveling exhibitions, many of which tended to be object shows. That experience of the authentic, whatever form it takes, is what makes museums different from all the other choices people have for informal learning. I think that is going to become more and more important, so you’re not being conservative, you’re being avant garde and ahead of the curve!


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