Paradigm shift?

Paradigm shift.  A fancy phrase that museologists use to describe the change within the museum field over the past thirty years.  But have museums shifted as the theory suggests?  Reinventing the Museum discusses this theoretical change within our public institutions.  Authors such as Stephen Weil pontificate on how museums should no longer value the object above the visitor or build temples.  The growing emphasis on education encourages museums to create provocative exhibits addressing contemporary issues or inspiring new ways to learn old facts.  Focus on the visitor and inclusion of diverse audiences correlates with education, creating the biggest shift of all: the museum as a relevant institution that anticipates and meets the needs of its community. However, few of the authors provide specific examples of museums shifting to this new paradigm of a visitor centric, public service oriented institution. 

Yet something has certainly changed within museums over the course of the twentieth century.  The Florence Griswold Museum, for example, embraces education and creative exhibits like the Faerie Village.  Each October, contemporary artists create fairy dwellings.  Visitors learn about the inspiration of the Lyme Art Colony and contribute to the exhibit with their own pictures.  Jeff Andersen, director, counts this as one of the best exhibits due to its wide outreach while holding true to the museum’s mission in an engaging way.

Museums have changed, and continue to, but is their shift sufficient to remain relevant institutions?  Possibly.  A satisfied and engaged community is one way to tell.   

-Emily Hopkins


Anderson, Gail, ed. Reinventing the Museum.  Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2012. 

Interview with Jeff Andersen, Director of The Florence Griswold Museum, September 17, 2012.


About museumsmatter494

Welcome to my blog! I created this blog as an assignment for my Digital History class at Clemson University. In this blog you will find posts in response to readings assigned for class as well as links to sites I like and find useful in regards to public history. Enjoy!
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9 Responses to Paradigm shift?

  1. ericcgp says:

    “Authors such as Stephen Weil pontificate on how museums should no longer value the object above the visitor or build temples. The growing emphasis on education encourages museums to create provocative exhibits addressing contemporary issues or inspiring new ways to learn old facts.”


    I’m starting to find sentiments such as Mr. Weil’s to be a bit misguided. What if the visitor values the object? Isn’t that one of the big draws for the public to visit museums in the first place?

    It seems that in their quest to distance themselves from the ‘old guard approach’ to museum work/methods, museum scholars have begun to vilify the object. Excuse me for saying so, but if a 7 year old becomes inspired to learn about his or her world by looking at an object in a case, is that such a terrible thing? There can be power in the objects and this power can be harnessed by museum professionals, whether they are administrators, curators, or marketers. Also, it should go without saying that these professionals–regardless of their departmental responsibilities–have a responsibility to educate.

    Finally, how about we remember what makes a museum different from (and to many people, more compelling than) reading a history book: three-dimensional history is right in front of our eyes!

    – Eric

    • Eric,
      I completely agree! For me, an institution is not a museum if it holds no objects. Some may disagree but that is my personal opinion. The point I was making in my post is that it is no longer enough to process and preserve collections and make exhibits that are scholarly exposes lauding ideas that are not relevant to a public. Fifty years ago it was still largely acceptable to have a museum that simply cared for objects and put up an exhibit or two, audience was not the consideration that it is today. In my opinion, the most compelling exhibits are those that take an object and show how it relates to a “big idea”, such as slavery and our current racial injustice. You would have enjoyed my conversation with Jeff Andersen, the director of the Florence Griswold Museum, because we talked about this very issue. He believes that you and me and all other museum professionals of this generation will need to strike a balance between exhibits and institutions that do not use objects and rely more on crowd sourcing and ones that focus solely on the object with little regard to educating important ideas to the public. I think that without objects, there is no reason to go to a museum because the same information can be conveyed on the Internet. But I do not think that museums should think of themselves as institutions that deserve the public’s approval and financial support just because they put things in acid free boxes.
      I think that you make a point that we have to consider -that it should go without saying that these professionals need to educate. That is extremely obvious to us now and should go without saying. I think museums have also been educational institutions but the mode of teaching the public has the been the most dramatic shift. Putting a label next to an object tells the public what it is, but it doesn’t tell them why it matters or conjures up a dialogue for people to derive their own meaning of why it matters. And the audiences of museums have changed significantly since John Cotton Dana penned his essay. Now museums see it as their responsibility to educate the entire public, regardless of background. Museums in the earlier twentieth century attracted scholars and educated public, thus making exhibits that related to their lives on a level they could understand.
      Personally, I think that the “paradigm shift” is a great thing and I hope we keep the ideal of educating a public that is vast and varied and community outreach in mind as we continue forward. But, I think there is a misconception that it means objects are no longer valid or necessary for interpretation. It’s up to us to figure out how one ideal does not overshadow the other.

    • Stephen Weil is one of the profession’s greatest thinkers. As Assistant Director of the Hirshhorn Museum he was a tremendous lover of objects, particularly contemporary art. His concern was that some museums valued objects more than they valued the people they served. Should objects to be collected just for the sake of collecting? Or, are they collected to display to the public? Museums are fond of saying that objects speak to people. Many objects are mute. They only “speak” or have meaning in the right context or as perhaps Nina Simon would say in a participatory environment.

      • The way we talk about objects often suggests they have feelings or a life of their own. I think many museums are still collecting for the sake of collecting. However, I think museums also believe that collecting as much as possible will allow them to make that once-in-a-lifetime exhibit one day. But the cost of collections takes away from important programming and meaningful exhibits inspired by “big ideas” rather than objects. Striking a balance between resources for collections care and funding for programming is one of the challenge Stephen Weil seems to suggest.

    • Eric, I can’t say I agree with you, but I respect your opinion. I wonder if museum professionals are looking for ways of engaging more visitors with objects as well as those who have been excluded by the old guard approach.

  2. evanme28 says:

    Faerie Village sounds amazing! Popular culture has been heavily engaged into fantasy and science fiction over the past few years and it is no wonder! With the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, there has been a resurgence of fantasy in the media in TV shows like Once Upon a Time and films such as Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. What a great opportunity for museums to touch on both history and popular culture while engaging new audiences! Check this out:

    • Yes, I really wanted to visit the Faerie Village but did not have the chance. Thanks for sharing this article! This is a great example of how museums can present less academic topics in an engaging and meaningful way. I know I learn the most and become more creative when I see fun things like this.

  3. kwoodling says:

    I personally really appreciate Stephen Weil’s comment. How many museums house thousands of objects that are not being seen or examined, either by the public or even the museum professionals themselves? In that case, what’s the point of those objects? I cannot really think of any. However, I think objects need to be used by museums in a specific context to tell a story or start a dialogue. Personally, I believe museums should be facilitators of discussion not hallowed halls that tell me what I should or should not think or believe. Objects are an excellent way to engage in that discussion, but its not the only way.

  4. I think Stephen Weil is right in saying something that needed to be said -it’s our responsibility to move beyond preserving objects and move towards public service. As we have been talking more and more in class I have become more open to the idea of shared authority. I’ve always been a supporter of participatory exhibits but I also struggled with how we guide visitors in those type of experiences. I agree with Nina Simon that we have to provide scaffolding for those participatory activities but after Frank Vagnone’s presentation of the “Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums” I’m beginning to question how we guide visitors in looking at objects and ask them to participate. In fact, do we need to guide them at all? I still think yes, to some extent, but I believe there are so many more creative possibilities for the use of objects that requires a great deal of “letting go.”

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