Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Matter of Museums

This month we’ve been thinking about “What is a museum?” (I'm not alone there. Paul Bowers' post and Mike Jones' posts are worth reading.)
I’ve been visiting museums my whole life. I’ve worked in them my whole adult life. Does that make me the best judge of museums?
On one hand, I have the knowledge base to help me frame the issues. I know the subtle nuances and big issues all too well. But, I’m also very close to the issue. It’s my livelihood and my love, my avocation and my vocation. I suspect if you are reading this, you might be in a similar boat.
I’d posted on twitter a while ago about how one of my challenges with ICOM’s definition is that I wasn’t sure how visitor-centered it was. I might change that position slightly. I wonder how people-centered it was.
This a field about people.
People are the defining characteristics of museums. I get that they are places. But places are sites for people to congregate paid for by people and planned by people. I get they are collections. Collections are collected by people to be exhibited for people and saved for people of the future.
I’ve worked with and at plenty of museums that can sometimes feel empty. When the galleries are quiet, with my clipclop shoes the only sound, the museum feels dead. It is only enlivened by people, visitors and staff alike.
With that in mind, I turned the question of “who is a museum” to the people, here and on my social platforms, even my personal ones. I thank everyone for their awesome replies.
Many people, particularly family and friends from non-museum world, talked about museums at places to visit, like a cousin-in-law, Tina Cappel who said, “A museum is a place that captures existence for people to wander and wonder, to enjoy and to be educated.” Tina isn’t even a plant, despite being a local member. Her answer is what many a museum professional would want people to say. It’s a place for people to explore. I’d hope more people in the world, particularly potential museum visitors to North East Ohio ;>) go with this definition.
A place to go see stuff was a common thread in general, both in museum-workers and non-museum workers. I spoke a bit last week about the action of observation, and how our work turns the collection (nouns) into visitor actions (verbs). The collections are often authentic and singular, surprising and thought-provoking. They can also be confounding and banal. Our collections are often our greatest strength, though we also often choose to showcase them in ways that bore even the interested. But, when done right, our collections are there to awe. As one old colleague, Lex Lancaster, related, “When I worked at the NGA for a summer, a heard a little kid walking out say, ‘I've seen some things I can't unsee.’ That about sums it up.”
A college friend, Nora Rooney, added something important. Museums though can feel very museum like other educational spaces, despite the careful curation. She said, I think that Disney could be a museum to someone who goes there to learn, so what a museum is depends on the frame of reference I suppose.” Shaelyn Amaio, a museum worker, agreed, as do I.
To non-museum goers, the line between museum and not-museum is blurry. Museums are quality learning spaces, but so are libraries. Museums are experiences, but so is Disney. Museum house things, but so do libraries. Museums are adjacent and overlap so many other things. These adjacencies are essential in the ways we function and the ways our visitors understand us. But they also give us a bit of parallax as we try to create a discrete and singular definition. And, let me say, you all did a great job debating the definition. I could not possibly distill all the threads into a singular and discrete definition.
Many museum-workers talked about the community museums foster. Chris Totten summed up many of these threads well. He defined museums as “a lifeline between its community and the wider cultural landscape. It’s a place where people can go to see ideas from the wide world and where the wide world can bring itself to local communities.” Museums can be of the place and outside the place currently; this simultaneously sited in multiple emotional locations is often an important beacon to people seeking a community they can find no where else.  
The position of community to museum for many people hinged on the collections. For many people museums are purveyors of and intercessors with history. The museum is in all the times, past, present, and future, simultaneously.
The museum is therefore an intersection of space, thought, and action. Scott Stullen succinctly stated museums are “A place of community, conversation and connection.” But this effort to create community and connection between people and things doesn’t happen by accident. As Adrienne Lalli Hills points out, a museum is: “....A sustained and intentional effort to facilitate interactions between people and ideas (including objects)” Many people offered time-machine like definitions like Nicole Balsdon, who said museums are “Time machine to take things and ideas from the past and today to today tomorrow and beyond!” But J Collins was quick to point to the fact that objects without people are just things. They defined museums as “object-based, contextual stories. Without context and stories, you're just a warehouse.”
Some of the most interesting debates about the issue were about where we want to go in the field. Dr. Sushma Jansari pointed out it is also a where new thoughts and ideas grow, “they are places for experimentation & conversation. A place where knowledge grows in collaboration w/ a broad range of people both within & beyond the museum, from scientists to children & all in between.”
Aron Ambrosiani many people’s definition nicely, "I think the duality of museums is key to understanding/defining what they are. A museum is _both_ an experience venue _and_ a repository of knowledge. Stray too far away from either aspect and the special thing is lost." Museums aren’t one thing, but they are not all things. In defining too broadly we lose, and being two strict we lose.
Museum Transparency brought up the fact that museums are work places. They most certainly are. Many people shared how this act of defining seems silly given the real work places challenges. Others talked about how museums are often defined in one way for “the average” people and another for donors. Still more reminded us that definitions mean little if there isn’t any follow through on the mission to the people working in the organization.
Many important conversations also centered around what is the point in creating a definition. For some the definition is sort of navel gazing. Bob Beatty said, “I’ll be honest when I say I think we are the only people who *really* care what can appropriately dub itself as “museum.” It’s the most inside of inside baseball.” The challenge with these debates is that they take us away from big issues. Museums are colonial constructs, Wendy Ng points out, [and] debating the definition does not change this fact.” Luis Marcelo Mendes pointed to the socially constructed nature of museums, “A museum is a fiction we choose to believe.”
The flaws in museums came up a few times. Alli Burness mentioned how museums could be so much, can be, might even become that, if we allow ourselves: “I’ve always approached them as a creative medium to explore and reflect on our world and the human experience of it. And in so doing, build understanding, connection and belonging. Some hold and use a collection of objects to achieve that, others don’t. Museums dont see themselves that way tho.” Bronwyn Coulston also talked about the cracks and our ability to heal our field, “An imperfect idea, developed in inherently flawed times and cultures. Constantly evolving and occasionally managing to repair historic damage caused.”
In the end, all of this discussion is fruitful to the museum workers to keep us intellectually stimulated but mean nothing if we don’t put them into action for visitors. Many of us are making them central to life and communities. As Kajsa Hartig said, “Museums could be: A tool for humanity to (in participatory, educative + entertaining ways) make sense of life + society, to use for a better now and future, An experimental arena where public, private and civil society can meet in unique ways. A 24/7 resource always top of mind.”
Though museums cannot be the ideal for today and tomorrow if we don’t start and end with people. Our visitors, our staff, our posterity. Every single person who has or might be part of the collection and the organization. All these people are our raison d’etre. They use us how we imagine and in many ways we can’t. As Cynthia Heider said, “A museum is whatever the people who use it want it to be.”
Why does all this defining matter? Well, because our work matters. Museum matter. We aren’t just museum workers. We aren’t just buildings with collections. We are all the things listed above and more. We are the places people go to learn. We are the people who collect for the future. We are conveners of communities. We are the real in a world full of fake. We are the best of society and the worst—all there to remind people about both. We are humanity on display. We are nature in its most wonderous. We are what society needs today, tomorrow, and hopefully forever. As the Secretary of the Smithson Lonnie Bunch said, way better than me,

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