The irrelevance of relevance

May 18, 2014

Image source: Flickr Commons

OLD-ISH CONTENT WARNING: You are viewing a post that’s more than three years old. There’s a good chance that a lot of the following is seriously out-of-date (or at least not reflective of my current thinking on this topic). Proceed with caution.

“In order to be relevant, we have to do X.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this spoken in conversations with/in museums, with X being replaced by almost anything: “teach to Common Core standards,” “have a mobile app,” “use Facebook,” “be participatory,” or whatever. Sometimes, X isn’t even part of the statement: “We simply have to be more relevant.” Museums are obsessed with being relevant. Or, at the very least, we’re terrified of being irrelevant.

But what do we mean by ‘relevance’? I’ve been trying to figure this out, and the more I think about it, the more I’m confused. It’s a word has very little meaning without context (what aspect of a museum needs to be relevant? and relevant to whom? in what way?), and without that context, it doesn’t lead to obvious action. It feels like we currently use it to justify just about any course of action, which effectively makes it meaningless as a justification for any course of action.

So, as usual, I’m obsessing over the way we use a particular word (please see almost every other post on this site for further examples). But words, and the way we do or don’t define them, are really, really important; far more so, I think, than most of us realize. Words like “relevant” worry me in particular, because they’re the sorts of words for which we all think we have a common definition, but for which we actually have wildly divergent definitions.  I think many of us who come from a technology background tend to assume that all relevancy problems have technology based solutions: museum+mobile==relevance. Communications people tend to think in terms of audience segments: more teens in through the front door==relevance. Curators and scientists think in terms of content: global warming exhibition in the primary exhibition space==relevance.

All of these and none of these are correct at the same time. Relevance, as a concept, is so broad that it allows pretty much any internal museum constituency to use it as a justification for what it already wanted to do anyway. Much in the same way that I have an issue with the way we casually use the word “digital,” relevance is problematic because we use it as a driver to achieving other means. And a driver that doesn’t force us to re-think the way we approach a problem, or to at least defining the problem in an accurate way, is a driver that just leads to us wasting even more time.

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