What is a museum? Back to the Future with John Cotton Dana

start trait wordle

The International Council of Museums defines a museum as “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

Though the ICOM definition still works, for the most part, today the very concept of a Museum is being pushed, pulled, and repackaged.  For example, the Museum Association blog published an interesting piece on the impact of the Google Art Project on the study of artworks.  The article considers how folks studied a work of art in the past and today.  Not having the books in the distant past meant the only means for studying a work of art was to go to a museum.  Five years ago in my Museum Practices graduate seminar I recall the literal gasps at my suggestion of a virtual museum.  Today the study of art on a computer screen is no less legitimate than viewing portfolio sized books, 35 mm slides or those arcane film strips of the not too distant past.

At the start of each semester in the Museum Practices seminar I ask students to take out a piece of paper and spend a couple of minutes doing some trait listing to the prompt “What is a Museum?”  The above Wordle contains the words the 18 students listed on the first day of class this fall.  The Wordle below contains the terms the same students listed at the end of the semester.  The difference reflects the shift in museums from being collections centered to focusing on the visitor experience as expressed in the New Museum by John Cotton Dana nearly a century ago.  Dana’s emphasis on the notion of museum’s being institutions of public service is more relevant today than ever before.  The Wordles suggest the students get this.

We will discuss some of the most challenging readings of the entire semester in our final class this Tuesday including:

Visit the Center for the Future Museums for these and other resources.

The pundits who explained the outcome of the recent U.S. presidential election by noting “It’s not a traditional American anymore” would have done well to read the above articles.  They also would be better prepared to deal with the 21st Century by reading the words of John Cotton Dana written some 100 years ago:  “The museum can reach only those whom it can attract.  This fact alone is enough to compel it to be convenient to all, wide in its scope, varied in its activities, hospitable in its manner and eager to follow any lead the humblest inquirer may give . . . Remember always that the very essence of the public service of a public institution is the public’s knowledge of the service that the institution can give . . .”  (Cotton, p. 39 The New Museum).

The Wordle below suggests the Museum Practices seminar students agree.  Do you?

final wordle

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Museums, Anthropology, Bicycles, Recovery, Cancer, Retired

6 thoughts on “What is a museum? Back to the Future with John Cotton Dana”

  1. Moving away from Dana for a moment.. In 1895, Goode presented a paper to the British Museums Association which is essentially a summary of his museum philosophy which he established throughout his years as an administrator at the Smithsonian Institute. He defines a museum as, “an institution for the preservation of those objects which best illustrate the phenomena of nature and the works of man, and the utilization of these for the increase of knowledge and for the culture and enlightenment of the people.” His paper then goes on to explain relationships with other institutions, responsibilities, and requirements of museums. He particularly emphasizes, in all capital letters, “THE PUBLIC MUSUEM IS A NECESSITY IN EVERY HIGHLY CIVILIZAED COMMUNITY.” Goode is very adamant about certain things, as capital letters scream from the pages again, “A FINISHED MUSEUM IS A DEAD MUSEUM, AND A DEAD MUSEUM IS A USELESS MUSEUM,” he and states that institutions that store massive amounts of material of which museums are made are not in fact museums but instead storehouses. The specific responsibilities he lists in divergence from collections management include the advancement of learning, archival record, serving as additional centers for learning in the community, and as places that express the culture of the immediate public.

    This is the subject of the first 1/4th or so of the third chapter of my dissertation… the history of museums is fascinating, going back (based on a loose definition) to Mesopotamia, then the museum at the library of Alexandria, to cabinets of curiosities of the wealthy in western Europe. I love John Cotton Dana and his wonderful new paradigm… and at the same time, I think (as the Center for the Future of Museums shows), that a museum that isn’t changing and researching and keeping up with the times, fails as an educational institution. Rather than just collecting pretty things, museums have to be available for the public – not just one public, but all of them.

  2. Reblogged this on Something Old, Something New and commented:
    This is a topic that I absolutely love, and I will soon start a new series on the history of museums, reviews of types of museums, and definitions of what a museum is.

    Dr. Connolly’s blog, and the questions he asks there, goes back to my beginnings as a museum practices student in the fall of 2008, when I took his class at the start of my MA Program at the University of Memphis.

    Check this blog out, and feel free to share your thoughts on it in the comments section.

  3. Wonderful post Robert, and also Ms Stringer’s comments. My comment, not as a museum scholar but as an avid museum visitor – I would add the words ‘family’ and ‘outing’ to a Wordle from a visitors perspective, along with the words already included by your students. Visits to museums have always been a family outing since our three kids were very young. Day trips were planned around the visit, the museum was the focal point. Any trips to different cities always centered (still do) around museum visits. Some museums are more family friendly than others we have found in our travels, and I always appreciate those that are, and consider these museums to ascribe to John Cotton’s view of the museum as a public service.

    Focusing on families is another strategy that will preserve museums as cultural places that children will grow to appreciate as adults, and will pass on to their children, and so on…


    1. Debbie,

      Thanks for your feedback. I agree completely. One of the biggest successes at our Museum over the past couple of years is the institution of “family day” programming. The event came about in an interesting way. I was talking to one of our volunteers about our new school programming, tied to curriculum standards, etc. etc. She commented something like “That’s all fine and good, but what if I want to just bring my grandchildren out for a visit?” That led to us offering the same programs to families that we do for visiting groups. Basically, on Saturdays during the school year and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, at 10 and 1 we offer a 3 hour program for visiting groups that is identical to those that we offer school groups. We have been offering Family Days for over two years now and have anywhere from 2 to 40 folks attending. Family Days is now a critical community connection we are able to make.

      1. Hi Robert,
        That is great. Family days are examples of what would attract us to a museum and prompt us to return frequently, not just a once-a year-visit. These types of programs make going to the museum ‘fun’ for the kids, especially when they are elementary age. 🙂

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