Provocation: Society doesn’t need museums.

This morning, Australia was greeted with the news that major media organisation Fairfax will shed 1900 staff, shift its two major newspapers from broadsheet to tabloid format, and erect paywalls around the websites of those major metropolitan dailies – all in response to decreasing ad revenue. It is expected that News Ltd. will follow suit, and make cuts in coming days.

Meanwhile, two US cities with metropolitan populations of more than a million (New Orleans and Birmingham) are about to become the first without daily newspapers. Such news heralds the latest movement in the ever-shifting media landscape as traditional broadcast organisations try to adjust to the changing information/media infrastructure.

These changes were the subject of the recent USA FCC report on the Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age. It is a long (468 pages), but interesting, read about the changing media landscape in the US, and although the media sector is in many ways different from the museum sector, there are also plenty of similarities, as some museum bloggers have recently noted. As the report captures:

It is a confusing time. Breathtaking media abundance lives side-by-side with serious shortages in reporting. Communities benefit tremendously from many innovations brought by the Internet and simultaneously suffer from the dislocations caused by the seismic changes in media markets. (7)

In a just-published assessment of the Fairfax changes, journalist Jonathan Green argues that the Internet is not to blame for the media organisation’s failure, but instead that poor revenue models were what dragged it down “Because the business is not content, not journalism; the business is selling advertising.”

Clay Shirky’s 2009 post on Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable  speaks to this. (HT to Nancy Proctor):

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

What Shirky has written here could as easily have museums as its focus. Society doesn’t need museums. What it needs is mechanisms for selecting, preserving and communicating objects and information about our past and present in order that we can better prepare for the future. To date, museums have been an important vehicle for answering that need. But it is not the institution itself that is significant – it is the purpose it seeks to fill.

Even within the sector, we can see that this is true. When Ed Rodley started his making a museum from scratch series, the first post attracted all sorts of questions about why it was that his collection needed to be a museum. As Koven put it:

just because you have a collection, you don’t necessarily have to display it. Just because you have a building, that building doesn’t necessarily have to be used to display those collections, or as a place for people to visit.

So surely the question we should be asking, as individuals, institutions and as a sector, is how do we achieve the purposes of selection, preservation and dissemination? Is it by collecting physical objects (as has historically been the case) and storing them, selectively displaying those that have particular illustrative or narrative qualities, as it has been? Or is it by investigating new models for publication, like the Walker has done, and integrating those models more closely with the physical building of the museum? Or will the approach need a completely new way of thinking through the problem?

A statement by museum scholar David Carr is of interest here. When reading, substitute the word Internet every time you see the word museum:

A museum is not about what it contains; it is about what it makes possible. It makes the user’s future conversations, thoughts, and actions possible. It makes engagements with artifacts and documents that lie beyond the museum possible. It constructs narratives that help us to locate our memories, passions, and commitments. The museum illustrates irresistible new thoughts and stimulates revisions of former thoughts. The museum invites us to reconsider how we behave and what we craft in the worlds of lived experience. The gift of a museum for every user is an appreciation of complexity, a welcoming to the open door of the unknown, the possible, the possible-to-know, and the impossible-to-know.
David Carr, “Mind as Verb,” in Museum Philosophy for the Twenty-First Century. 16. Author’s emphasis.

The environment and nature of the Internet means that it is innately set up to achieve many of the very things that Carr posits the museum seeks to accomplish. In fact, I would argue it is far better suited for making the user’s future conversations, thoughts and actions possible. The very existence of the Internet, then, raises questions about the role of the museum.

Jim Richardson at MuseumNext just argued that:

Museum leaders need to rethink digital, and look at it from a more strategic perspective, one which can really deliver on the mission of the institution and the needs of the public. Museum leaders need to recognise that a powerful website can deliver just as much as a powerful exhibition and fund the roles within the institution to produce something credible online.

Although I agree with his perspective, I don’t think it goes far enough. Digital does not just change modes of delivery. It changes the nature of the very problem that museums purport to solve. That the model we have had to date has largely worked may be more a happy accident than indicative of its superior design.

