Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Book Club Part 3: Museums Seeking Definition

This week, we look at Chapter 5 of Elaine Gurian's book Civilizing Museums, Choosing Among the Options: An opinion about museum definitions in two parts. (This post is a summary of the essay; on Thursday, an interview with Elaine expanding on some of these concepts.) First published in Curator magazine in 2002, this essay presents five different museum "types" and their distinct opportunities and challenges. Elaine believes that "know thyself" isn't just for self-help manuals--it's an adage museums need to remember as they move forward to make decisions intelligently. The "taxonomy of archetypes" both allows museums to be judged fairly and appropriately, and allows institutions to grow in their unique abilities, rather than by cobbling together a bit of this and a bit of that, becoming wayward and watered-down.

The five types Elaine defines are:
  1. object-centered (focus on STUFF)
  2. narrative (focus on STORY)
  3. client-centered (focus on AUDIENCE, children's and science museums fall here)
  4. community (focus on SELF-EXPRESSION, community and cultural centers fall here)
  5. national (government-sponsored)
Each of these types has its strengths and challenges. Object-centered museums have fabulous artifacts but are thought of as stuffy and hard to access. Narrative museums are gripping and evocative but are criticized as subjective and overly dramatic. Client-centered museums offer a wide variety of active educational experiences but may be called out as "Disneyesque" playgrounds in boxes. Community museums develop strong programming and local relationships but may be cited as irrelevant to folks not in that community. National museums have huge reach and ability to represent and celebrate a nation but are decried as tightly-controlled beauracratic machines.

So how can museums confront their typological challenges? One obvious path is to look at the range of museums out there and try to pick and choose "the best" from each. But no one becomes best at one thing by messing with all things. When museums grow by adopting conventions presented by the others, they do so--somewhat--at the expense of a focused mission.

Elaine discusses, for example, the evolution of object-centered museums, the "treasure troves" to include more diverse interpretation and presentation styles to promote contextual, multi-sensory understanding of the artifacts. But by repackaging object-centered museums for appreciation by non-experts, they may lose the essential spooky wonder that made the objects so captivating to the original audience. An over-emphasis on interpretation can distort the power of contemplative exploration of objects; instead of offering a distinct experience from other kinds of museums, the new interpretative museum just offers the same packaging of distinct stuff.

Elaine suggests that we celebrate the distinctions and evaluate museums based on the limitations of their type. She compares different kinds of museums to different universities; no one expects my engineering school to have the same characteristics and clientele as your liberal arts school. Elaine makes the example of five different art museums (the Met, the Picasso Museum, Zoom, the art gallery in Soweto, and the National Gallery of Canada) as examples of the five types (object, narrative, client, community, national), and discusses the way that each of these has taken their own unique slant on sharing art with visitors.

Can a museum integrate elements from each of these? Absolutely; many of the largest museums combine local community programming with world-class collections with narrative galleries with hands-on centers. But this combination requires a multi-faceted, potentially schizophrenic focus, and may be confusing to some. I remember when I first went to work at a large museum. I was literally flabbergasted to learn that there was an "education department"--a whole class of individuals I never knew existed as a visitor! When I talk to museum-going friends about the range of museum programs and initiatives out there, invariably they are amazed to hear about the diversity. Some people think of museums as camp providers, others as exhibit displayers, others as storytellers. It's hard to imagine or understand services outside of the scope of your own experience as a visitor.
It's one thing to change your mission statement; it's quite another to change "who you are" in the eyes of the public.

The key isn't schizophrenia: it's personal honesty. Elaine argues that when a museum is clear and serious about its mission, the direction staff will take--in writing labels, designing programs, managing marketing campaigns--will follow.
Embodying a type is not an excuse to avoid growth; it's an opportunity to grow in special ways based on core competencies.

But it's not always that easy. There's enormous pressure on museums to pursue models that are economically and socially viable. The research on the use and value of collections, programming, and different forms of interpretation is constantly evolving.
Add to these the constant pressures from a changing cultural landscape. The growth of the Web and Web 2.0 have forced other industries--news media, music and film production--to rethink the way they engage with customers. Generational reinvention isn't just an option; it's a survival mechanism. What happens when your "type" is not in fashion? How can museums grow without losing sight of core mission or focus? And if your museum truly wants to change course, how can that happen?

For answers to these and other tough questions, write a comment. And then tune in Thursday to hear Elaine's thoughts.

1 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

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