Some thoughts on the Relationship between Museums and the Community

By May 16, 2017News

What is the point of museums? Museums today are becoming a lot more aware of establishing a clear vision for their institutions with well-defined objectives.  It’s no longer good enough to just collect and present artifacts in the hope people will find something of interest.  The late Mr. Steven Weil, a learned fellow from the Smithsonian Institute suggested, the only way to evaluate the success of a cultural institution is if it ‘touches’ visitors and, as a result, in some small way, changes them forever.

The way we see it, museums offer their communities special benefits available through no other institution or resource. What’s more, there are new opportunities to expand these benefits by considering some of the suggestions below:

Develop closer connections to the community

Museums today are beginning to engage the community as never before.  Museum curators have always understood their public responsibility to share information and to tell stories about their collections. Often in the past, some curators assumed they understood these stories because of academic research conducted by museum staff members and other scholars. However, today more curators are, as much as possible, conferring with real people, listening to their experiences and relying on first hand experiences and including community engagement as part of the content development process.

Today, however, the staff members of many museums – curators, researchers, designers, and others – function more as facilitators who assist people to tell their own stories in their own words.  This approach encourages more people to become engaged in the workings of the museum. It also leads to the creation of more authentic, diverse and insightful presentations. Moreover, as museums connect to a more receptive public, they are able to serve as meeting places where people can exchange ideas, share views and learn from one another.

Share information and exhibits with other institutions

Obviously modern communication technologies are having a profound effect on society on all levels. Since the development of the Internet, the potential of sharing information and materials has revolutionized the world including the museum community.

In years past, poorly conceived collaboration agreements and competitive funding structures made effective collaboration difficult. However, there is a growing realization of the tremendous benefits that could be realized through collaborations locally, nationally and internationally.  Never before have museums been able to collaborate on so many different levels.  Now more and more administrators are taking advantage of these opportunities to offer their patrons exhibits that are more interesting and enhance the reputations of their own institutions.

Create connections between disciplines

For many years the trend for museum presentations was to present material in defined scientific disciplines, e.g. natural history, human history, individual ethnic groups, etc.  As a result, the connections between disciplines were seldom realized, let alone explored.  However, recently scientists are making new discoveries, not by delving deeper into a given discipline, but rather by seeking the connections between them. For example, an exhibit on pharmaceutical discoveries might include a presentation on the parts of the body and how new insights about how they relate to each other led to the development of new drugs.

When presenting stories, curators are finding that some of the most interesting material is in relationships between disciplines e.g. people and nature, First Nations and European history, science and art.  Breaking down academic barriers and exploring connections and relationships between various studies can help people gain insights into how things work in the real world. This prospective is growing in importance especially now that issues of sustainability and multicultural issues are of interest to diverse factions within our communities.

By David Jensen, inventor of the Logic Exhibit System and Principal of D. Jensen & Associates