Sunday, January 16, 2011

My Definition of a Museum

But . . . but what about the . . .

Once upon a time, I was a student in the Master of Arts Museum Studies program at John F. Kennedy University in California.  In my cohort, there were two main specializations in the program — collections management and public programming — and they ran side by side. All the students were together for the core foundation courses, then we broke out into the respective groups for in-depth specialization classes. We also wrote our master's thesis on a topic to add to the literature / learning of our specialization.

Being in collections management, I honestly thought that I would see far more registrar-types than those interested in public programming. Boy, was I wrong! It turns out that in a class of (I believe) 12, there were only FOUR in collections management. I was shocked, really, and so the first lesson of this amazing program was that I was never to be sure what is going to happen in my own personal definition of the museum world.

The core courses were so interesting and so very challenging. These classes, often led by the phenomenal Gail Anderson, emphasized the community, and the educational mandate of museums. It was repeatedly stated that, without people, museums are not worth a whole lot with their packed-full rooms of collections. This was a bit of a shocker to me at the time, for 
I had always loosely defined museums as places that collect things that tell a story - it was about The Object. Yet we discussed that museums can exist without collections, but not without people.

WHAT? Wait a minute.

Museums without collections? This thought shocked me. The conversation kept being pushed — museums are first and foremost places of learning for people, not Mausoleums of Stuff. (Ouch.) Museums can keep things forever but if no one sees the collections, what's the point? Why spend all that money and energy putting things on those pedestals, and keeping them carefully tucked away in storage? 
Again and again it was stressed that if we, as museum professionals, were not serving our audience and community, we were in fact engaged in organizations that simply idolized and interpreted material goods. And so what about that? This seemingly endless discussion actually got my back up a little - hey, if there are no collections needed in museums, there are no collections MANAGERS. Are 'they' trying to get rid of me and my profession? And curators? And conservators? With the majority of the class being education-centric, it certainly seemed like my voice from the registrars' section was getting a little over-run. And so I kept rebuking, over and over again:

But — What about The Collections?

How DO collections fit into this museum definition of education and people first, things second?  This was the central question of my museum studies, and it was the heart of
 master's project in collections management, when I designed a form that documented the object donor's story at the time the object was given to the museum. From a collections manager point of view, I saw that having the community document their own donations as an important step in sharing the task of interpreting the collection in the museum.

And then I went back into the museum world . . .

. . . where the work often comes before the conversations of why we do what we do . . .

. . . and where the education side of museum professionals rarely out-number the object-centric museum specialists.

There I discovered that, somewhat to my initial relief, history, art and natural history museums were still, in my opinion, focussed on the object. Some exhibitions were practically alters. Some curators were the experts, and they owned the story that visitors heard and learned from. And accessibility, welcoming visitors? Sharing authority? Pretty much back burner. Educational programs seemed to be afterthoughts to the exhibitions. Mission statements started with 'To collect, preserve the stuff of the community'. It seemed to me that objects were the centre; my side of museum work seemed rather protected. But I didn't feel smug. In fact, I felt worried and a little sick at this realization of the museum sector in action.

Then, of course, it hit me. 

But — What about The Community?

All the discussions from my time at JFKU rang in my ears. Despite my rants to protect the object's role in the definition of a museum, this adoration of collections without thinking about the community is, well,
not a sustainable way to gather supporters, whether they be visitors or funders or fans. Only in a few cases will the object come before the interest of the visitor, so the collections should not be the only focus of what we do. If the museum values and welcomes its visitors, makes people the first priority, our communities just might see all these museums belong to them. And then maybe, just maybe, they will stay and play and participate in this ever-so-cool learning environment, for it will be for the visitor, and about the visitor. It truly is not just about the collection, or for those who adore the museum objects.

In coming full circle of my unique learning situation and professional experience, 
I have become aware of a few things. Museums to me are defined as places of education that hold collections in trust for the community. I personally need to keep collections as one of the central tennets that define a museum for I am and always will be passionate about the things that tell the stories of the world around us. But I also know this: I absolutely, without a doubt, cannot leave out the community in this definition: PEOPLE are the reason why museums do what museums do. Always. The collection and the community's experience — including educational — are together for me, and I use these fundamentals equally when I define what is a museum. No buts about it.

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