Not Inevitable, Eternal, Ideal, nor Divine

Much has been written about the “paradigm shift” in museum philosophy over nearly the last century.  This shift has largely been characterized by a change from an internal, collections focused institution to an external, visitor focused one.  But what does this really mean?  And how are museums actually changing?

John Cotton Dana complained of “The Gloom of the Museum” back in 1917, and the museum world has only really started catching up with him in the last 20-25 years.  In order for museums to keep up with the ever-changing needs and desires of modern audiences, they will need to think harder about how to best serve their communities’ needs. 

Liz Callahan, director of the Hanford Mills Museum, spoke to me about the evolving role of museums in today’s society.  In her experience, it is not just the development of “The Experience Economy” in the United States that has pushed the change in museums, but the “commoditization of stuff.”  According to her, the growth of auctions websites like ebay and shows like Pawn Stars, American Pickers, and Storage Wars has skewed people’s view of “importance” – is an object valuable for its history or for how much it will sell?  Further, as many of the pre-baby boomers have died, she has noticed a dearth of people interested in very specific local history.  So what does a small, rural museum do to remain relevant in such an environment?

For Hanford Mills, at least, the answer lies building a strong relationship with the local community.  The museum has developed a number of school programs to encourage appreciation of the community through photography, and since the demographics of the area are changing, it has tried to build bridges across a diverse population to encourage respect and understanding.  The museum has also considered becoming a free wi-fi hotspot for the community since it is very rural and there are a number of people with limited internet access.  These programs not only benefit the community but help solidify the museum’s position in that community

Is this the kind of action that all or even most museums should pursue? 

-Lindsey Marolt


John Cotton Dana. The Gloom of the Museum (Elm Tree Press, Woodstock, Vermont) 1917.

B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore. “The Experience Economy.” in Museum News (March/April 1999).

Interview with Liz Callahan, Director of The Hanford Mills Museum, September 13, 2012.


About lindseymarolt

I like museums, books, history, pop culture, and feminism. I especially like when those things mix. Cooperstown Graduate Program class of 2014.
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4 Responses to Not Inevitable, Eternal, Ideal, nor Divine

  1. The commodification of all objects is certainly taking center stage in terms of value discussions. I would add to the list of popular presentations even the PBS offering of Antiques Roadshow. The punchline to everything is how old is it, but moreso, how much is it worth. In some ways the small rural museum seems to have the advantage as they can truly contextualize their objects within a local setting. One of the most impressive I have seen is the Pearl Button Museum in Muscatine Iowa. Here is their website:

    Here is a blog I posted on the place:

    This Museum successfully incorporates the living community and its cultural heritage into the entire experience. They are ridiculously low-tech but completely engaging. For objects, where they move past the TV commodification. On Antiques Road Show et al, the story is only to increase the economic value. In the case of the small rural museums as in Muscatine, the value is the story.

  2. mbalexander says:

    I think there has always been an element of monetary value and worth in museums. There is always that popular idea that since it is in a museum it must be worth a great deal of money, or else why would it be there. Thus the term: “museum quality”. I think this comes because, for the longest time, museums were only showing their “best” most expensive items in their collection.
    I think the paradigm shift noted above has changed how museums look at the concept of “worth” and “value.” Items now are often considered by their intrinsic cultural or historical “value” that is not necessarily tied to money. I see this as a direct result of the paradigm shift. In bringing in the community and promoting museums as places of education museum professionals were forced to reinterpret how objects are valued and what the definition of “value” entails.
    I think it is up to museum professionals to encourage awareness of objects for value other than monetary. I think the rise in popularity of shows like American Pickers and Antique Roadshow gives museums a great importunity to connect with new audiences that are driven to museums to see objects of “value.” By engaging a conversation about the definitions of value and worth museums are promoting the paradigm shift. I also think Robert Connolly also makes a great point about the value of any object being its story, and that is a powerful concept that museums are best equipped to illustrate.

  3. dlewisarfm says:

    “Just because something’s old, doesn’t mean it’s valuable. Dirt is old! Million’s of years old, but will you pay me a million dollars for it?” — LOL — that quote was from one of the principals of “Pawn Stars” when asked to value on something that was “really, really *really*” old. Needless to say the object’s owner wasn’t too happy, with the Pawn-star’s $50 estimate! *wink*

    I actually think some of these shows are helping to educate the public on “value” (financial, and historic). The story (the myth perhaps?) of the little-old-lady who striped and repainted her old chest just before showing it on Antique Roadshow, has become a 20th Century cautionary-tale. The Pawn Stars are always asking about the back-story, and they frequently bring in subject-matter experts (one of whom is a curator at the local historical museum) to provide some historical interpenetration along with an estimate of financial worth*.

    *It’s rewarding to note that the local museum curator makes it a point to NEVER provide the Pawn Stars with a financial estimate of “value/worth” and he’s repeatedly explained on camera the distinction between historical and financial value. Kudos to him!

  4. lindseymarolt says:

    I think you all are totally right that the value of any object is its story. And I think part of the paradigm shift includes a conscious effort, in history museums at least, to contextualize objects and encourage visitors to see objects as connections to past events, as key elements in the story, rather than as interesting things. That certainly seems like a way to fight commodification of museum objects.

    Maybe the history presented even on those treasure-hunter type shows would be improved if there were more people like local history museum curator on Pawn Stars. This seems like yet another reason (to borrow the topic of Meghan’s “That Belongs In A Museum!” post) for museums to engage positively with movies and television.

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