What’s the most important function of museums?

January 22, 2009

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 There’s a good chance that a lot of the following is seriously out-of-date (or at least not reflective of my current thinking on this topic).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.

This video, which was posted by the Museum Association, was brought to my attention by the frequently-awesome New Curator blog. It asks a simple question–what is the most important function of museums?

New Curator’s answer to this question is “To provide meaning.” My wonky answer was “to provide a stage upon which a multiplicity of interactions can occur.” Feh. In the end, Jeffrey from the Mattress Factory had the best answer: “to provide more questions than answers.”

Although Jeffrey’s answer is clearly better than mine, I think we’re both talking about the same thing—museums can and should be a forum in which experiences of all kinds might take place. I don’t feel, however, that this is the conversation that is occurring in museums. Instead, museums are working hard to define themselves, often, in one of two ways: as a repository of “real” things, or as an aspirational/inspirational/educational experience. Ugh. Why do both of these all too common definitions (most of the responses in the video above break down into one or the other of these two answers) drive me nuts? Well, I’m glad you asked.

The museum-as-repository-of-real-stuff meme always feels false to me. It feels less like a statement of purpose, and more like a fall-back position. With other media outlets increasingly taking on much of the traditional function of museums, namely that of dispensing cultural information to the masses, museums have to feel threatened. Trying to stay relevant, they therefore retreat to the one thing that the Discovery Channel can’t offer—access to the actual objects. “Come visit the museum; it’s the only place you can see a Rembrandt up close! (P.S., don’t touch the art.)”

This line of thinking, therefore, tends to limit the range of “authentic” experiences one might have exclusively to those in which you are in the presence of the object itself. It also tends to devalue any other types of possible experiences. A breakthrough in understanding can happen anywhere; for a museum to focus its efforts on ensuring that those breakthroughs only occur inside its walls is suicide. Even for an institution as large as the Met, only a small percentage of our potential audience will ever be able to set foot in the building.

And, to continue in this crotchety vein, I’m not sure that museums-as-cathedrals-of-learning-and/or-inspiration is the right definition, either. The implication is that the stuff we have in our building is by definition good for you, and by experiencing it, you are a better/more educated person. The problem with that idea is that it devalues the art itself by implying it’s worth is merely as a means to an end (sort of like the whole “listening to Mozart makes you smarter” idea that was so popular a few years back). It also reinforces the idea that there is but one appropriate perspective from which to look at art. As long as museums cling to the idea that their opinion is the inherently right one, as opposed to one in a constellation of possible perspectives, they’re sunk.

I don’t mean to say that either of these ideas are necessarily bad–you should be able to go to a museum and see objects, to be inspired, to get edumacated. But to define any of these activities as the primary purpose of museums is to ensure that museums become less and less relevant over the next ten years.

The museum has to become a different type of entity, one in which the opportunity to see objects in real space, close up, is but one of many possible experiences. Museums have to get out of the business of being the organizers and curators of content, and into the business of providing as many content streams as possible. Put as much out there as possible, and leave to the public the business of finding meaning. It’s no longer a museum’s job to define which experiences are valid and which are invalid.

It comes down to how museums wish to define themselves. Are they waiting repositories of potential experiences, or are they custodians of objects and controllers of opinion?

Of possible further interest: