Ask any museum professional and they will tell you that the museum you see today is not your grandfather’s museum. Over the last century or so, the museum as an institution has seen a massive paradigm shift from a focus based largely on the collections held within the physical structure to the visitors who choose to patronize it. From the beginning of the 20th century, pioneers in the field such as John Cotton Dana of the Newark Museum of Art have sought after the engagement of the museum with its local community, and for the museum to become more accessible to the public both metaphorically and physically. The museum would attain this accessibility through the context of community engagement and education, bringing us to the modern museum with these concepts at its core.
I spoke with Nicole Leist, Assistant Manager of Adult and Academic Programs at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, and she had a highly positive view on the modern museum’s identity. Nicole believes that the move away from the isolated Ivory Tower museum has been a boon to the institution and has been one of sheer practicality. For instance, the Rubin Museum, with its extensive Himalayan art collection, would fail if it did not seek to engage its local community in Chelsea, which is almost entirely composed of non-Himalayan cultures. The story of the modern museum is one of nature; if the museum does not evolve with society then it will face extinction.