The Museum Metamorphosis

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.

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23 Responses to The Museum Metamorphosis

  1. varljt75 says:

    Sounds like a groovy place. How are they adapting to their community? I’m curious.

  2. Anna says:

    As museums change to be more about community engagement/involvement I wonder how they navigate their mission. Do they do a complete overhaul of their mission statement, do they change parts of it? How does this change allocation of resources?

    • shaual96 says:

      I really like this consideration, Anna. How do you get a museum that’s so specific to engage with it’s community? Do they deviate from their missions already? Or how can museums make their mission statements reflect that?

  3. kwebberj says:

    It’s interesting to think about how a museum that’s somewhat constrained by its collection (in that the materials might not automatically make connections with the local community) can think of new ways to make the collection relevant.

    • fundmc55 says:

      Kate, I thought about this too. How can a museum with collections that seem disconnected from its local community stay relevant? The Rubin seems to be meeting that challenge head-on with some insightful creativity! Thanks for the great example Geoff!

  4. juliafell17 says:

    I am curious to know how the Rubin Museum engages their community in Himalayan culture. At least in my personal experience as a New York resident, there is not a lot of common knowledge about that region of the world. It strikes me that promoting an exhibit about a topic on which there is a lot of common knowledge may be a lot easier, at least in terms of marketing, than one which features a relatively unknown topic. And all the more reason for education, when it comes to presenting a culture which is just as rich an important as any other!

    • pnorman02 says:

      I agree. I am also curious how the Rubin makes their collections relevant to the Chelsea community. How do they make themselves relevant and how do they keep the local community coming back? It would be interesting to find out what challenges the public programming department faces in regards to presenting an unfamiliar culture.

  5. emerbr84 says:

    If it is really creating a better environment for museums, why are we seeing decreased funding and more museums closing doors? Are those simply organizations unwilling to adapt, or are all of the new aspects of the museum making it harder to financially sustain an institution? I think we need to evaluate the closing of museums in order to truly determine the effectiveness of the paradigm shift. I do think it is a great thing, but we have yet to talk about any really negative aspects of the shift and as with anything there are going to be negatives that need to be address. Do these institutions experience an employee overhaul that sees those unwilling to suddenly shift views disappear? Is it always feasible for an institution to take such a drastic risk in an attempt to be more “appealing”?

  6. peteglog says:

    Are there examples of the shift in museums on the west coast? Both the Rubin and Newark Museum are located on the east coast as specific examples. I wonder how the paradigm shift is played out across the country and even across the globe? Can the paradigm shift in the United States be seen in Europe or Japan? What does the paradigm shift look like in other countries with different cultures than ours?

  7. thankyouluke says:

    Well said, Geoff! Though the economy is getting better and museums are recovering from the financial collapse of 2007-08, it is crucial that they keep the public in mind when developing and “evolving”

    • scalje70 says:

      You make a good point Luke! I think that it is easy to focus on financial struggles when they do occur and allow your mind to stray from the original purpose of the museum.

  8. hoffsm90 says:

    An interesting situation. It’s certainly one that many museums are still struggling with. We’ve talked before about how change in museums is slow and the paradigm shift is far from completion. I think it’s an essential shift that truly serves our purpose of being cultural institutions held in the public trust for the public, but that doesn’t make it easy. i share similar concerns with mission statements and involving the public in topics that are not easily a community concern. I am also curious to hear what the Rubin museum does in this regard. Do museums have to change their focus/ mission or even change location in order to find a better community to serve?There are so many factors that lead to museums closing their doors today that I do believe that have to truly be for the public and a service to the community. The paradigm shift is an essential change for museums and is still in progress.

    • Hillary says:

      Sarah brings up a great point about mission statements and the shift in museums. Does the current mission statement of museums uphold the current trend of museums shifting towards a community focus or is the new focus contradicting the current mission statement? Does the mission statement of the Rubin Museum reflect what Nicole Leist has said is on her agenda at the museum?

