The Public Matters

The paradigm shift of museums has changed the focus from collections and conservation, to educational programming and community engagement. What exactly does this mean for museums as we have come to know them? Many museum directors are now realizing that their most important audience is not the elitists and scholars that have been the focus in the past. Instead, these leaders are realizing that it is in fact the communities surrounding their institutions that are of the most importance. From this idea, many questions arise. How can museums find ways to interest their relevant demographics? What services can they provide to enhance the communities that surround them?

Educational centers within museums have become a means to answer these questions. Interactive exhibits and programming incite dialogue and the sharing of diverse perspectives and ideas; in the past these would have never had been mentioned. Museums have moved from temples of knowledge to forums of intellectual expression. This shift has the power to bring in people of all ages, educational backgrounds, and ethnicities, and in turn bring about a new wave of ideas to portray the unheard stories of the global community.

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23 Responses to The Public Matters

  1. Anna says:

    How does this shift change staffing in the museum world? I’d be interested to know if museums are hiring more community/outreach staff than before or if it’s still the same.

  2. kwebberj says:

    I think your “What services can they provide to enhance the communities that surround them?” question is key. It connects to the push towards education and general engagement.

  3. juliafell17 says:

    Is it possible for a temple and a forum to exist within the same institution? Can a traditional museum with space set aside for an educational center perform both functions? I hadn’t thought of that possibility before and now I’m very curious about simultaneous, but split functions. If it were to work, that museum could appeal to guests who crave the interactive experience, as well as those who prefer a peaceful reflection. And those could be the same person on different days! I wonder if there are museums that already offer this type of setting?

    • kiewma93 says:

      I don’t know if there are museums that already offer this type of setting, but it is something I have been wondering about too. It seems to me that they should naturally coexist in this manner.

  4. emerbr84 says:

    Within this paradigm shift I think it is curious that there is still no large scale movement to return objects acquired through imperialism and colonialism, in order to allow the artifacts to be better interpreted by the groups and cultures that created them.

  5. peteglog says:

    That is interesting. Do we serve only our communities in a certain radius from the museum? Say in our local town. Or should museums serve communities across the globe? If museums shift to focus on serving communities across the globe, should repatriation of stolen/looted objects be seen as a must do?Historically museums have coveted their collections for only a few to experience. now it seems museums are more likely to use objects for educational means. Will they move toward returning illegally acquired objects from the past? If we invite communities who have ties to the object or exhibit to give their voice, should we give the far away community in another country their voice, if it is their culture we attempt to interpret? I think so.

  6. thankyouluke says:

    I wonder what percentage of the population is still intimidated by the museum. I can think of plenty of museums that really put their mission first and dedicate themselves to serving, educating, and including the public. I also know of museums still stuck in a pre-shift mentality. What does the public think of the museum field in general? Do they see think of museums as a whole as temples or forums? It would be interesting to see if the public perceives the shift as we do!

    • pnorman02 says:

      I find this interesting as well. As I read through the post, all I could think about was how much power the public actually has concerning museums. If a community feels unwelcome, underrepresented, or misrepresented they have the power to stop attending a certain museum. Without the support of a community, a museum wouldn’t survive. But, how does a community overcome the intimidation in order to demand change within a museum? I feel like a lot of this intimidation still stems from the slow transition from temple to forum.

  7. shaual96 says:

    Going off of Luke’s comment, I wonder how many people are intimidated by the physical presence of a museum? Could this be a source of disconnection? Many museums are housed as singular entities with four walls. Behold! New Lebanon was a challenge to this classic concept and I wonder if it would be beneficial to see more institutions use this approach in the future. With that in mind, how can existing institutions “break down their walls?”

  8. at01lang says:

    Within the larger question of sharing authority, when museums interpret issues of local relevance, where and how is the community’s voice utilized? Many museums sometimes feature community curated exhibitions where members of the community are the key facilitators of content, and museum staff occupy a consultant role. Is this something that museums should embrace as a recurring feature, places where the community can always possess an interpretive say on a variety of topics? Or does the museum need to reserve their authority and broker negotiated interpretations alongside community interests?

