Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Museum Verbs and Defining Who are We.

After the International Committee on Museums spent some time debating the definition of museums, many folks took up the charge on social media to give their own definitions. I’m inviting people to share their definitions, here and on social (and tag me); I’ll summarize your thoughts next week.

But this week I want to focus on a tweet by Dan Hicks who suggested instead of a definition we need museum verbs. The invocation was an important one. We’re in a moment in our field where we’ve spent a few decades becoming interactive. The ice cream museums of the world couldn’t have existed if the Exploratorium, Boston Science, Imperial War Museum, Please Touch hadn’t innovated interaction very early. (I know I’m missing early innovators of interaction in museums; feel free to tell me who in the comments.) While a social media-focused museum can be a lightning rod for us in this field, their existence highlights the fact that a big sector of our visitors and potential visitors sees museums as a place where you “do something.”

One might argue “see something” is a verb. “Just looking at things” is a common complaint about museums, often being paired “it’s boring.” It’s interesting because watching sporting events is a common American pastime. Certainly, ball games are places where you sit, something that’s barely even odds in museum galleries, and you get to drink beer while watching the main event. But I think the big difference in sports is that people know what to look for. Very few Americans don’t know what a home run is. You might not be clear on the rules for penalties, but if you went to a game you be able to say the team got the point. For museums, we often want museum to use the verb “look”  but we don’t tell them what to look for. I also think about diving at the Olympics. I don’t enjoy swimming in pools or anything that seems like exercise; I have definitely never done a flip off the high dive. But one time I watched the Olympics with a family member who dove for his college team. After 15 minutes, I felt I had enough knowledge to enjoy watching. As sports shows, some of the onboarding might come from the culture overall, or might just need a 15-minute conversation, but with that knowledge you become an engaged viewer.

The power of a little knowledge is one of the reasons interactives matter. I’m not well-versed in dinos. On a recentish trip to the American Museum of Natural History, I watched a group of unrelated people learn about the parts of a T Rex by putting together a puzzle. I’d guess the VR in the next room cost a whole lot more money (and it was fun), but even simple interactives empower people to know what to look for. Our visitors see and do in our galleries. Fostering these engagements with ideas and collections is key to our work.

What are the other verbs that highlight our raison d’etre? Teach is a big one. As a field, we have some mixed feelings on this, I think. We love when we teach with a capital T, like exhibitions and university classes. We also love the school tours, when we’re doing the annual reports and pitching program support to bankers. At the same time, we often pay educators less while expecting more. We often think of our teachers as being less than classroom teachers and our gallery staff as “just” teaching little kids. We even step away from the word education in general by changing departments to “interpretation,” as if using a fancier word will give the work more clout. As a field, we are proud of the verb teach when it is either prestigious or profitable, but otherwise we’re more ambivalent. Teaching is a core. It is extremely hard to teach humans, in general, and it is progressively harder to teach them the younger they go. If you don’t believe this, engage toddlers with Sol LeWitt, and tell me how you survived. Specialized teaching is an extremely important part of our sector, and something we should herald.

Seeing and teaching are verbs that connect to collections. But what verbs are bigger than the collection? In the states, the mall is in decline. Museums, many of whom are free at least once a week, are in possession, collectively, of huge areas of interior space. In the frozen winters of the north and the soul-sucking dry heat of the southwest, and every other climate in between, museums can come up with many verbs for our communities. We are spaces and places. These are nouns, sure. But we can use these nouns for people. After all, we’ve been using our collections, nouns all, to do good for people for a couple hundred years. They can convene, they can invite, they can ignite partnerships, they can allow, they can encourage, they can transform.

Museum verbs are only bound by us. Our traditions have given us a few verbs. Our innovators in the last couple decades have given us more. But what is the future of what we do as a field? We are the ones who decide. We are the ones who pick the verbs that ensure museums exist for posterity. So, what are your museum verbs?

Share your thoughts and your thoughts about the definitions of museums, either here or on social. Remember to tag me so I can reshare with our readers (@artlust@seemarao@_art_lust_)

Also, I wanted to note a couple awesome posts to read: JasperVisser’s take and Linda Norris’ post.

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