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Museum Issues

“Museums exist to encourage and instil the joy of intellectual and aesthetic discovery.”

Leland J. Weber 1989 (on receiving the Distinguished Service Award from the American Association of Museums)

The castle of the Earls of Desmond,
County Limerick (More)

These are some extended quotations from the museum literature which seek to capture the essence of issues which underlie effective management of museums.

Some Problems Of Managing In The Museum Organisation

Our first problems in museums come from our history or tradition. Arranging collections and conducting scholarly research give one a concern for the past and for a belief in logic. But the past can only be known from interpretations and ambiguous ones at that. Certainly logic of the kind used in science is often of little value in day to day affairs which are dominated by political considerations.

When scholars (or other professionals) define the problems or the issues or even the major purposes of museums in ways familiar and relevant to them they can be trying to gain an institutionalized position of power or retain it if they have it already. Staff involved in public programs would seem to merit more status in today’s economic climate where museums must struggle to justify their existence to the general public.

On the other hand museums do have a fundamental role to play in contributing to knowledge and most especially the understanding we need if the world is to survive as a habitable place. Unfortunately, many museum people fail to exercise their political right [responsibility or obligation] to bring such issues to the fore.

Museums tend to function as research institutes, as repositories for collections, as exhibition centres or as alternative schools: they seldom function as unified organizations successful in all these activities.

Those working in them, do not recognise that first and foremost museums are organizations.

D J G Griffin 1987 (“Managing in the Museum Organisation I. Leadership and communication.” The International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship 6, 387-398.)

Management & Leadership Issues for Museums – Summary

DJG Griffin 1990 (“Management and leadership in museums”. Australian Library Journal 40 (2), 125-151.)

Do Museums Make a Difference

That museums collect and display objects does make them different. That museums do this for a larger, public purpose doesn’t distinguish them from schools, hospitals and other public institutions. But that doesn’t mean that collection and display of objects is the purpose of museums.

Then there is the belief that an object can, with minimum help, ‘speak for itself’; the museum is thought of as a sort of neutral and transparent medium through which the public can (or ought to be able to) come face to face with an object. The fact is that objects only have meaning for us through the framework of the concepts and assumptions with which we approach them. We see things, as anthropologist David Pilbeam has observed, not as they are but “as we are”…

The issue for museums is how to make the underlying values of the objects in them manifest, how to bring them up to the consciousness of the visitors. However we choose to deal with such issues, we will have to begin in the realm if thought, not collections management.

Beyond information, values and experience, what else of social value might museums provide to their public? There are two: stimulation and empowerment. The museum visit can be approached not as an end in itself but as the starting point for a process intended to continue long after the visitor has left the museum’s premises.

The question we must ultimately ask ourselves is this: do our museums make a real difference in, and do they have a positive impact on, the lives of other people…

Stephen E Weil (1989), The Proper Business of the Museum: Ideas or Things? Muse 7(1), 28-38.

Making Works Work

Making works work is the museum’s major mission… Works work when, by stimulating inquisitive looking, sharpening perception, raising visual intelligence, widening perspectives, bringing out new connections and contrasts.. they participate in the organization and reorganization of experience, in the making and remaking of our worlds.. the common end of museums is the improvement of the comprehension and creation of the worlds we live in.

Nelson Goodman (quoted by Weil, 1989)

Museums and Entrepreneurship

In talking about entrepreneurship and museums I will argue:

First, entrepreneurship and innovation are the appropriate way to face the future simply because there is no certain way of preparing for the future other than learning how to cope with ambiguity. Understanding what kind of environment most favours innovation means considering those organisations which have been most effective over time.

Second, the effective museum understands the nature of the transactions with the public, especially the nature of effective learning, it talks to its visitors. It also understands how its collections management and scholarship contributes to that.

Third, effective enterprises learn from other organisations and seek understandings of success in places that others would not ordinarily look: they do not concentrate on being part of a unique category of enterprises but rather on being unique amongst a great diversity.