Of the Fairfax changes, Jonathan Green says:

There was a moment, maybe 10 years ago now, when a bold management at Fairfax might have picked the company up by the scruff of the neck, rationalised the staff, integrated the online and print operations, trimmed the paper size, and moved the content toward a premium mix of context and analysis.

They would have looked adventurous, bold, purposeful; they would have left the competition in their dust. But that was 10 years ago.

Now is that time for museums. We still need the things that museums do. We still need to know how to select, preserve and disseminate, whether objects or information. What we don’t need is museums. If those same needs can be met by other means (digital or otherwise), the impact on museums will be significant. I think it’s important to keep this in mind as we look to the future, particularly as we see the effects of the Internet on other traditional institutions.

What do you think? Does society need museums, or just the things that museums seek to do? And if the latter, what should that mean for museums as they approach the coming decade?

24 thoughts on “Provocation: Society doesn’t need museums.

  1. This is a very articulate and compelling provocation. I agree that the digital realm entirely reframes and opens out the role of the museum as a contributor to a global open culture network. However I think this is only one of two dimensions of the role and nature of museums. The other is local or place-based. Many museums are important heritage sites and act as centres of community heritage. Museums could be reinvented by both being more real and more virtual. More real by helping localities become ecologically and socially sustainable. More virtual by feeding the global network, which in turn should be focused on protecting and regenerating cultural and natural ecologies.

  2. “What it needs is mechanisms for selecting, preserving and communicating objects and information about our past and present in order that we can better prepare for the future.” These are called archives and libraries. What seems to be missing here is a discussion about who presents this information and how it is presented, about how alternative perspectives are identified and enabled, and about how potential future users can access the source or inspiration of the various digital ‘publications’.

  3. We’re still thinking about the ends too much and not the means. Words like “publication” distract us from what we actually do. We’re confusing our tools with our tasks. It’s easy to do, after all we “hammer” our nails even though that’s not really a good description of either the purpose or function of a nail. We publish a lot about our collections, but does that really describe the purpose of the collection?

    Museums preserve and share our past history. There are a lot of different ways to do this and a lot of different institutions that all try to. We are not a library. We are not a school. We are not newspapers. We are museums. We have things, objects, artifacts. That distinguishes us from the others (maybe not always from archives, which I think should be more like museums). I disagree with Koven’s statement. If you have a collection, you’d better be displaying it regardless of whether you’re a museum or not.

    It’s not just about the information. It’s about how we interpret and assemble it. It’s about how we discover it. It’s about how we come to know it. Anyone can throw up a web page and tell everybody on earth anything they want, regardless of its veracity or credulity (google for “geocentric universe” and you’ll see what I mean). We have the artifacts. We have the solid, physical things that we can study and try to discern meaning from. This alone does not give us authority though. We have to be responsible in our methods. We have to be careful how we study and interpret the artifacts we collect.

    How does the audience know we’re being honest? How does the audience know we’re being responsible? We share our process with them. We become transparent. We put it all out on display somewhere and let the audience check our homework. We put glass walls on our conservation rooms and let people walk past. We open up the process of curating to public scrutiny, keeping track of our research and decision making and then share it.

    Museums need to change their spaces, but not by closing the doors and drawing the blinds and then allowing “information” to trickle out to the audience via a website and some black box processes. We should pull back the curtain and let visitors shake hands with the wizard. Let the museum be a showcase for our collections AND the processes of studying them. The future of scholarly authority is in transparency. Our collections grant us enormous opportunity to be transparent and therefore give us incredible opportunity to be authoritative.

    We’re thinking too shortsightedly about the internet. Convergence is coming. Ubiquitous wireless bandwidth will happen some day, probably within the next decade (sooner in some places). The line between on- and offline will be blurred. Taking our museums online at the expense of the gallery is just as shortsighted as building a massive new gallery without considering our online presence. The distinction between physical and data is becoming increasingly meaningless, but that doesn’t make physical presence meaningless. It only means we have to integrate the two more tightly with each other.

