The Future of Museums

The readings this week talked about the need for museums to change.  While I agree that the internet and technology is a tool that should be used, I am a bit concerned with the idea of museums as businesses with customers.  When used as a tool to help define the role of the administrative and financial area of the museum, a business model can be highly effective.  However, should museum visitors truly be considered “customers”?  I have my doubts on that.  Museums need to be separate from the “profit at any cost” ideals that have taken over the corporate world.  While making a profit is not in itself a negative, I fear that by opening the door to a corporate identity, museums risk becoming soulless entities focused not on nostalgia but on profit.  Museums should be places where art and history combine to raise questions and create thoughtful conversation.  They should help us remember those things that bring shame and those things that bring us pride.  They should be a place where people come to look upon that which is beautiful and that which is profane.   This is what all museums should aspire to.  When profit becomes the very reason to exist I fear that those ideals will be left behind.  By using technology museums can give access collections that have not been available for years.  People living as far away as India could see the FieldMuseum in Chicago.  A student in Alabama could visit the Egyptian section at the BritishMuseum.  As technology advances, those connections will become more and more powerful.  I would hate to see those connections lost because they are not profitable.

Reinventing the Museum: Ethics

I found Deft Deliberations by Eco-Hawk and Monroe raised several questions for me.  I agree that NAGPRA was necessary and find it abhorrent that museums of the time engaged in what amounts to grave robbing.  It forced the profession to confront a not particularly shining moment of their own past and right that wrong.  Yet this particular legislation opens the door to some further issues.  What immediately springs to my mind is Kennewick Man.  The 9500 year old remains of K-Man sparked a 10 year court battle between local tribes and scientists over whether they should be studied or buried.  The knowledge that was gained through the study of this unique individual adds tremendously to the understanding of where we come from and who our ancient ancestors were.  Had he simply been buried, that knowledge would have been lost forever.  It raises the question of who history belongs to and how do we balance the needs of those who claim a direct link to the history with the needs of the public?  These are questions that we, as historians, must approach with respect and caution.

This leads directly into Mining the Museum.  The challenge of balance is faced by every museum in the world.  Who gets a say in how artifacts are interpreted, studied, and displayed?  Context is all important.  Without it artifacts become a jumbled collection that has little meaning.  Deciding what context should be used is part of the curator’s role.  When people find their historical beliefs challenged, the results can be educational, especially when those results include anger and denial.  Much can be learned by observing how visitors respond to the displays.  I believe that what Fred Wilson did opened to door to some difficult conversations about our past, how we interpret it, and how people cling to ideals of what the past looks like.  Mining the Museum is an example of a display that challenges people to view their belief systems in a new context.  By changing the way the material culture of the area was seen, the museum gave voice to people who had never really had their history examined in such a context.  I am glad that this article included both the positive and negative responses to Mining the Museum.  My favorite quote was from the engineer who stated that “a museum should answer questions not raise questions unrelated to the subject.”  I think that Mining the Museum both raised questions and answered them, and did so in a way that made museum visitors uncomfortable at times.

Changing the way we interpret the word “Museum”

The chapters we read this week discussed the history of the museum and how it has changed over time.  Cameron talked about the issue of what a museum is.  Should it be a solemn place where material culture is displayed?  How do we use new technologies to display the past?  How do we involve the public in a learning experience?  He asks the question should a museum be a temple or a forum and he answers by stating that there needs to be a reform that places importance on the forum aspect.  He also discusses the social responsibilities that museums have toward the public.  He argued that museums have to “create an equality of cultural opportunity.”  If museums become temples, then only those interested in temples will go to them, he argues.  Nina Simon continues with this theme of reform and reaching out when she wrote about the principles of participation on page 335.  She discussed how participatory experiences can “create new value for the institution, participants, and nonparticipating audience members.”  This brings to mind a couple of examples for me.  The first is the Museum of Tolerance in LA.  Visitors are invited to take part in WWII events and given a card with the picture of a Jewish child on it.  At the end the participant finds out if the child survived.  Telling someone about the atrocities committed in WWII is one thing.  Giving them the chance to connect with a person who was alive at the time who possibly did not survive brings to life the realities of that particular event.  The second example that spring to mind is Zoo Boise.  This educational institution has a wonderful environmental program.  At the gate you are charged for admission and an environmental fee.  This fee is one dollar.  For that dollar you are given a token which you then take to an area where the pictures of three endangered species are placed with some information about the animals.  You get to choose which bucket you drop your token into and the zoo donates to that cause.  It is a way to inform the public about the environment, animals, and conservation.  Fun, educational, and entertaining.  The big three.