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Museums Starting Over

January 24, 2011

Robert Janes’ new book Museums in a Troubled World is a sobering, perhaps overly so, State of the Union for museums, as it were.  He questions the relevance of today’s museums in today’s world.  You can watch a video where Dr. Janes summarizes the general content of the book.  Whether you agree with his assessment or not he provides much food for thought.  In the video he challenges museum professionals to “Explore your assumptions, explore your particular strengths and attributes as well as your obligations.”  (For another approach that considers some of Janes’ themes watch  We Love Museums . . . Do Museums Love us Back at the Pinky Show.)

Although Janes addresses a host of topics in the short 200 page volume, in his introductory remarks he poses a couple of very basic questions: ” . . . if museums did not exist, would we reinvent them and what would they look like?  Further, if the museum were to be reinvented what would be the public’s role in the reinvented institution” (p.14).

From just a physical standpoint, these questions are relevant to our current direction at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  Our physical structure is a hodgepodge of buildings and add-ons constructed over the last 30-50 years.  Our knee-jerk thought over the past 10 or so years or so is the need to build a new state of the art museum.  But . . .  if we were to come at this from the perspective of starting over, what should be built?  Given trends in ecotourism, digital technology, preservation and conservation, coupled with economic and world realities, surely the newer bigger, badder approach should not be the first option.  Janes’ asking about the public role is certainly at the heart of current approaches toward community engagement and the participatory museum.

During my time with the Division of Archaeology in Louisiana, intriguing discussions were had about interpreting sites such as the completely undeveloped Middle Archaic Watson Brake, one of the earliest earthwork complexes in North America.  Given the many well-preserved prehistoric sites in the region, both publicly and privately owned, the discussion of development is rich with possibilities.  One of the responses from the Louisiana Division of Archaeology was to create a fantastic driving tour brochure of the prehistoric earthworks in Northeast Louisiana that leaves no footprint on the ground.

A challenge in the coming years for archaeologists and museum professionals will be to discuss the questions of relevance posed by Janes in his book.  Sitting back, considering what it would be like to start over and how the public should be involved seems a great starting point.

Your thoughts?

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