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.