  9. hoffsm90 says:

    Interesting commentary and comments to it. With the paradigm shift, museums are expected to connect with community, focusing on education and outreach, but seeing as we live in a global society, there has also been pressure to expand that community on a global level with the technologies we now have available to us. There are a variety of ways for museums to break down their walls and reach a larger community. I believe this mindset would help break that ivory tower museum idea, but I do not know if we have reached that point yet. I would like to see the numbers on how well museums have integrated this new ideology since I too know many museums that do not seem to have participated in the paradigm shift. Will these museums be left behind in the next few years? Is another shift on its way?

  10. lucega96 says:

    I really liked your conclusion about museums getting to a point where they can share “the unheard stories” of the communities they serve. In this sense, it is more about the people telling museums what stories need to be told rather than museums determining what stories to tell. Museums should start asking, what story does my community need me to tell? – in addition to what programs, education, and service can I provide for my community?

  11. Hillary says:

    I like how you ended the post with emphasis on the “global community.” The paradigm shift described in this post as the move towards education has the potential to create a broader community. If museums are going to thrive the institution must spark a dialogue with the patrons; hopefully the visitors will then take their impressions and questions out into the world shaping themselves and those she or he encounters.

  12. jehartman93 says:

    Sam, I love your ending line–especially the part about the potential for museums to “portray the unheard stories of the global community”. This idea had me thinking about the recent scandal over the MFA’s interactive kimono activity designed to accompany Claude Monet’s “Le Japonaise” painting. Protestors at the MFA argued that the kimono activity promoted the decontextualization of kimonos and cultural appropriation, while counterprotestors argued that the MFA was merely attempting to share Japanese culture with visitors in an honest way. The drama surrounding the kimono activity motivated Matthew Teitelbaum, Director of the MFA, to plan a “future symposium…on art history and traditions of representation.” So it would appear that even misguided attempts engage the public with ‘the unheard stories of the global community’ can succeed in sparking conversations about broader themes (like stereotyping and colonialism) that are relevant to the public.

    (My source:

  13. emily_pfeil says:

    Your last sentence about a movement to “bring about a new wave of ideas to portray the unheard stories of the global community” is truly essential. However, museum professionals are still the ones creating these programs. Is their shift in focus enough to bring about this change? I think that we should make sure to actually involve community members from time to time when creating these educational programs in order to actually get their genuine stories.

  14. fundmc55 says:

    Sam – I think your comment about institutions bridging the gap to better reach their communities is a key factor within the paradigm shift. We are seeing an important shift toward more community minded institutions interpreting more diverse perspectives. What an exciting (and challenging!) time to be emerging museum professionals!

  15. kiewma93 says:

    Last week I read about the Nation Museum of the American Indian, they used community curators to inform their exhibit “Our Lives.” This was an excellent example of the shift in the way museums put on exhibitions. It is no longer intellectuals spreading their knowledge, but the larger community is able to add first hand knowledge. While having community curators can present its own set of problems, I believe it is important to have as much input from them as possible.

  16. scalje70 says:

    After reading this post, it leaves me wondering how many visitors have been gained because of the change in the availability of education in museums. I feel as though many parents would be more enticed to bring their children to an institution where they can leave feeling as though they have learned something new.

  17. joshdtaylor says:

    Very well spoken. I still wonder if the new age of education has taken effect on the younger generations. If they still see the museum as a stale place of objects then even the best education program will fall short. The outreach to bring in the education to the community is fair but if a museum create a different view then i feel the younger generations will be willing to learn more.

    • peytonktracy says:

      Agreed, and how they bring their narratives and information to the community must evolve as well. People today learn differently than they ever learned before, and take in more information in a day than ever before, thanks to technology. So how the information is presented to the community – and the global community, again thanks to technology – is just as key as the movement to do it in the first place.

  18. welceq51 says:

    What I find particularly intriguing about this paradigm shift is how much it coincides with the changing financial atmosphere of the museum world. I wonder if part of this paradigm shift isn’t due, at least in part, to these financial struggles as museums seek to gain more visitors to try and increase revenue in order to keep their doors open. How much of a role does the economy play into this shift in the profession?

  19. eremy465 says:

    Community connections are clearly important with any nonprofit, especially in museums where the immediate community is the main audience. However, from my experience, a lot of public programming tends to cater to the same groups again and again. This makes me wonder how much museum professionals inadvertently influence their audience demographics by offering similar programming.

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