Fourth and last, the central focus of governance and management must be quality. We mightn’t agree on what quality is but without engaging in a discussion of it, life will be no more than a jostling for influence based not on what we know but on what position power we can wield.

Des Griffin, “Entrepreneurship In The Arts: Entrepreneurship In Museums”, Kenneth Myer Lecture for the 2002 George Fairfax Fellowship at Deakin University, Melbourne, 5 April 2002

What is learning and why is it important?

(An extract from, “Entrepreneurship In The Arts: Entrepreneurship In Museums”, Kenneth Myer Lecture for the 2002 George Fairfax Fellowship at Deakin University, Melbourne, 5 April 2002)

The educational mission of museums must focus on life-long learning opportunities and not be simply focused on children in school groups; educators properly should expect to be involved in the development of all public programs. Learning has to address the known learning behaviour of visitors and not be principally another form of information transfer and recital of facts.

The ultimate goal of entrepreneurship in museums must be the enhancement of the visitors’ experience of interaction with the authentic object and the increase in understanding and knowledge… unfortunately, people who should know better are mostly ignoring the recent findings about learning. Of greatest concern is that the views of learners (and teachers) are not usually listened to!

The most significant correlate with educational attainment is socio-economic status. Not only are people at lower levels usually not well educated themselves, they struggle to earn enough money to make ends meet and have little time left over to complement the education of their children in the home. The early years of life are when the biggest difference is made: child care improves later educational attainment as well as health including lower stress levels and leads to significant reduction in juvenile and therefore adult crime [1].

Far too little attention is given to what children actually can and do achieve. The behaviour and ability of children – even from lower socio-economic backgrounds – is actually astounding. Given the opportunity, teenagers demand better teaching standards and choose appropriate texts; far from finding performance art like drama and dance boring they discover opportunities for self expression in their lives (as recounted by Professors Milbrey W. McLaughlin and Shirley Brice Heath of Stanford University at the American Association for Education Research (AERA) Conference in Seattle, USA 2001).

The BBC recently [in 2002] reported a story about illiterate street children quickly teaching themselves the rudiments of computers and the internet. Intrigued by the icons on the computer and without any help, kids from the slums of Indian cities were able to figure out how to use computers, browse the internet (within minutes), cut and paste copy, drag and drop items and create folders; they particularly liked using software to draw and paint. They moved on to downloading games and playing them. Within two months they had discovered MP3 music files and were downloading songs. All this happened from incidental learning and peer to peer learning.

These things matter: museums don’t function in some isolated environment but are affected in their programs by what is going on in schools and the community. Socio- economic status is the principal determinant of museum visiting (and library use and attendance at cultural events). How people view museums derives from their socio-economic status and their experience of museum visiting, both family and in school groups [2] as well as the views of peers and role models. It is good to take museums to the people: that will make some difference but it won’t solve the difficulty many people have with museums.

How museums develop their programs depends a lot on first, the level of support given to educators within the museum, second the view held by executive management of the nature of the educational role and who the audience is – school children or everyone – and most importantly what understanding there is at executive management level and in other parts of the museum as to what museum education is supposed to deliver and what learning is.

I fear that the huge literature on learning including learning in museums and how visitors behave is not known even generally to many professional people who have influence over public programming in museums, particularly those at the most senior levels. Many politicians and senior bureaucrats are similarly unaware, even uninterested. The views about learning we grew up with and its emphasis on knowing facts don’t have the validity of the past: what counts is the ability to make connections between one situation and domain of knowledge and others.

