Museums and Public Service

Museums have long been seen by the public as educational institutions – these buildings can sometimes be an impressive and intimidating way for people to interact with objects and interpretation of our past. In John Cotton Dana’s 1917 article The Gloom of the Museum, Dana encourages museum leaders to expand operating hours, cease the deification of objects, and if possible, move to a centrally located facility within reach of pubic transportation in order to effectively reach the widest variety of people and the largest populations groups. The Gloom of the Museum was ahead of its time, as many 21st century museums grapple with issues of accessibility and visitor engagement.

The age-old question seems to be, simply put, how can a museum be an effective resource in an ever-changing community? Also, should museums be restricted to duty as an educational repository of artifacts and objects, or is it acceptable for museums to act as a community service center?

Megan Wood (CGP Class of 2005), the Visitor Experience Department Manager for the Ohio Historical Center, in Columbus, Ohio feels that museums have a responsibility to the residents in the surrounding area to act as a safe community space where people can gather, learn, and interact with each other. Wood feels that museums of the 21st century should be encouraged to see their mission more broadly to encourage creative uses for its space (for instance: hosting art groups, community clinics, information centers). She also feels that museums as a whole need to be more proactive at letting the community know that they are changing, or have changed, from objects in a case to community gathering spaces – the concept of being “trained” that museums are a place you go with your school on a grade school field trip came up in our conversation as a barrier in most communities that museums are situated in today.

Megan Wood urges future museum professionals to remember that the public is anyone they do, or may, serve in any way. While this is an admittedly broad statement, museums must broaden their own perspectives on public service in order to succeed in the future. In the words of Megan Wood regarding her own institution, “we hold our collections in care for the people of the state of Ohio, and we must remember that’s why we’re here in the first place.”

Since few, if any, museums can pick up and move to centralized locations or museum campuses (which Megan Wood admits are the best case scenario for museums – a way of one stop shopping for families and ease of accessibility):

•What are ways in which museums can be an active member of its community?
•Is it appropriate to have a community service, such as a walk-in health clinic, operating alongside museum collections in the same building?
•How can museum professionals better inform the public of changing priorities or mindsets of museum administration to encourage community involvement?
•Should new-build museums have the focus on centralized locations and proximity to transit hubs as Dana’s The Gloom of the Museum suggests?

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