Past, Present, and Future: Museums and the Public

We live in an exciting world where museums are changing more than ever.  Advances in technology, communication and interpretation practices are shaking up a relatively slow moving field.  Through these changes museums must remember their purpose: serving the public.  I think this argument was best stated by Amanda Manahan, the Collections and Interpretation Coordinator at Hanford Mills Museum, who said “If museums are not for people, then what are they for?”

This theoretical shift of questioning the purpose of museums is not new.  Scholars like John Cotton Dana and Duncan F. Cameron called for it throughout the twentieth century and their words formed the foundation for modern day scholars who advocate for the public.  In 1992, professionals across the museum field created Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums.  This American Museum Association publication argues that the main purpose of museums is to serve and educate the public while reflecting a more diverse world.  To AAM, this is what the museum field should be all about.

Then why bother with objects? The tradition of collecting, preserving, and placing objects on the wall for quiet contemplation still exists in many museums, but just because people are looking at objects does not mean they learning.  Museums are experimenting with different ways of engaging audiences to create a meaningful and educational experience. Objects in reinvented museums are used to tell a story or promote dialogue, connecting the visitor to what they see and educating them about the past.

Works Consulted:

American Association of Museums. Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums. Washington D.C.: American Association of Museums, 1992.

Anderson, Gail ed. Reinventing the Museum: The Evolving Conversation on the Paradigm Shift. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2012.

Interview with Amanda Manahan, Collections and Interpretation Coordinator at Hanford Mills Museum.  September 28, 2015.

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21 Responses to Past, Present, and Future: Museums and the Public

  1. Anna says:

    If museums are using an object to create a launch point for discussion do they still need to have good interpretation of the object? Or does the object become just a visual aid?

  2. kwebberj says:

    The way the changes in theory are resulting in actual transitions on the ground in museum work is impressive. Good to see museum workers in the field keeping the audience in mind.

  3. juliafell17 says:

    I am really interested in how collections can be brought forward with the paradigm shift. The importance of the objects remains the same, but clearly the way they are used must change with the times. I think that the collaboration between collections and education departments must develop, perhaps with involvement from curators. Collections managers and curators are the safe guarders of the objects, but at what point does a collection stop being useful if it can not be experienced in any way besides visually?

    • peytonktracy says:

      I agree. Objects can still have a lot of power, but it’s how they are interpreted. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam made otherwise potentially art that might have been somewhat inaccessible to the general public without an in depth art history background accessible through unique interpretation that made it relevant to the viewer and prompt a different way of thinking about it. I think that this is a new challenge for museums to bridge that gap between collections, education, and the visitor experience to make those connections more easily rather than just declare objects obsolete.

  4. Leanne says:

    I think this shift towards a more public and education centered museum leads to another interesting philosophical discussion; Do museums need objects? or collections? Can you do exhibits and programming without them?

    • lucega96 says:

      This is a great question. I really liked your example of Behold! New Lebanon below as a museum without a collection. I do not think objects and collections are essential for museums, but they are important. Objects add physical context and presence to a greater narrative. Objects show us literal pieces of the history or culture we learn. I think there is a danger, however, in displaying objects for the object’s sake without drawing in connections or a narrative. As we discussed in Intro last week, Fred Wilson really got to the heart of this in his Mining the Museum exhibit. He used seemingly disparate objects in the MHS collection to encourage dialogue and interpretation of race-related issues. Before, these objects were stored away or displayed for their value as historical items rather than for their agency as symbols of racism and oppression.

      • I agree! I think museums should view their collections more as educational tools rather than priceless untouchable artifacts that can only be interpreted by curators and scholars. In addition, it is important for museums to consider all of the different stories objects have the potential to tell, rather than to continue interpreting them as they have been interpreted for years. As you mentioned, Fred Wilson was able to do this in a way that was impactful and thought-provoking. Hopefully the paradigm shift will help encourage institutions to use their collections to more effectively reach the public.

  5. emerbr84 says:

    If objects become obsolete, are museums as well? Would we be reclassified as educational institutions? I think they are necessary in terms of museums. A museum without an object is a strange concept. To me it would be more like an extended learning center using community activities and lectures (not a bad thing), rather than a window to the past using remnants of past cultures. Object are imperative to the museum, how they are used in serving the mission is not the important thing, but the objects are.

