museums are awesome…right?

I must preface this post by stating that I am *slightly* biased due to my complete museum nerdification. However, I am able to take a reflective step back and evaluate both my profession and obsession with an objective eye. I call it being a Devil’s Advocate. Some may call it annoying.

Museums are keepers of the collective cultural flame, repositories of physical manifestations of divine inspiration and guardians of humanity’s greatest aesthetic achievements. It’s no wonder that everyone loves them, right?

Well, not so much.

Phillipe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1977-2008), began his 2005 Wall Street Journal article in defense of museums with the phrase, “We all know art and art museums are important.” That is quite an assumption. How do we know this? Was there a collective poll and I missed it? That this sentence is the lead-off without further examination of how this supposedly-shared belief came to be is indicative of how art museums potentially fail their audiences.

I see all kinds of museum visitors daily, from those who haven’t visited since their third-grade field trip to the frequent flyers that attend every exhibition, program and gallery re-installation. I think that range is fantastic and absolutely necessary, but there seems to be a tendency to preach to the choir when it comes to what museums represent institutionally.

Whatever worthiness a museum may ultimately have derives from what it does, not from what it is. –Stephen E. Weil

The argument of the relevance of museums is not a new one. John Cotton Dana had this to say at the eleventh annual meeting of the American Association of Museums in 1916:

“All public institutions, and museums are no exceptions, should give returns for their cost and those returns should be in good degree positive, definite, visible, measurable.  The goodness of a museum is not in direct ratio to the cost of its building and the upkeep thereof, nor to the raity, auction-value, or money cost of its collections.  A museum is good only in so far as it is of use.” [emphasis mine]

Tough stuff indeed. You have to wonder if he was ducking rotten vegetables as he said it.   Apparently he wasn’t run out of the meeting on a rail because he goes on to say:

“The primary duty of those institutions is to justify their existence by becoming effective agencies in the intellectual, esthetic, industrial and moral progress of their respective communities.  If they do not do this they should resign themselves to the acceptance for all time of the fact that they are mere museums.  Then, in their respective communtities, should arise new institutions, fitted to satisfy the needs of these days–institutes of visual instruction.”

Dana’s assessment that a museum is just a building with old stuff in it unless it actively engages its audiences in ways that are meaningful to them and not just its trustees and donors is spot-on. As an influential museum and library director, he was in the position to evaluate the efficacy of cultural institutions. So in 2010, has his advice been heeded?

Emlyn Koster lists ten ways for museums to determine their sustainability in 2006’s “The Relevant Museum.” Koster suggests that art museums evaluate their context for relevancy on a continuing basis, including ” examining the circumstances and motivations of artists” and “how art has documented and interpreted significant historical events.” It’s a deceptively simple goal that takes an amazing amount of organizational will to achieve.

How do you determine if your favorite museum is relevant?

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