What is your dangerous idea about museums?

A number of years ago, I acquired the book What is Your Dangerous Idea?, in which significant thinkers addressed the question “What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?” According to the book’s preface, the question comes from psychologist Steven Pinker, who wrote:

The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea that you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

The question asks for speculation. It asks for wild, instinctual guesses. And there is a very good chance that many of these guesses will be wrong.

However, what is even more thrilling is the possibilities that some of the guesses will not only be right, but that they will themselves shape the very future of the world and of ideas. Often simply be giving voice to something, we start creating it in fact where it previously only lived in imagination.

This is the thrill and terror of speculation. There is the chance that an idea will be wrong, laughable. But making it known (as terrifying as that can be) also brings with it the chance to write the future of the world and make possible things that once seemed unbelievable.

I recently put in an abstract for MuseumNext that dealt purely with ideas. It did not include case studies. It was not filled with practical answers to problems. Instead, it contained one (possibly dangerous) idea that I firmly believe could be true. I’m not going to go into too much depth about it here until I find out whether it made the cut (although with around 200 applications for 30 places, my hopes are not held tightly). However, the question comes up: What is your dangerous idea about museums?

I would love to know.

14 thoughts on “What is your dangerous idea about museums?

  1. (This is very stream of consciousness. Expect typos and obvious cognitive flaws.)

    My idea is not particularly original, but I have more than one. First, open up the conversation, get the audience involved in the process of “explaining” museum content. Curators, exhibit designers and directors are great at getting the ball rolling, but I want museums to start discussions with the audience. The biggest problem here (besides the angry curators) is that the physical space is no longer the ideal place for a museum to pursue their mission. Maybe when we’re all hardwired into our own personal networks that are wirelessly connected to everything anywhere that won’t be true, but for now the best place for museums to engage their audience with their content is online. I think this is especially true for science and history museums where the physical artifact really isn’t the key element of their message. But when we’re focusing more effort on the conversation what happens to the actual museum? How do we keep the doors open?

    Museums should be event spaces now. When I pay for my admission I want something to be happening every day. Use the online space as a seed for conversations and ideas and then take whatever is gleaned from those conversations and make it manifest in the actual space. Schedule events constantly. Every day should be something special, some event that draws people in and calls them to participate in their culture (or night, we should be open later at night to attract the audience. Have a couple of days open for school field trips and whatnot and then close most weekdays and be open during the evening/night). That’s what we are (even the science museums), cultural institutions. Let’s stop displaying cataloged and archived culture and start driving it and defining it. We could be a combination library and agora. We have the archives ready to hand. We have the catalogs and collections to display and reference and draw upon. Now we just need the open forum space to drive new discussions and fuel new creations.

    No, museums do not provide that now. I know some people think otherwise, but they don’t. The reason most people do not understand (or like) contemporary art is because they’re not part of the same discussion that the artists are having. The reason most Americans think evolution is controversial (still!!!) is because they don’t know anything about science no matter how many times they take their kids to a science museum and look at the fossils of things that don’t exist anymore. We’re not talking about these things. We’re not really internalizing any of this information because we’re not engaged with it. Museums need to engage the audience more because nobody else is doing it for us.

    As part of this, museums should be engaged with each other more too. Far too often we exist in our own little worlds, even when we’re just down the street from each other. It’s not entirely unusual to see a series of exhibitions in one museum that are at least tangentially related to each other, but how often do multiple institutions coordinate their activities to create a city-wide theme? Not just all the art museums or something. I would love to see a coordinated effort between the DAM, the DMNS, the DMCA and our soon to reopen history museum. (Denver Art Museum, Denver Museum of Nature & Science and Denver Museum of Contemporary Art for those who wonder where I’m talking about) Exhibitions, events, lectures, panels and open forums all surrounding one theme for a month or longer, online and off. Make ourselves not only relevant to our city’s culture but inseparable from it. Make it so that people couldn’t even imagine the city without us.