    Society needs museums more than ever now. We need our archives and galleries to be publicly accessible, not just online but in person. We need to look over the historian’s shoulder and check his work. We need to be able to query, verify and criticize. Transparency isn’t just an online thing. Online transparency is very easy to fake. I could throw together a very convincing online record of a collection of ancient Mayan artifacts that clearly indicate they were ruled by aliens who came here for chocolate. Transparency and the authority derived from it is a physical thing too. We are uniquely positioned to benefit from this. Let’s not blow it by throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  4. I think I’m in agreement with Matt, here. Though I find that Shirky’s argument here is mostly applicable to museums, I do think it breaks down when I think about his “society needs journalism, not newspapers” argument, partially because our “journalism” equivalent is our collections. And collections (physical ones, anyway) cannot be maintained without an organization, and the most efficient (heh!) organization for maintaining collections is the museum.

    Having said that, though, I wonder how different The Museum as a thing would look if the “maintain and preserve” aspects could be de-coupled from the “study and interpret” mission. Because I think society does need people to maintain the artifacts of cultural history/heritage, and it needs people who are dedicated to the study and interpretation of artifacts, but I’m not certain that it needs both of those functions housed under the same roof. As with the “content bundled with advertising” newspaper model, it might be that bundling maintaining collections with interpreting collections was a model that only worked for a while and needs to be broken up.

    It’s interesting for me to think about The Museum existing as a free-ranging interpretive agency that could apply its expertise to collections everywhere and anywhere, rather than being explicitly tied to whatever collection local resources allow you to acquire.

    I need to think about this some more, obviously.

  5. One of the most common questions the public ask is “is it real?” Is this a REAL dinosaur bone; is this the ACTUAL letter written by Charles Babbage to Ada Lovelace. Objects provide “proof” and I think people want to know they could see the real object somewhere if they really wanted to. This is what Museum collections provide that other sources may not.

  6. This is great. We are getting into some of the questions I really hoped we would get to, and the ones that I haven’t yet resolved myself.

    I was thinking about this all this morning, after reading the comments that have been written so far, and really trying to nut out the relationship between ideas and objects a bit further. Koven and Lynne, you are right – we do have objects (and buildings), and they are important. But if that was the end of the matter or the whole truth, then we could argue that museums should just keep storing and displaying objects as they have been. And so I don’t think that’s it.

    In the movie Inception, each of the characters has a totem, a solid and tangible object that anchors them so they don’t get lost in the dreams of others (or at least, that’s my memory of it – it’s been a while since I saw it). The object itself is important only in so much as it provides a tangible touch point through which the character can return to the ‘real’. Its tangible presence is required because its weight, its physicality is what grounds the characters to the real instead of the stories of dream/invention.

    In some ways, this seems to be a useful metaphor for thinking through the relationship b/w the object and the information that surrounds it in the museum. Our objects, the ones that provide “proof” are the tangible things that link an idea or story to a time and place. Having a real dinosaur bone shows that dinosaurs existed, whereas unicorns might not have. How else do we separate myth from reality?

    But the question of uncoupling the collection/preservation of ‘stuff’ from the interpretation, whether of said ‘stuff’ or other things, is where I do think this gets interesting.

    Elizabeth Merritt’s recent Center for the Future of Museums post on this is interesting (go and read it now if you haven’t already). She writes:

    “For years, we trained people to pay for a visible set of experiences—exhibits, programs, services, cool buildings. Some of this payment was in the form of earned income, some philanthropic support. But most people don’t realize they were also paying for another, hidden set of activities core to museums’ identity: collecting, preserving, research and education.

    …the visible and profitable parts of being a museum can, and are, peeled off and replicated by for-profit institutions. Travelling exhibits? Check out venues like Discovery Times Square. “Museum quality” merchandise? Not a problem. Places to spend the day with the kids in an edutainment environment? Common and proliferating. And none of these institutions have to bear the costs of collecting and preserving, undertaking research, and making education available in an equitable way both to those who can pay the true costs and those who cannot.”