  9. at01lang says:

    I look at Leist’s comment on the benefits of the paradigm shift to the museum environment in two ways. On the one hand, it cannot be ignored that much of museum’s successes and new financial sustainability come from community engagement and the cultivation of new audiences. On the other hand, museums face an unprecedented environment of financial and operational struggles. The difficulties museums experience come in a context where public and government support to museums has been historically slashed, and the museum has endured a long, awkward experience in the free market, where museums more rapidly either move ahead or fall behind. What I see with the focus of the paradigm shift is a form of public engagement that has crafted successes in the face of market challenges, making it a question of the position the museum would be in without taking these steps.

  10. lucega96 says:

    I think the Rubin is a really interesting example within the context of the paradigm shift. As you mentioned in class and in the post, Geoff, the museum’s community does not necessarily reflect the collection it houses. The idea of keeping and displaying Himalayan art in an area of well-to-do folks for their study and benefit hearkens back to the Ivory Tower concept. Such a collection should be shared, enjoyed by, and engaged with everyone – not just those with the means and proximity to do so. It seems like the Rubin, from what you said in class, is really making an effort to reach more diverse and relevant communities outside of Chelsea.

  11. jehartman93 says:

    I do love the Rubin and make it a point to stay updated on their upcoming programs and events. The museum makes an effort to engage the Chelsea community on so many levels–they function as a community arts center, of sorts. I wonder how they go about engaging the involvement and support of new immigrants from Himalayan regions. Furthermore, I wonder what their philosophy is as an art museum regarding the incorporation of individual narratives and oral history testimony into their exhibitions.

    (Link to the Rubin’s programs page:

  12. emily_pfeil says:

    I was really interested in how the Rubin is handling these challenges and I hope to be able to visit the museum soon. Like Greer said I think that sharing these collections should be as broad as possible. It’s all about making connections. Even though the Himalayan collection might not be obviously relevant to the local community, there is most likely a way to connect the two. Also we shouldn’t limit ourselves to exhibits that are always familiar to the community. After all museums are about education, and this can include new and varying perspectives.

  13. scalje70 says:

    It’s wonderful to see that more and more museums are moving forward as opposed to being stuck in the past. After reading the Rubin Museum’s mission statement, I was impressed. I was very happy to see their focus on allowing individuals to make connections when they enter the museum, this museum is definitely one that is headed in the right direction.

  14. joshdtaylor says:

    On many i feel that this switch to the community focus was out of basic survival for museums. They had to adapt the the changes in the community in order to get feet in the door. In this way, I feel once the curators realized they had to cater the public rather then expect the public to show up is one of the driving forces to lead to this change.

  15. welceq51 says:

    What I find so exciting about the Rubin’s take on the way it displays its seemingly unrelated (to the community that is) collection is the way in which it legitimizes that culture within the community. Since the paradigm shift is still occurring, many museum goers arguably view museums under the concept of the Ivory Tower, and simply by displaying Himalayan art in a very non-Himalayan community only helps to legitimize that culture group because the “educated experts” of the museum see it as important enough to display! The underlying anthropological relationships in this specific example mixed with the paradigm shift are really quite compelling!

  16. peytonktracy says:

    I find the parallel to museums surviving extinction by coming down off the Ivory Tower really compelling. By making itself accessible to audiences in general rather than the elite of a specific society, it gives itself more options on which to thrive – both with a greater variety in audience and potential subject matter. So the Rubin’s choice to not only make themselves accessible to anyone and everyone who wants to visit in the bustle of New York City, but to make the subject matter – Himalayan history – accessible to audiences as well by placing their collection in a community that is not particularly Himalayan appeals to what population that comes from that area but also people who might never otherwise have the chance to see and study it. Both would generate interest, and both open up huge venues on which to thrive.

  17. eremy465 says:

    The paradigm shift poses an interesting condition to many larger, more well-known museums. Education and public programming have become crucial to smaller institutions in order to capture the attention of the public, but how is this seen in larger institutions that have the ability to depend on name recognition to draw an audience?

  18. grahlm87 says:

    Interesting, I wonder how smaller places are working to make the shift in a cost effective manner. It can be difficult to determine what changes will still be relevant enough in five years to invest in.

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