Museums Showcase Attitudes and Beliefs as Well as Objects

This is the headline of a recent NY Times article highlighting the trend to organize museums around issues rather than preexisting collections. (Museums Showcase Attitudes and Beliefs as well as Objects).

More traditional museums grew out of an individual collector’s passion for rare or historically significant objects. Preservation and opportunity for scholarly study were primary motives with exhibition and public education secondary. As humanity creates more and more objects, both physical and born-digital we face three challenges.

  • First, storage space is harder to come by.
  • Second, scholars who want to access collections are widely distributed around the globe.
  • Third, we don’t yet know how to preserve digital objects so that they remain discoverable and accessible as technical formats change.

This article asks, indirectly, whether issue-based museums are as legitimate as collection- or topic- based museums. If the only rationale for the institution is to persuade visitors to adopt the founder’s point of view, is the institution a museum or a soap box?

My opinion is that museums must engage in collection, preservation and minimally biased scholarship. Without these, we may have exhibitions but not museums. It doesn’t matter whether the public exhibition functions of a museum are brick-and-mortar or virtual, nor whether the collections are physical or born-digital. This leads to the conclusion that both The Museum of Tolerance and the Creation Museum, mentioned in the article, are better described as ‘exhibitions’ — unless preservation of artifacts and scholarship are integral activities that receive as much staff attention as promoting the issue.

The topic of what is required to be considered an online museum is being discussed in the Online Museum Working Group, a community tasked with coming up with a definition that will be suggested for inclusion in future Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) funding legislation. You are encouraged to learn more. One source of information is one of our posts about the group. Another is to attend the Roundtable discussion at the 2015 Museums and the Web conference. And, of course, you can contact us directly.

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About lizaloop

Social philosopher, educator, teacher, parent, grandmother, musician, horseback rider, skier, dog owner, writer, trouble-maker, idea generator.

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