    This post seems to predict a future in which the interpretative and preservation/collecting purposes of museums are decoupled. We might be the only institution equipped to provide the things *we* think museums are about (physical collections and interpretation of those collections), but that doesn’t mean that we are the only ones who can provide the things that the public think they are about. So what happens to collections if the two are decoupled (and arguably, in some ways, they already are as previously demarcated interpretive spaces blur online)? This is one of the things that has led to the difficulty faced by traditional news organisations. The punter who bought the paper to get the sports scores also paid for the journalist who walked the beat and covered the court cases. Now that the punter can get his scores elsewhere (surely there’s an app for that), then it becomes harder to fund the necessary but at times unsexy stuff.

    This actually, to me, seems to make a very compelling argument for physical and radical transparency, which Matt gets to (although I think from a different perspective). If we can actually couple the cost of interpretation with the cost of collection, if we can make that link visible, then maybe that actually justifies “The Museum” more sufficiently. Otherwise, maybe there is the risk that the two things could be uncoupled, to the detriment of our current idea of museums.

    Hmm. Much more to think about here.

    1. To follow on from this, do you think that making public online collections actually does move museums down the path of decoupling interpretation from objects? When the majority of interpretation happened in the context of the museum building itself, it was absolutely linked to the object. Now that collections data/information is located beyond the space/scope of the museum proper, then interpretation too can happen without direct relationship to the object. The object is still important. The interpretation is too. But maybe there is less an inextricable relationship from one to the other. Thoughts?

  7. To a retired teacher librarian now volunteering as the School Programs Officer for a small country museum, I find these arguments about the internet replacing the need for museums very familiar and equally as specious as those asserting that the internet means we no longer need books or libraries! What is ignored in all this is the human factor. Just as teacher librarians are the human interface between school students and the plethora of (largely unreliable) information on the internet, so museum curators, researchers and conservation staff are the human interface between museum visitors and the objects and information they not only present but interpret. Yes, new technologies allow far greater interactivity and yes, virtual museums have their place, but neither can replace face to face experience in viewing and even handling ‘the real thing’. This notion of ‘de-coupling’ interpretation from objects seems to me, as a novice in the world of museums, to be a backward step. I have visited many little museums that are no more than dusty collections of objects thrown on display any-old-how with no interpretation. Coming to the Yamba museum (, run entirely by volunteers, I found an amazing collection that is well organized and attractively displayed with interpretive labels. We recently ran a very successful exhibition, “Ghosts of WW1 – 101 local heroes”. Hundreds of visitors, locals as well as tourists, commented on how moving it was and many shared their own stories of ‘dead man’s pennies’ etc. The school students who visited were also blown away not only by the exhibition but by the opportunity to actually wear an army greatcoat and helmet from Gallipoli. That quality of experience could never be replaced by the internet! Do not be dazzled by technology, rather use it as a tool to expand, enhance, but never replace, museums.

  8. I think the decoupling of interpretation and collecting has already happened in certain quarters. I’m thinking of science centres and other institutions that have evolved from that tradition. They have never had collections in a traditional sense, but may acquire objects for a specific interpretive purpose. If you take science centres into account, there is a tradition going back over 40 years.

    The Centre for Life in (the other) Newcastle is a good example here They combine exhibition offerings with events, theatre, festivals and participatory activities. They have never been a collecting institution but I believe they have included artefacts in their exhibitions (which in science centre circles is unusual). I gather they have a relationship with Tyne and Wear museums which is where the relationship with the more museological function may come in.

  9. Welcome Sue and Regan to the discussion. It is great to hear different perspectives on this.

    Sue, I want to delve into your comment a little more deeply. I do not argue that the Internet in any way replaces museums. It doesn’t. (One of the great complexities when a post goes a little viral is that new readers who have not followed the longer train of thought are brought into the discussion without the surrounding context.)

    I think we do need physical spaces and physical ‘things’ for exploring ideas. We absolutely still need tangible ways of studying history, and we need people to help with interpretation. In fact, I would argue that with so much information now available, interpretation (of data, of information) has become ever more important. The things that museums do are very important.