    • Leanne says:

      Behold! New Lebanon has no formal collections. They are still a museum, right? (Totally playing devil’s advocate by the way because I think it is an interesting concept)

      • pnorman02 says:

        I think Behold! New Lebanon is a great example. It is a museum without walls and collections, but it succeeds in creating an educational environment. Also, because their focus is not object interpretation, they are better able to interact with their community. Not only does the community participate, but the community is invested in seeing the museum succeed. That’s an incredibly powerful thing when it comes to staying relevant in a community.

  6. peteglog says:

    What role does aesthetics play in education? Do we look at a painting because it educates us or because we think it is beautiful? Objects have more than one role in museums. The object can serve us aesthetically, educational, entertainment, etc. In the end, aren’t objects/collections tools for museums to go about their missions?

  7. thankyouluke says:

    As we talk more and more about an emphasis on dialogue with the public, I often ask myself what role objects will play in the future. It appears that over the past several hundred years, objects have become less and less central to what museums are about and more of a means to an ends (if that makes sense). From the curiosity cabinets, to a Ivory Tower, to a center of dialogue, objects have become less important in and of themselves, and more important in representing movements, ideals, and ways of life!

  8. shaual96 says:

    It seems like objects had a paradigm shift themselves. Museums moved from collecting to education based institutions. Personally, I believe that a museum needs to have some sort of collection, but I wonder if those collections have to be physical? In Digital Technologies, we’ve been learning about how digital technologies and augmented reality can be a new way to experience the museum. Can collections be digital, but based on a physical object owned by a museum? Can they be purely digital and can these collections be shared among institutions? What are the benefits? What are the challenges?

  9. at01lang says:

    When I think of collections, I am always struck by the stark dichotomy that exists between large museums who often have expansive collections of many eras and places, and smaller museums who often have few collections pertaining to an individual area (and are often the sole cultural resource in that area). How can small museums make themselves matter? As I see it, the nature of the museum as an educational and community institution combine with object interpretation to create more honest competition between large and small. For while the Met and the Smithsonian will always have larger collections and endowments, small institutions, in their collections and focus, can craft a framework more representative and relevant to the community. In this way, the interpretation of objects can resonate along local lines of meaning, and better underscore how what is familiar to people has broader significance. This, as I see it, is the philosophy for how the small museum capitalizes on the objects it does have in a way that embodies the localized ethos of the paradigm shift.

  10. hoffsm90 says:

    This is certainly an interesting topic. I do think objects are still important, but they are tools used to tell a story. They are vital tools and I don’t think we should consider getting rid of collections, but more along the lines of making sure that our objects in collections help us tell the stories that our communities want/ need to hear and learn from as well as start conversations and facilitate change. Behold! New Lebanon is a great example of a museums without collections and I do think we will start to see more of those since they are finding other tools to tell their stories, but I don’t think collections will become obsolete any time soon.

  11. joshdtaylor says:

    I still feel the need for objects though since it still a key part of the museum experience. Yes, it does seem like an old fashioned view but objects can serve new purposes if we just allow them to be used rather then sit in a dusty storage space.

  12. saraumland says:

    About the growing demand and use of technology, can we look at collections as not doing away with them but using technology to change the way we use them? What if we changed our tactics and used technology to create a learning space that incorporates the collection and the people in the community together? We may not be able to at this point but in the future focusing on the community by the use of technology and collections as a combination to do so.

  13. kiewma93 says:

    Are curators on their way out and how are they having to adjust as the community becomes more involved in museum content?

  14. jehartman93 says:

    I’m really interested in my colleagues’ opinions on virtual exhibit tours and digitized collections. All of us at CGP can agree that museums exist “for the people.” In my view, museums should be digitizing collections and offering virtual tours for a global audience as means of educating as many people as possible.However, I also agree with Cindy Falk who asserts that artifacts are “multi-sensory,” and that visitors can learn more from seeing and even touching specific artifacts than they can from viewing them on a computer screen. So where should museums invest their time and money? Into curating expansive, easily accessible, and updated online collections? Or into traveling exhibitions and tourism?

    • karissa430 says:

      I think this is an interesting thought. In my opinion, museums and funding institutions (NEH, IMLS, NEA…) should focus on online, compelling, dynamic collections databases and exhibitions. Collections stewardship is pretty well established in professional standards, so I think its appropriate to switch gears and invest in digital access and displays of objects.

  15. mickcr says:

    It is interesting to think about objects meaning different things, monetary value, educational value, or cultural value. This makes it difficult to discern the actual meaning of an object and how it should be used.

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