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!”