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Check out this video above, which I discovered thanks to Jennifer Souers of MuseoBlogger. Whether you work in a museum or not, it’s sure to bring a little smile to your face– not a warm and cuddly, feel-good smile– but a it’s-funny-because-it’s-true kind of smile. But this little video gives museum professionals something interesting to think about as well.
Sometimes it takes somebody outside of our niche to show us how our tribe/institution/industry is perceived, and this video can provide some insight for folks working in museums and cultural nonprofit organizations. For better or worse, this video shows us how museums and museum professionals are perceived. We must ask ourselves: is this how we want our professions and institutions to be viewed?
Below are some red-flags that emerged for me while watching the video. I’ll call them ‘misconceptions,’ though it could be argued by some that these are not misconceptions at all. If museums are increasingly becoming places for community, let’s make it clear. If we want folks to be sure these things are misconceptions of museum professionals then let’s do what we can to prove it.
Misconception #1: Museum professionals are nothing like normal people. Kim the cat says, “Chances are, the museum people who decide what gets to be put in the museum probably don’t have anything in common with you.” I laughed at this because museum professionals (administrators, scientists, exhibit designers, researchers) often try hard to be accessible to the public, despite their often-vast knowledge of very particular subjects. (High levels of education is what Kim seems to identify as the leading barrier between museum staff and visitor). It’s a funny statement, but it also means that museum professionals, despite their efforts, aren’t doing their jobs right because their professional backgrounds can create a disconnect. Building upon the growing sense of community that museums are currently nursing may improve this, as well as incorporating accessible and engaging on-site professionals that can tell a personal story or two. Lesson: If museum professionals want their displays to exhibit accessibility, then museum professionals must be accessible themselves.
Misconception #2: Museum professionals think visitors can’t handle context. Kim says,”Blank walls are good so that the visitors won’t have to deal with too much context or history.” There are some valid reasons why museum professionals keep the walls blank. For instance, to draw attention to the formal elements of the art. However, when a visitor comes across an object and little context is provided, it can produce a negative effect. As the video hints, one effect is the notion that museum professionals draw academic boundaries to make themselves and the objects they display inaccessible. Moreover, in the video Kim points out that museums tell the community what to think. In this era of new technologies and social media, some museums are aiming to allow visitors to be their own curators. Lesson: In order to increase accessibility, museum professionals should provide enough context that visitors may draw their own conclusions and connect to the object in a meaningful way on their own.
Misconception #3: Museum professionals fuzzy up concepts such as value and importance in order to appear authoritative. The video does more than hint that it’s unclear how museum professionals determine importance and value in regard to museum exhibits (namely, deciding what goes into the museum and what stays out). Perhaps professionals are fuzzy in communicating this process because cultural gatekeeping isn’t completely understood on the whole. Kim simply advises museum professionals to use tidy and sharp labels, and only use language that sounds academic, “otherwise, the authority effect won’t be so convincing.” By including enough context, making scientists and historians personally accessible, and allowing visitors to draw their own conclusions in regard to objects, only some of this misconception could be corrected. Lesson: Museum professionals must be communicative in regards to the exhibit design and creation process by explaining decisions that affect how the ‘story’ is presented.
Misconception #4: The work of museum professionals is about the objects. This video talks a lot about object-worship, and introduces the museum as a place that houses important things. In some ways, this is true– but museums tend to be fueled by ideas, theories, symbols, and a greater notion of sparking and expanding education, rather than objects themselves. This misconception makes sense: museums take great care to preserve and display objects because of what the objects represent. To call a museum a place of things is right- but also wrong. Museums’ missions are most often about ideas, and the objects are meaningful symbols of important stories. Lesson: Museum professionals must emphasize the stories and lessons that objects symbolize or represent– rather than focus on the object itself, as that appears irrelevant (because it’s missing context).
Misconception #5: Museum professionals only care about the wealthy. If this isn’t a misconception, then it should be. Kim the cat says, “At first I thought there must be some law against having poor people on a museum’s Board of Trustees, but then later I found out that actually there isn’t any law like this. This is just the way they like to do it.” What’s missing here is an explanation: the Board often secures significant funding, and the wealthy attract other wealthy folks who can give to the museum and help keep its doors open. But with or without the explanation, it’s still a telling and jarringly true statement. Many museums are placing more focus on diversity, and are arguably gearing themselves away from a white, upper-middle class visitor and donor base. There’s a lot of work to be done (3 of 17 of the top 25 most visited museums in the US are run by men. Over half have PhDs indicating that many have similar academic backgrounds). Lesson: In order for museums to connect to communities, it may help to have a Board and staff that match the community demographic. Or rather, having an all-wealthy and homogeneous Board can be off-putting for visitors who do not fit that bill.
Misconception #6: Museum professionals are magical masters of time-freeze and corps display. Do museum people fight nature every day, as Kim states in the video? Maybe– and it’s probably not a terrible misconception either. Museum professionals certainly go above and beyond to preserve objects that tell important stories about culture and the world around us. However, this time-freezing becomes wrapped up in Kim’s little paper, “An illustration of how everything in a museum is something like a corpse.” Museums are certainly doing a great many things to remain relevant and to shatter the notion that museums are merely houses for old, irrelevant things. However, the old stereotype lives on. Lesson: Old habits die hard, and despite recent efforts, it will take a lot of collaboration, forward-thinking, and community engagement for museums to break away from past reputations.
But it will be well worth the effort.