A Museum By Any Other Name

Much to my disappointment classes have started again, and sitting in a lecture theatre I’m rudely reminded of the fact that museums are actually functioning entities.

When did this happen? I don’t remember agreeing to be part of this. I feel at this point in term, I prefer to continue thinking of museums as ethereal phantom-like figments of my imagination, where I can delude myself into fantasising about being employed, even possibly being blessed with something as so remarkable and out of the question as a salary that isn’t minimum wage.

Thrown into subjects that discuss museum governance and communication however, I’m stumbling across theoretical and financial aspects of museums that are dampening my idealisation of museums to the extent where I’m nothing but forced to be reconciled with the complexity that lies before me in the sector. Hierarchical departments fighting over influence, budgets and funding cuts, education and outreach programs, conservation issues and audience engagement, everything is being unearthed at an alarming rate.

Put it back! I’m screaming as my six pack of highlighters run out, my printer is churning out assessment criteria, and I can’t find the will to continue with my readings let alone live. And as I consider my predicament, and that of all the other students in my class, those on a global level trying to come to grips with the exact content as I am, and all the professionals currently engaged in the running of museums and gallery spaces, a thought slowly creeps into my mind.

Is this all worth it?

Not in the “am I employable?” sense. Nor in the “I could be eating three bags of salt and vinegar crisps instead of studying” sense.

But in the “we collectively as forward-thinking and contributing professionals want to love our work” sense.

In one of the readings I could barely keep my eyes open for, I stumbled across something that I barely had the mental capacity to engage with at the time, but a few nights later kept resurfacing. While discussing audience engagement, the author of a particular suggested that for an individual to visit a museum, they have, whether consciously or not, undergone a selection process of deciding from a variety of options which would be most beneficial to them. Meaning, rather sadly, that unlike what we as students and professionals alike have come to believe, a museum is not that important in the daily lives of the everyday visitor.

It’s not that a statement like that is inconceivable – nor hard to agree with. Hidden in the depths of one’s mind I suppose the thought laid dormant, but to see such an idea physically manifested in words, printed and unabashedly declared on an academic journal was off-putting because for people like me, museums are the world. Whether by ethical acquiring or not, they contain the world; have the power to teach us of the world and to open our very minds to the enormity and sheer cross-cultural entanglement we live in.

To otherwise say that museums and the spectacle of exhibitions are just a minor blip in the quotidian drudgery of most individuals, to have the experience of visual and cognitive envelopment be likened to no more than a single string in tapestry that is life, essentially to be forgotten, is heart breaking. Of course without wanting to generalise, museums have greatly influenced so many thousands of people, modifying perhaps for the better our perceptions or even behaviour. But it is disheartening for reality to be so unabashedly jarring.

My feelings aside, it does all make sense. So many studies are put together whereby museum personnel search for whatever motivations visitors might have to approach these sites and explore. When you begin to understand that the task of obtaining visitor numbers is intrinsically tired to combatting personal insecurities and public reproach, the image of museums as inherently central to the establishment of culture begins to slowly fade.

The complicated political history of museums, the issues surrounding representation and exclusion, the lack of diversity across Western institutions, the economic pressures that burden museums, and the difficulties in dismantling elitism that has for so long remained persistent in such spaces are some of the very obstacles that demonstrate why visiting museums for some are so unappealing. When the recognition of museums is steeped the belief of that they only serve an archaic educational purpose, that they aren’t “fun” enough, or technologically current, how can we begin to reserve such perceptions that are stubbornly rooted to the minds of such a large portion of the public?

To come back to the article I read, what saddens me is to see enthusiasm and effort go to waste. I do believe that the museum sector is changing into something more socially conscious but the situation is developing at such a tragically slow rate in relation to everything else around us. Museum professionals have ideas they think are worthy of promulgating without engaging with the needs or questions of the public, and their work goes unnoticed. Without interest, there is no funding, and the cycle continues to spin ever downwards.

There has been a growth in the approval of democratising museum spaces, and smaller institutions are built on community spirit and awareness. But what of national institutions? What is the future for museums then?

There is so much love and passion being poured into museums with little or nor awareness for the outside world. What we have is a self-contained community, with staff frantically trying to keep alive the dying embers of a once great fire.

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