    My provocation was not that any of the roles that museums play now are unimportant. It was this: that in an age where selection, preservation and dissemination are becoming the purview of many more organisations (see my recent post, then those concerns that once existed in a space much more uniquely demarcated as “museum” are now not necessarily confined to us. And I wonder what happens if those borders erode further.

    Donald Preziosi argues that a museum is a technology. (“Philosophy and the Ends of the Museum”, in Museum Philosophy for the Twenty-First Century. 75.) Ross Dawson proposes that a museum is a type of media. ( In either case, if we think of museums as tools or technologies, they are are means and not ends, and that lends credence to the idea that they can be replaced. Tools are useful as long as they do the job more effectively that something else, and if something comes along that does the job better, then that’s what people will use. This is what we are seeing within the media.

    There are changes that are already happening to the technological/social/economic context in which museums exist that may (and arguably will) change what people want, need or expect of museums. We can already see this. But this isn’t about digital. It isn’t about replacing one technology with another. It is about how we adapt as an institution to the changing conditions that digital is bringing. What if, like Jonathan Green’s assessment of Fairfax, museums more fully integrated the digital and physical experiences, in a form of digital parallelism? What if we made our collections more visible, and not just online, so that people can see what they are paying for when they fund our other things?

    I am not trying to argue that museums are unnecessary or out-of-date. On the contrary, I spend my life studying these institutions because I think they are and can be incredibly important and powerful things. But we should not forget that they are still relatively recent creations. That they have been so integrated into our societies thus far does not mean that their continued existence is assured. They will exist only so long as they are still seen to be useful. What we need to do is make sure that continues to happen even as disruptive change occurs.

    These are still just ideas that I am thinking through, and I really like that they are being challenged because they need to be. It is very possible that I am wrong. But I think that we maybe need to interrogate our assumption that society needs museums qua museums, and consider instead that what society needs is the things that museums do. It is a very subtle yet seismic shift in thinking, at least for me. But I think it might change the way we approach some of our work.

    1. “It was this: that in an age where selection, preservation and dissemination are becoming the purview of many more organisations, then those concerns that once existed in a space much more uniquely demarcated as ‘museum’ are now not necessarily confined to us. And I wonder what happens if those borders erode further.”

      Nothing happens. More organizations have archives and “collections” of… something presumably. So what? I don’t understand why this impacts us at all except that maybe more people will be working on solving the same problems we have and we may have access to more/better solutions as a consequence of that. I don’t understand this talk of decoupling. It sounds like we’re trying to solve other people’s problems.

      Decoupling and modularization (of people) is a 19th–20th century idea. It’s the way we used to solve problems—by specializing. We have new tools at our disposal now that make it easier for us to do more than one thing. The secret to success now is to be more T-shaped as a person (or institution). Have a wide breadth of skills and knowledge in a lot of different things and a deep understanding of one or two things. Decoupling doesn’t help us, it pushes us backward.

      Maybe I’m missing something or maybe I’ve misunderstood this part of the discussion up to this point, but it just seems like decoupling is a reaction to something that we don’t actually have to react to. I know I said, “become the museum of the future or be replaced by it,” when commenting on that article, but I don’t see how decoupling accomplishes that. That sounds more like divide and conquer (or be divided and then be conquered) to me. When you separate interpretation from collection, what do you have? A warehouse full of stuff that no one sees and a bunch of travelling shows that cherry pick pieces from wherever they can find them. I don’t see a museum there.

      Correct my misinterpretation please, because I think I might be lost on the topic of decoupling.

      1. When you separate interpretation from collection, what do you have? A warehouse full of stuff that no one sees and a bunch of travelling shows that cherry pick pieces from wherever they can find them. I don’t see a museum there.


        (Unfortunately that is what a lot of museums are doing regardless of anything digital!).

