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?
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.