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Museums as Relevant Institutions

June 13, 2011

Story of Frank Haggerty and Babe Ruth at the ballplayer's birthplace museum in Baltimore, Maryland

A recent Wall Street Journal article on changes in the leadership of museums recounts the experience of an art museum director whose suggestion to discuss environmentally friendly museums was initially dismissed.  She was recently elected to head the professional association that did the dismissing.  Now, authors such as Robert Janes put forward the need to make museums relevant to the issues facing the current world and the American Association of Museums hosts special webinars on The Green Museum.  A couple of weeks ago I posted on lessons I learned from Pat Essenpreis, specifically on the need to explain the relevancy of archaeological research to the public.

These issues are not much different from John Cotton Dana’s call for museums to be relevant to their communities in his 1917 publication of The New Museum.

Over the past couple of weeks my wife and I have roamed through the Maryland/Virginia area hitting museum venues both large and small.  At most of these venues I have tried to keep on my museum professional’s hat on to learn from the successes of others, especially on the issue of relevancy and engagement.  At some locations, I must confess to just being completely absorbed in the story, not really care how it is told.  Such was the case with the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore.

Relevancy and engagement are considered in Nina Simon’s book The Participatory Museum, where she lays out three types of participation that museums can engage with visitors: Contributory, Collaborative, and Co-creative, something I touched on in last week’s post.  Simon writes:

“In contributory projects, visitors are solicited to provide limited and specified objects, actions, or ideas to an institutionally controlled process. . . In collaborative projects, visitors are invited to serve as active partners in the creation of institutional projects that are originated and ultimately controlled by the institution. . . In co-creative projects, community members work together with institutional staff members from the beginning to define the project’s goals and to generate the program or exhibit based on community interests”  (cited from here).

What strikes me as important in this consideration is not to view the types of participation as a linear evolution as simple to complex, but rather, how inclusion of these approaches fits a broad range of visitors to a museum.  This brings me back to full circle where I started this post.  These are challenges that have been raised in various forms for the past ten years, going back to the American Association of Museums‘ 2002 publication Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums and in the more distant past to Dana.

How do you make your outreach to the communities you serve relevant?

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