Leading experts say, “recent education theory acknowledges, even promotes, the object-based, experiential, thought-provoking, and problem-solving type of learning in which museums excel. The overriding conclusion is that museums offer visitors profound, long-lasting, and even life-changing experiences… The challenge for museum educators is to convert the many ‘lively, vivid and interesting’ experiences into opportunities that promote learning”. [3] Numerous other people make similar points. Rather than digesting facts, learning may be as much as sitting on the steps of the Orangerie in Paris contemplating Monet’s water lilies and thinking how we react to art. [4] And visitors don’t equate learning with education or recreation with entertainment. [5]

Museums have long based their exhibition process on the notion that they can determine the visitor’s knowledge through the content and form of the exhibition. But visitors don’t come to the museum without knowledge. They construct their own knowledge through free-choice learning experiences. Learning is advanced most by control over our own learning journey and takes place within three contexts – personal, sociocultural and physical – which interact over time. Eight key factors are influential including expectations and prior knowledge, choice and control, sociocultural mediation and facilitation, orientation, design and later reinforcing experiences. [6]

Rather than recognise the changing understanding of learning however, many museum people have proclaimed entertainment as the missing factor, and solution! Meanwhile critics accuse museums of “dumbing down”, failing to lead, excessive use of technology and sacrificing their authority to political correctness and to democracy. These are propositions repeated in recent commentary and polemic. [7] In fact the most popular exhibitions in London, New York and Chicago and Australia in the last 20 years have not been like that and neither have the museums and exhibitions that have won American Association of Museums prizes or European Museum of the Year awards: I regard much of the criticism as extreme elitism or an attempt to rewrite history by those who accuse museums of doing just that. I return to this in discussing quality.

We are often told no-one is interested in science. Think on this: the last ten years have seen an extraordinary increase interest in books about science: “Fermat’s Last Theorem” by Simon Singh featured the solution of one of the most important challenges in mathematics and was made into a TV series. (A film about maths?) As well, “Galileo’s Daughter” (followed by a book of her letters), “Longitude” (also a film), “The Map that Changed the World”, “The Song of the Dodo”, “e=mc2: the story of an equation” and much more. What can this mean? These stories focus on people and their experiences: they engage us in adventures of the mind and the physical and natural world. They are not simply exercises in entertainment any more than are the vast number of successful films and books by the BBC, the ABC and PBS dealing with the environment and with history. They aren’t like the lessons we got at school, they aren’t full of facts to learn!

[1] reported in Kirsten Garrett, (producer), Reversing the Real Brain Drain, ABC Radio National Background Briefing, Sunday 3 October 1999. McCain, Margaret Norrie and J. Fraser Mustard, Reversing the Real Brain Drain: Early Years Study Final Report, Toronto: Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (1999)
[2] J.M. Griffin & D.J. Symington, “Moving from task-oriented to learning-oriented strategies on school excursions to museums”, Science Education, Vol 81/6, pp 763-779 (1997)
[3] George E. Hein and Mary Alexander, Museums: Places of Learning, Washington, DC: American Association of Museums (1998)
[4] Anna M. Kindler, “Aesthetic Development and Learning in Art Museums: a Challenge to Enjoy”, Journal of Museum Education, Vol 22/2 & 3, pp 12-16. (1997)
[5] A. A. Combs, “Why do they Come? Listening to Visitors at a Decorative Arts Museum”. Curator, Vol 42 no 3, pp 186-197 (1999).
[6] John H Falk & Lynn Dierking, Learning from Museums. Visitor Experiences and the Making of Meaning, Walnut Ck, CA: Altamira Press (2000)
[7] Michael Kimmelman, “Museums in a Quandary: Where Are the Ideals?”. New York Times, August 26, 2001; Michael Kilian, “The culture of popular Science or `Star Wars’? Museums struggle to align education and entertainment”. Chicago Tribune August 12, 2001; Josie Appleton, “New technology is dumbing down our museums”, Independent, 24 April 2001. (One commentator criticised the assertion by then director of the Melbourne Museum George MacDonald that the museum experience should be like the film experience by asking, ‘who would want museums to be like Hollywood flicks?’ The ignorance on which this comment is based is hard to imagine.)