In the 1917 screed The Gloom of the Museum, John Cotton Dana complained that American museums were too much like, “remote palaces and temples, filled with objects not closely associated with the life of the people who are asked to get pleasure and profit from them, and so arranged and administered to make them seem more remote.”
Dana would be disappointed to discover that much of the public today still levels the same charges against museums that he did almost one hundred years ago. In 2008, an independently-run social commentary website called The Pinky Show posted a video discussion about museums, cleverly titled, “We Love Museums… Do Museums Love Us Back?” Using a tongue-in-cheek cartoon, The Pinky Show criticizes museums today in a way that directly echoes Dana, arguing that they are still elitist, mysterious, temple-like institutions.
So what can museums do to change their public image and become “outward-looking institutions?” While Dana’s suggestions that museums institute regular opening hours, move to city centers, and depict everyday life provide good starting points, these are not enough. Museums today need to find new ways of reaching into their communities.
The Philip Foster Farm, a living history site located in a rural community outside Portland, Oregon, is trying to do just that. Under the leadership of Elaine Butler, the Farm’s site manager, and Jamie Damon, the President of the Board, the PFF has worked to engage the community, especially by offering volunteer opportunities to teenagers. This year, they took their role in the community a step further. They partnered with an online charter school, and are now offering a curriculum to select students that includes history, public service, customer relations, and trades.
Playing such a new role in a small community can be tricky, though. In my conversation with Elaine Butler, she noted that the PFF’s board does worry about how working with other organizations might affect the site’s reputation. If a student misbehaves, how will that change the image of the Farm? If the charter school comes under fire, will the Farm get swept along in the negative press? Additionally, because the school-in-a-museum concept is so new, partner organizations have sometimes been skeptical. Elaine laughingly stressed that she has to attend partner meetings armed to the teeth with assurances that she doesn’t want to invade their “turf” or make more work for them.
Nevertheless, Elaine and the Philip Foster Farm are optimistic. Though they only have five students this year, they are hoping to grow to about thirty students for the next academic year. More importantly, Elaine is committed to public service. Though the Philip Foster Farm is the only museum where she has worked, she intuitively knows that small museum can’t exist without community support. “The strength of the community,” she declared, “is the strength of the organization.”
If there’s a better mantra for the modern, outward-looking museum, I don’t know what it is.
John Cotton Dana. The Gloom of the Museum (Elm Tree Press, Woodstock, Vermont) 1917.
“We Love Museums… Do Museums Love Us Back?” The Pinky Show. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaFbmuEUdwI (access October 30, 2011)
Stephen E. Weil. “From Being About Something to Being For Somebody: The Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum.” in Daedalus; Vol 128 No. 3. 229-258.
Interview with Elaine Butler, Site Manager at the Philip Foster Farm, October 29, 2011.