What is a museum? Back to the Future with John Cotton Dana
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:
- Museums and Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures from the Center for the Future of Museums at the American Alliance of Museums.
- The Future of Museums and Libraries: A Discussion Guide from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
- Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills also from the institute of Museum and Library Services.
- Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums by Betty Farrell and Maria Medvedeva from the Cultural Policy Center of the University of Chicago.
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?