  10. The newspaper/museum analogy is overdrawn. Partly, there is a fundamental mistake in assuming that museums can be reduced to objects and interpretation, since this is only how museum professionals are overly inclined to think of what it is they do. Years of audience research has shown, however, that museumgoers themselves actually seek relatively minimal information in their visits and, in any case, museums are a poor medium for communicating informational volume or complexity in a written form. The value of encounters with authentic artifacts can also be exaggerated by the curatorial mindset, though a stronger case can be made for this, particularly for art museums. From a museumgoer’s perspective, museumgoing is a leisure time excursion undertaken as a social experience. The vast majority of museumgoing is done in social groups. Museums, as destinations, provide a meaningful experience outside of the home which one can use as either a backdrop or a provocation for pleasant social interactions. The collection of things and interactions a museum can stage comprise a kind of symbolic experiential form that is informational in ways distinct from websites or books.

    As such, I argue that museums have little to fear from competing online diversions which have a very different experiential character. Nor should they fear competition from commercial exhibit ventures which are ultimately too financially risky or marginal to mount a serious threat. Many private ventures have learned the hard way what museums have known all along: museums aren’t very profitable and are expensive to run. From a museumgoer’s perspective, museums are an excellent value at an average of $7 for an adult ticket, below the average price of a movie, and 40% of U.S. museums are still free.

    Museums have and always will face serious financial challenges because what they do isn’t profitable and relies on continuous community support. Museums need only continue to earn that support–not an easy thing to do, but not as dire a situation as many fear. I think it can be shown that society actually places a pretty high value on museums as demonstrated by the high degree of support shown, the recession notwithstanding. Museums have not suffered disproportionately to other public institutions in the slump and have fared far better than newspapers, with a majority of them actually seeing an increase in attendance since the 2008 downturn.

    1. Great Dan. I entirely agree. Our spaces and the shared or common experience that goes within them is what makes museums compelling (at least to me). Our collections might be ‘Important’, but maybe it’s our spaces themselves that are important. One of the things I find hard to reconcile when I think about what museums should be doing online and why is because it *is* our spaces that often seem to be the most compelling and less replicable part of the experience.

      The point of this exercise for me is to get people thinking about what disruptive change means for our institution, and within that, what are the assumptions we hold that have real meaning and purpose, and which ones are just baggage we carry from the past and prior incarnations of the museum. By starting out with a provocation, I want people to articulate why I am wrong, because I think there is risk in taking practice for granted. I don’t think that museums are in any immediate danger. What I am interested in is the gaps between what we say and what we do.

      1. I think it’s a great discussion, BTW. It’s just that I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues lately and this thread frames a range of issues really well. I too am acutely aware of the fact that museums are a pretty late development in human history and we shouldn’t assume their perpetuity based on pure sentimentality or wishful thinking from a professional preservation perspective. But a clear-eyed assessment of threats is necessary.

        For example, I think that downward pressure on wages, the consequent shrinking of the American middle class, combined with the relentless rise in the cost of a college education may, in combination, pose a more serious long-term threat to the viability of museums, than the internet and social media ever will. Museumgoers self-select toward the more affluent and well-educated among us, a problem that has been more persistent than any other in visitation patterns, including preferences identified by race or ethnicity. A staggering number of American children are growing up in poverty and the entire public education system seems to be trapped in a slow-burning crisis.

        There are also certain categories of museum that are more vulnerable than others. One example is living history museums with high operating costs, aging core visitor cohorts, impinging high travel costs broadly, and widening relevancy gaps with more recent immigrant or immigrant-descended families. They seem to have gotten trapped in the cycle of declining attendance and revenue, raising admission fees to compensate, in turn producing ever more rapid declines in visitation. And the paradigm itself, has become the object of ridicule in the popular culture.

        I also worry about that essential community-based support, which, for most museums, is more critical to survival than gate revenue. The civic-minded donors in their 80’s and 90’s are passing the baton to generations that have yet to show the kind of philanthropic zeal of their predecessors. For ideological reasons, many government leaders are also less enthusiastic about public investments in culture than was the case in the past. Local foundations in this economy have had their endowments hit hard and many are refocusing giving to the institutions that address more basic community needs such as the achievement gap and hunger. Traditional cultural enrichment programs that museums offer in the form of exhibitions and public programs can seem less necessary, their outcomes less tangible, less satisfying in this atmosphere of scarcity. The message from them seems to be that we should lower our expectations for now. It’s unclear whether this is, in fact, the new normal, or whether it will pass if and when the economy rebounds.