    Admittedly, that is a pretty tall order. I hate to say it, but Americans don’t really have a culture of “getting together to talk about important (or even trivial) things,” and most of these ideas would inevitably lead to contention or controversy rather than discussion and acceptably lively debate. But it’s a long term goal that can start small and grow over time. How can museums, right now, provide a space for people to participate in a lively and growing culture? How can we help lead our culture in a direction where we, as a people, do get together and have civil conversations about important and even contentious cultural issues?

    I guess what my ideas ultimately boil down to is this: How do we become the mediators and facilitators for a series of conversations that right now aren’t even happening in most places? (Perhaps the “not even happening in most places” part is an American problem more so than in some other countries. I don’t presume to know.)

  2. Unlike the commentator below, I do not think we should hasten into the virtual world. There is a place for online content and catalogues, without a doubt, but museums need to be physical spaces containing actual objects. We are already teaching out children to disengage with the physical and retreat into the cyber world.
    There should be a conversation and discussion between the curators and the public to ensure that the museum remains relevant. My dangerous idea, then, is to allow the public to curate an exhibition or series of exhibitions over the year that speaks to them and for them. A move away frorn the ‘experts know best’ and towards a shared experience and understanding of our cultural and historical heritage.

    1. Damien, I am so interested that you are against museums embracing the virtual world. What do you see as being the central point of museums? Why do museums need to be *only* physical spaces containing actual objects? Why can’t the virtual world be as much a point of museums as the physical one?

      Surely at the centre of every museum, and every museum experience, stands one central thing: man, and his attempt to understand his relationship to the universe around him (and I am using the gendered term intentionally here, given the museum’s history).

      Our objects, our collections, even museum buildings themselves, are merely tools for exploring this relationship. Why, given this, would you advocate for museums to disarm themselves of a possible tool for this purpose – one that might be incredibly effective in the current era?

      The nature and form of knowledge itself is changing in the Internet age (look at some of the recent work by David Weinberger amongst others for discussion on this). It is being made of different things – data, not objects. If we limit ourselves to only using the tools that we have had to date, then surely museums risk irrelevancy as spaces for new knowledge production, and for connecting ourselves to the broader world of information?

      Finally, why does our experience and understanding of cultural and historical heritage have to be shared? One of the lovely things about the Internet is it makes possible complexity and even contradictory knowledge and experiences all in the one space – something much harder to do in the museum proper.

      I am not advocating for one over the other, but I do think that arguing against the virtual in the museum limits us only to tools that might not be the most suitable now and into the future.

  3. In our studies (i’m a linguist) we make video recordings of people, coming to a municipal office and quarreling about bills, they receive for utilities (rental, water, gas). This reflects both: types of interactions at a public place and beliefs/arguments of townspeople. Many other artists and scientists try to make other recordings of everyday life, which they find valuable from their point of view (like documentaries, reality-shows etc). It is considered to be very dangerous, because these studies interfere privacy. At the same time, I’m quite convinced, that multimedia museums of “everyday life” would become a valuable extension to the museums of old artifacts and to publication of old diaries. We have to think, how to collect, preserve and represent this material.

  4. There’s room for both the physical and the virtual. A perfect balance can exist. But we are moving towards a more virtual, interactive world where the experience can happen without being in that physical space. The Berger-esque notion that museums are hallowed halls is becoming a thing of the past. Museums can and need to embrace technology.

  5. My dangerous idea about museums can be summed up in two words: Open Authority.

    I’ll have a more extensive blog post about this soon. : ) Great idea for a post. This question should be brought up repeatedly and have its own Twitter hashtag!

  6. My dangerous idea is to make a social impact on the community – take up causes, provide forums for discussion. Something more like the Hull House Museum in Chicago.

      1. Museums are doing some of this right now, usually in relatively uncontroversial ways: having visitors send cards to troops, demonstrating how to compost, teaching schoolchildren on field trips that everyone should get along regardless of race. Less common is for museums to take on a more controversial cause or agenda.

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