Monday, 26 July 2010

Reinventing the museum

Reinventing the Museum: Historical and contemporary perspectives on the paradigm shift is a book edited by Gail Anderson, a collection of articles written by people who, with their vision, influenced the whole thinking regarding museums´s raison-d´-être in the 20th century. It is divided in five parts:

I. The role of the museum: The challenge to remain relevant
II. The role of the public: The need to understand the visitor perspective
III. The role of the public service: The evolution of exhibitions and programs
IV. The role of the object: The obligation of stewardship and cultural responsibility
V. The role of leadership: The essential ingredient

John Cotton Dana, founder of The Newark Museum in New Jersey (New York), introduces the first part with an article entitled The Gloom of the Museum (1917). With lots of humour and clarity, with his revolutionary and visionary spirit, he challenges his contemporaries, the way he´s challenging us today, to take the message to broader audiences and serve the whole community and not only an elite, by making them accessible and relevant. There follows Theodore Low, with What is a Museum? (1942), where he defends the educational role of the museum and, like some of us today, reminds that museums must fulfil all their functions and not subordinate those related to communication and the public to those of collecting and preserving. We then move to Alma Wittlin´s A Twelve Point Program for Museum Renewal (1970), that introduces the concept of communication, as something larger that education. She calls for a moratorium in the expansion of museum buildings and the acquisition of equipment until we better understand the benefits for people from what museums offer or ought to offer. At the same time, Duncan F. Cameron wrote The Museum, a Temple or the Fórum?, claiming that museums cannot only be places of worship and cult, but also places where the people meet in order to discuss current issues, places of experimentation and innovation, places that welcome controversy. In 1990, Stephen Weil in his article Rethinking the Museum: An Emerging New Paradigm, considers the traditional five functions of the museum and identifies and defines a change of paradigm, where the museum turns from collector to educator, at the public´s service. The three following articles (Museums in the Age of Deconstruction; The Real Multiculturalism: A Struggle for Authority and Power; “Hey! That´s Mine”: Thoughts on Pluralism and American Museums), all written in 1992, talk about pluralism, equality, ethnicity, multiculturalism, given that various groups and communities considered minorities claim the right to be represented and to participate in the construction of the narratives presented by museums. The book´s first part ends with an article by Harold Skramstad, An Agenda for Museums in the Twenty-first Century, written in 1999, where he defines new models for 21st century museums: the museums as a new educational model, as a model community institution and as a designer and deliverer of experiences.

The second part, related to the role of the public and the need to understand the visitor´s perspective, brings together some of the articles that marked the most the museological thinking related to this subject, such as The Contextual Model of Learning (2000), by John Falk and Lynn Dierking or Marilyn Hood’s famous article Staying Away: Why People Choose not to Visit Museums (1983). Both consider visitor motivations and needs, as well as those of non-visitors, trying to help museums adapt their offer to those needs and find ways of answering the expectations. We also find here Claudine K. Brown´s article The Museum´s Role in a Multicultural Society, that aims to identify the various communities served by museums, not associating, though, the term ‘community’ to ‘ethnicity’, a factor she considers less relevant in the construction of the offer. She believes, and rightly so, that programmes especially made for ethnic groups have short-term results and she proposes that these groups are seen within their relationship with their communities, that is, family, neighbours, schoolmates and colleagues. There are two more articles in this second part related to visitor studies and marketing: United States: A Science in the Making (1993), by C.G. Screven e Can Museums be All Things to All People? Missions, Goals and Marketing Role (2000), by Neil Kotler and Philip Kotler.

The third part of the book discusses the role of the public service and presents the evolution in the production of exhibitions and educational programmes with the aim to establish a dialogue with the various audiences the museum intends to serve. In the first article, Museum Exhibitions and the Dynamics of Dialogue (1999), by Kathleen McLean we find examples of such initiatives that changed the way exhibitions are made. In Changing Practices of Interpretation (1997), Lisa C. Roberts presents the development of interpretation techniques, that recognise the existence of more than one version in a story and promote the involvement of exterior agents, such as the people that are part of the community in which the museum finds itself, with whom it aims to communicate and the story of whom it aims to tell. Lois Silverman, in Making Meaning Together: Lessons from the Field of American History (1993), presents a factor that influenced exhibition production, the very personal and unique way, based on previous knowledge and experiences, in which each person experiences and makes meaning of an exhibition. Mary Ellen Munlay, in Is There Method in Our Madness: Improvisation in the Practice of Museum Education (1999), talks about the need to follow the evolution in visitor profile and to understand what a visit means to them, in order to develop educational programmes that inform, promote dialogue and participation, question the present, provoke. An example is Mining the Museum, an installation by artist Fred Wilson, that came to question the concept of ‘museum’ itself, which is presented by Lisa G. Gorin in Mining the Museum: An Installation Confronting History (1993). The third part ends with Evaluating the Ethics and Consciences of Museums (1994), where Robert Sullivan questions the perpetuation of stereotypes and discrimination.

Considering that collections, or the object that compose them, are the nucleus around which all museum activity is developed, the book´s fourth part questions the role of the object. The article that introduces this part, What Is the Object of This Exercise: A Meandering Exploration of the Many Meanings of Objects in Museums (1999), by Elaine Heumann Gurian, is exactly what the title says: a very interesting exploration of the of the way the concept of ‘object’, and consequently the concept of museum, has changed in the last decades. The following articles (Collecting then, Collecting Today; Collection Planning: Pinning Down a Strategy; Who Cares? Conservation in a Contemporary Context; Deaccessioning: the American Perspective) discuss issues related to collections management, conservation and deaccessioning. There are two particularly interesting articles that discuss cultural property, rights, responsibility, illicit trade, the relation with countries and communities of origin: A Philosophical Perspective on the Ethics and Resolution of Cultural Property Issues (1999), by Karen J. Warren, and Deft Deliberations (1991), by Dan L. Monroe and Walter Echo-Hawk.

The fifth part is dedicated to the role of leadership. The book´s editor, Gail Anderson, stated in the introduction: “The best intentions, the most innovative exhibits, and the most coveted piece of art quite literally cannot by themselves make the difference in the future of a museum – it is the vision and the quality of the leadership that make the difference.” Stephen E. Weil opens this section considering the obligation to be accountable to society and demonstrate museum impact on people´s lives, in his article Creampuffs and Hardball: Are you Really Worth What You Cost or Just Merely Worthwhile? (1994). The same author, together with Earl Cheit, present in The Well-Managed Museum (1989) a checklist of the attributes of a well-managed museum. The three following articles consider issues related to laws, rules, ethics and accreditation (Museum Accountability: Laws, Rules, Ethics and Accreditation) and governance (Toward a New Governance and Institution-wide Change in Museums). The section ends with Persistent Paradoxes (1997), by Robert Jones, an article that aims to question the values of ‘traditional’ museums and the need to be aware and adapt to new realities, in order to remain relevant and manage to survive.

Reinventing the Museum is a stimulating and, in some cases, surprising book. The articles included in it represent a century in the development of thinking about the role of museums and help to contextualize many actions, initiatives, decisions and discussions around them. Recommended reading for those aiming to elaborate real strategic plans.

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