        To be clear, I don’t think we are in a world without risk at the present, I just want us to identify these risks correctly. Only then will our strategies be appropriate and proportionate to the challenges of our times.

  11. I’m not convinced that society does not need museums. Mainly because I see museums as story tellers about objects, experiences, performances and histories that aren’t necessarily commercial objects. If keep and support our museums – despite themselves – we maintain an important chorus of voices in the loud shouty place that most of us inhabit. So, as contemporary western society is mostly offline and partially online, these stories must also be told to audiences who don’t physically attend the institutional building/touring space for them to be heard.

    Also, if you take David Carr’s statement and, when reading, substitute the word beer every time you see the word museum, you get a very compelling argument.


  12. Some of this discussion, while provocative and erudite, seems far removed from the world of the volunteer run, small country museum that I inhabit. Our museum has a symbiotic relationship with the community it sits within, that is perhaps less apparent with large city museums. The volunteers who run this museum and the collection, are all drawn from that community. The exhibits that are on display reflect and interpret the history and heritage of Yamba. As a community organisation it makes an important contribution to local tourism but equally important it provides strong social and cultural connections within the community – not bad for a mere $3 entry fee! It survives as a not-for-profit organisation through grant applications….making that process less time consuming and difficult would make museums such as ours more sustainable for the future!

  13. I’m still chewing on this, and having a hard time really formulating the right response, but I do want to address something from earlier in this conversation, while I’m thinking about it. Matt said, “If you have a collection, you’d better be displaying it regardless of whether you’re a museum or not.” Something about that statement is getting to me, and I think it gets to the heart of why I proposed “de-coupling” in the first place.

    Most museums display only a tiny fraction of their collections at any given time, because there simply isn’t enough space to display it all. This creates an odd phenomenon in that some of the “greatest” artworks/objects/specimens will literally never see the light of day due to geographic accident. What I mean is that the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “B” Collection will almost never be displayed, even though any of those objects would certainly be on display at a more regionally=focused art museum anywhere else in the world. So we have regional museums displaying works that are not as “good” as some works that large metropolitan museums will never get around to displaying.

    Objectively, this makes no goddamn sense to me, and I think this gets to Suse’s original question. There’s certainly a need for the functions that museums provide, but it’s possible that The Museum as we think of it today might not necessarily be the most efficient way to deliver those functions. The fact that the way objects of cultural heritage are housed in such a way that sub-par works are proudly displayed in regional museums while superior works are kept in storage areas of metropolitan museums looks, to me, like an inefficient system. This is originally why I proposed de-coupling interpretation from preservation–if a museum’s interpretive program wasn’t tied to the collection it could afford to pay for, but was able to draw from all sorts of collections more easily, this would open our sector up to exactly the kind of rapid evolution it so desperately needs.

    1. It’s funny you propose this Koven, because it isn’t that far from something I’d been thinking about. My local newspaper is run under the Fairfax banner and a few weeks ago, before the major changes to the Australian media landscape were rolled out, it was announced that there would be a restructure to the paper. The restructure would see all (most?) of the subediting and production work currently done at the local newsroom shifted over to a centralised production space in New Zealand. So while the editorial staff would remain, the production side of things was to be moved offshore where it could all be done with greater efficiency.

      I was wondering whether a similar model would work for museums, where larger organisations that are more primed for maintaining and preserving collections could house the collections of smaller, volunteer-run institutions (like Sue’s), freeing up the staff at those places to concentrate on programming, connection with community etc. There would obviously need to be mechanisms in place so that collection objects could easily be accessed by the remote institutions, but this idea of decentralising the collections could be interesting. We often talk about the difficulty of maintaining collections (which requires cost, maintenance, space) vs programming. This could make it so that smaller institutions could concentrate on their strengths, and have access to broader collections as well.

      Now I don’t know whether this would be a useful model or not. I imagine community history institutions might dislike the idea of having their collection stored remotely. But it was just what occurred to me whilst thinking about these questions.

      Does anyone know of a model like this?

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