Forever and Ever? The Idea of Permanence in the Definition of ‘Museums’

Museum: A public or private nonprofit agency or institution organized on a permanent basis for essentially educational or aesthetic purposes, which, utilizing a professional staff, owns or utilizes tangible objects, cares for them, and exhibits them to the public on a regular basis. (AAM)

Upon reading this definition, produced by the 1996 United States Museum Services Act, I am particularly intrigued by the idea of ‘permanence’ in the world of museums.  According to this definition, these revered institutions must withstand the test of time, must survive economic decline and natural disasters; museums must preserve the objects in their collections for the coming millennia!  I find this terminology to be problematic.

Not only do these mandates contribute to the perpetuity of that certain, stodgy reputation of the venerable, old museum, but they have financial repercussions as well.  One cannot hope to maintain a permanent nonprofit institution without an equally permanent source of operating funds, such as an endowment.  But in today’s world, is such a thing a reality for most museums?

Particularly daunting, is the consideration of permanence in the planning of a new museum.  The typical feasibility plan for a museum projects five years into the future. How then do we plan for permanence? In the case of a non-collecting institution, like most children’s museums, what kind of permanence is taken into consideration then?  Most importantly, given the implications and demands inherent in the definition of ‘permanence’, who would ever want to begin a new museum???

Perhaps a friendlier, more accessible word to be used in the definition of museums is not ‘permanence’ at all, but ‘relevance’.  Functional museums engage in a continual process of constant assessment and reassessment; such institutional awareness is necessary to ensure that a museum is fulfilling the needs of its community.  This process leads to planning and change within the museum and is key to maintaining relevance. Far less formidable than ‘forever’, this perpetuation of relevance gives an institution an active way to increase their potential for permanence.

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5 Responses to Forever and Ever? The Idea of Permanence in the Definition of ‘Museums’

  1. kjohnl says:

    Museums are here to stay, should not that mean that they are pernament? AAM might have choosen their wording because they want museums that are part of their organization to be museums that plan on being around for a long time.

  2. gretchensorin says:

    Would donors want to donate to impermanent institutions? Are not museums dependent on being perceived as permanent community anchors to be successful at collecting? The Museum at Brandeis is an excellent example. When they threatened to close the recent collectors were particularly incensed, unable to retrieve the treasures they thought would be permanent parts of the collection.

  3. Maria V says:

    I think when the AAM refers to permanent, they are speaking of a theoretical definition of long-lasting or enduring characteristics which are the basis for good museums.
    The idea of permanence is applied to the characteristics in which the museum is founded as outlined in the ending part of the statement: education, etc.
    So, with those permanent ideals as foundation…a museum is established. 🙂

  4. Ginny R says:

    Brooke, I was intrigued by the definition when you brought it up in class and Gretchen makes a very good point: donors would not be inclined to donate to impermanent institutions. Ideally, museums should (or we would all like for them to) be permanent institutions; issues surrounding financial viability make this impossible. Yet, I can’t help but think about the definition’s broader implications. While the definition is problematic, I think it’s best understood in a larger context. The definition is a reflection of how AAM wants museums to be perceived and overall, a reflection of Western society. Museums are largely Western institutions. Considering the scope of world history, there is nothing particularly permanent about Western society. Check back in 500 + years. However, Western societies (and their institutions, e.g. museums, etc.), project images of permanence, even if it is unreasonable and impractical to do so.

  5. Audrey Wolfe says:

    I see both sides of this tricky issue. Museums must strive for permanence, otherwise, what are they doing? In theory, they cannot put an expiration date on themselves because it goes against everything a museum is for. However, permanence is a relative term, as Ginny alludes to. Permanent is comparison to what? History? These are lofty goals.

    In the end, I believe museums have to strive for permanence as an end goal; but, since no one can really achieve permanence, I look at is more of an ideal than a hard-and-fast absolute.

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