What are museums for?

9 Jan

What are museums for, really? Applying for several jobs in the museum field, I find myself invited to have a vision about what museums are and could be. One thing I know: they are not just storage facilities for rare and valuable property. They are capable of so much more, more than the “cool” factor of royal jewels or curiosity-piquing antiquities.

In a way, they exist because if they did not exist, we would have to create them in order to store dinosaur skeletons.

But their potential to have an impact on thought, dialogue, and cultural action is not developed to anywhere near their potential. They are not just the aloof cousins of theatres, when in fact they can be as daring, as thought-provoking as the most insightful, challenging, and entertaining drama. They can present and discuss history in polyvocal ways and from myriad perspectives, can personalize science in a way that complements critical thinking, can contextualize the arts in such a way that they resonate more deeply and broadly. Museums can memorialize, and challenge historical narrative, memory, and the absence of same. They can visualize and envision, both the distant past and the potential for the future.

But everywhere I go, they are underfunded or, as in Europe, if well-funded and comfortable, then they are not hungry enough to deepen the level of inquiry into our own world. As long as they have to remain commercially viable – unlike libraries and archives, for the most part – their potential to be not just repositories, but theatres for social change and dynamic, collaborative workspaces for understanding the arts, history, culture, and science through visual, aural and artifactual media – even when that understanding emerges as a synthesis of conflicting views (or especially then) – will be dulled.

I’ll be coming back to this topic in the weeks ahead as I think through this with more specificity.

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