Decoding the Direction of the Museum Shift

The paradigm shift is all about moving the core of museums from conservation and collections to education and public service. This new focus gives rise to a plethora of questions. Should exhibits be driven more by items or ideas? How can museums attract new audiences? Who are museums for? What should museums provide? When, if at all, is it acceptable to exhibit non-authentic items? In the digital age of overabundant information, how can museums present information in enticing and novel ways? New questions are always surfacing, and old questions require revisiting.

Collections are only as interesting as the stories they have to tell. By starting with ideas rather than items, exhibits can be fascinating and relatable to a wide range of audiences. In the modern age of people striving to become socially conscious and globally connected, museums must find ways to become the cultural meeting places for lifelong learners. The wonderful thing about education is that it never ends. Museums must provide programs and services for the public’s unquenchable curiosity. Museums as education centers challenge us to open our minds to unfamiliar stories and perspectives. Exhibits have special potential to show any subject or object in an interesting light. Today’s museums are aiming for enjoyable learning experiences. By beginning with ideas, museums become institutions for thinking rather than just things.

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City Seeks Tourist Dollars, Museum Seeks New Audience

City Seeks Tourist Dollars, Provides Museum with New Audience

Recently the Press & Sun Bulletin of Binghamton, NY reported that the Roberson Museum and Science Center is partnering with the city to attract Chinese tourism. Binghamton’s location on the highway between Niagara Falls and the New York City makes it an ideal way-point.   The Roberson contains a museum, planetarium, and historic mansion. With translation assistance from volunteers and interns from Binghamton University (BU), tours of the mansion will be available in Mandarin, as will a section of the museum’s website. 1 The program is still in its infancy, and its success is still uncertain. Through its connection with BU’s international students, the Roberson has the opportunity to further its mission of engaging “people of all ages and backgrounds” in its present community while it works with the city to welcome international visitors into that community.2

Though I believe this example is an opportunity for growth, it raises some broader questions:

Do programs that target tourist groups risk viewing people as numbers rather than visitors?

What can a museum do to avoid this and make travelers truly welcome?

Is it appropriate for a city to ask a museum for help attracting money like this?


1 Steven Howe. “Binghamton Eyes Boost for Chinese Tourism” Press & Sun-Bulletin. September 15, 2014.

2 “Home” Accessed September 19, 2014.

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All Questions, But Who Has the Answers?

The collection is everything in the art world.  It is the heart of the institution, so why would an institution decide to get rid of it?  If you start deaccessioning items, eventually you won’t have a collection or anything that matters, right?  Some may say these actions are unethical if the profit made is not put back into collections, but who decides what’s ethical? When museums make decisions that challenge public trust, who’s the brain behind the decision?  If your institution saw an opportunity to invest in its future at the expense of the collection, would you do it?

Brian Alexander had an ethical dilemma as the Director of the Shelburne Museum.  His Board made the decision to deaccession a small number of items in the collection to establish an endowment that went toward the long-term care and management of the majority of its collections. The decision sent many people and organizations in the art world in uproar.  One of these being AAM who stepped in to advise Alexander on what they thought to be the ethical path.  Is it the AAM’s duty to be the arbitrator of ethical decisions in museums or is that power in the hands of trustees of individual institutions? Ultimately, he said, what it comes down to is that the obligations of the trustees is to the institution first, even if it means criticism.

As Alexander said, when in doubt “always take the high road and try to do the right thing for your institution.”

Source Citations:

Alexander, Brian. Interview by Megan Hartmann and Araya Henry. 13 December 2013.

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Where Should These Remains Remain? — Plumbing the Depths of Museum Ethics

Millions of people visit museums every year to engage with stories that collections can tell.  The collections and stories are diverse, but one thing they share is that, “[a museum’s] stewardship of collections entails the highest public trust and carries with it the presumption of rightful ownership”.  [1]

But, what should a museum do if an individual makes a legal claim on one of its objects?

I spoke with Brian Alexander, former Director of the Shelburne Museum, about this ethical situation. He responded that museums should tread carefully and ascertain the legitimacy of that claim. He elaborated by saying that, “the claimant’s statement may call into question the museum’s ownership, but only if definitively proven otherwise should the museum even think about restoring the object to the claimant. Standards for this proof must be very high because setting such a precedent will call into question ownership of the museum’s entire collection. Even then, the museum must proceed with caution. Ultimately, the decision (and precedent setting) will rest with the museum’s Board of Trustees who act in the best interests of the museum and the public”. [2]

So far, so good.  Sometimes, however, the ethical path may be less obvious.

Take, for example, the case of Kennewick Man, concerning prehistoric remains uncovered in Washington and dated to at least 8,000 years old.  The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) states that Native American human remains must be repatriated if native tribes can prove they are related to the remains.  However, archeological scholars used the skeleton’s “Caucasoid” appearance and its age to dispute the relation of Kennewick Man to modern local tribes. Following a legal battle, the U.S. Government decided that the bones should reside at a neutral museum location and be available for study and interpretation.  [3]

What do you think about this decision?  Are there other cases where collections ethics can be murky?

Source Citations:

1.  American Association of Museums, “Code of Ethics for Museums,” 1994.

2.  Alexander, Brian. Interview by Megan Hartmann and Araya Henry. 13 December 2013.

3.  “Who is ‘Kennewick Man,’ also known as ‘The Ancient One’?,” Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture,  Accessed 16 December, 2013.

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Accessibility to Inclusion: The Next Step

Inclusion is more than a buzzword; it embodies the broader impetus to create an open and equal forum for people of different cultures, backgrounds, or abilities.  Inclusion takes accessibility one step further, from an open door to an invitation.

Art Beyond Sight, an organization “dedicated to making the visual arts play a vital role in the lives of people who are blind and visually impaired,” redefines the responsibility of institutions toward individuals with disabilities.[1]  Rather than a diagnosis, a medical ‘problem’ that limits and defines a person, Art Beyond Sight sees disability as “a social and environmental issue that deals with accessibility, accommodations, and equity.”  This new paradigm puts the onus on institutions to adapt and accommodate people of different abilities.

The issue of physical access has largely been solved; most museums today provide accessible bathrooms, entrances, lifts, and parking.  However, many museums stop at physical accessibility.  In order to be inclusive, museums need to add another layer of accommodations, and consider exhibition layout, content, and programming.  By offering staff training and including individuals with disabilities in exhibit development, museums could foster a deeper understanding of this diverse population and begin to make simple, foundational changes to create a more welcoming atmosphere.

Individuals with disabilities constitute an underutilized community resource that could enrich the cultural discourse in museums.  By not only opening the door, but also extending an invitation through accommodations, universal design, and inclusive learning environments, museums can grow to embrace a more diverse audience.

-Kirsten Swartz


[1] “Art Beyond Sight,” Art Education for the Blind.  Accessed December 2, 2013,

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