On Unhelpful Analogies

Temple of Saturn, CC-BY 2.0 image by Anthony M. fr Wikimedia Commons

In all the hubbub around changing practices in museums, a constant trope has been the tension between two camps. On the one hand are those “traditionalists” who value museums as places of quiet contemplation, aesthetic refinement, and sober, solitary experience. On the other are those “progressives” who want museums to be active, social spaces; welcoming, inclusive to diverse viewpoints and vibrant centers of their communities. I have written about this before, and you can go here and here or here to read more for more.

Often this tension gets reduced to a stark dichotomy. It’s either this or that, and for one side to “win” the other side has to “lose”, so the stakes are high. The very soul of the museum endeavor is at stake if you listen to the most strident, most visible partisans of either side. I am not terribly swayed by a lot of the arguments traditionalists raise to support their position. I find many of them to be sneeringly condescending, ahistorical, and full of thinly-veiled elitism masquerading as “concern.” On the other hand, a lot of the arguments for new, progressive practices have the stink of desperation clinging to them. “If we don’t ______, we’ll be irrelevant! The Millennials! What about the Millennials?” What’s a poor practitioner to do? First, I think it’s helpful to look at some of the dominant mental models we use in describing museums, and in particular the dialectical opposites that get used to frame the debate.

The Temple and the Forum 

In 2007 Les Harrison identified two dominant models in the struggle over what museums should be: the temple, an institution for the projection and protection of official culture, and the forum, its populist, marketplace counterpart. This model has gained wide visibility, and often gets used informally as almost a given. What is interesting to note in this analogy is that the primary function of a Roman temple is reduced to an apparatus of state control and the spiritual function completely ignored. Likewise, the Forum’s many explicitly state-organized and controlled functions are omitted to highlight the popular.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar 

Another model gaining currency plays off a software development analogy originally written by Eric Raymond in 2001 to describe the two dominant models for how software should be developed: the Cathedral, in which source code is made available with each software release, but code developed between releases is restricted to an exclusive group of software developers, and the Bazaar, in which the code is developed over the Internet in view of the public and open to any interested party. In the museum interpretation of this, the Cathedral is governed by the clergy and closed to the people, whereas the Bazaar is an open public space, non-hierarchical and accessible to all. The Cathedral is reduced to an organizational structure where a closed hierarchy controls the means of production (to get a little Marxist) and releases it when and if they feel like it. The spiritual aspect of the Cathedral is unmentioned. Interestingly, Raymond played a large role in popularizing the use of “open” over “free software”, which Richard Stallman problematized thus, “Free software is a political movement; open source is a development model.”

The trouble with models

Models are useful because of what they leave out. That’s what allows you to focus on the feature that is being modeled. But that’s also their weakness. So, while the centrally-controlled/ hierarchical vs democratic/populist comparison has merit, it is worth noting that in both examples what is left out is that a spiritual model is opposed to a market-driven driven one, and capitalism replaces religion. I would argue that when cultural commentators refer to Art museums as “secular temples” or “temples of culture”, they are not referring exclusively to the authoritarian aspect of traditional art museum practice. There is always language that invokes the magical, the sublime, and, yes, even the spiritual. Yet how often do we practitioners acknowledge that in our work? It is a foundational element of the cultural sea we swim in, but it goes largely unacknowledged and unexamined.



  1. Great thoughts. My graduate advisor always admonished us not to get trapped in our models. But I rather like models that resemble movies rather than snapshots.


  2. I’d say that learning theory really does address this, though that discourse doesn’t always make its way into discussions of museum-as-institution. For instance, Kolb’s experiential learning model uses a two-axis grid to plot reflective vs. active engagement and concrete vs. abstract conceptualization. (http://academic.regis.edu/ed202/subsequent/kolb2.htm) It’s possible to plot museum experiences across that x/y grid and see the multiple possibilities for interaction between user and content. If we restrict ourselves to considering museums along a single axis, as you point out here, we’re limiting our thinking to a black/white dichotomy. Kolb’s reflective vs. active becomes “temple vs. forum,” but playing only along that line does, of course, leave out the “reflective + abstract” quadrant you would find in Kolb – where the spiritual finds a home.


  3. Wanted to help with a footnote of sorts – I’m not familiar with Harrison’s work, but Duncan Cameron published “The Museum, a Temple or the Forum” in Curator: The Museum Journal in 1971.


  4. Interesting post! I didn’t realize there was such a debate, as I tend to love museums in all forms. Quiet and contemplative or interactive, both work well for me, and I think transcend mediums. I’ve recently been to museums of both kinds, and easily could have seen them switch methods, even though the subject matter was so different in nature.

    I think the efficacy of either method depends on how thoughtfully it is curated. I’ve been to “stand and look” exhibits that felt like a pointless mental workout because of how confusingly they were arranged, and interactive exhibits that were boring because the interaction had no learning objective, and I’ve been to contemplative exhibits that moved and inspired me and interactive exhibits that did the same.

    In the end, keeping too strict a theory of models would constrain the potential for a museum to work with all of the tools at their disposal, as it fits the material, as it fits the story they are trying to tell or create.


    1. So true! Well said. And, knowing as we do that visitors have different preferences, different moods, differing visiting situations, even from one visit to the next, isn’t it wise to present a *range* of options and experiences? That’s what I like about the “bazaar” concept – the idea of popping from one experience to another, selecting from what is available to craft your own, perfectly self-customized experience.

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      1. I guess my main beef with the bazaar is that people don’t go to bazaars to participate in, they go to buy stuff. And that “experience as consumption” idea I find troublesome.


        1. I can understand that. I think I’d prefer a “county fair” analogy, which is quite a bit about experience and can include learning, consuming, witnessing, participating, competing, performing, creating, and appreciating…if not more. It’s the element of individual choice from an array of potential modes of engagement that I think is apt there.


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