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Museums for the 21st Century

  1. Footnotes

Museums for the 21st Century: Entertainments or Big Challenging Ideas?

This is a series of extracts from an article in Artlink 22/4 (December 2002), p16-22.

I go to museums to be enthralled and challenged, both confirmed and confronted in the realm of ideas: Rodin’s Burghers of Calais, the parade of animals at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, the National Museum of the American Indian’s ‘Creation’s Journey’ and “All Roads are Good” in New York. I focus on the big ideas presented there, on creativity and representation, meanings and patterns, the history of us as humans. Museums both reinforce one’s views and challenge them, encouraging innovative connections we hadn’t thought of before, driving us on to expanded understandings. But let’s not pretend that what I want from a museum visit is what everyone else does.

Old North Bridge, Concord, Massachusetts (More)
The National Museum of Australia has been accused of distorting the truth of frontier conflict in post invasion Australia. Some Council members saw their role as correcting text labels in the exhibitions. Displaying icons such as Hill’s Hoist as a symbol of Australian everyman led some to ask if our museums have to be designed as glorified play equipment. Others saw the exhibitions as “Marxist rubbish”. Museum Director Dawn Casey responded by claiming, “We see our role as changing people’s attitudes…” And again, “the very nature of the criticism demonstrates our diversity”. Citing visitors’ diversity of views and wants, she feels that any attempt to define identity in a young country with so many different landscapes and ethnic legacies is always going to be controversial [1]. Some of this reminds me of the fierce criticism of Smithsonian museum exhibitions in Washington with its accusations of political agendas and calls for the showing of beautiful things and America’s ‘heroes’.Much of the shrill criticism of recent years has amounted to imposition of personal views on the general populace. [2] Greater knowledge of the visiting experience and of what contributes effectively to learning in the museum environment is ignored. It hasn’t helped clarify how museums can play a better role. It hasn’t been informed by best practice in leadership and governance. It represents a static view of history and most often treats museums as places to learn facts and see collections, not to engage with big issues and see the best from all over the world. Think of what such an approach in the last 50 years might have done for Australian art and its appreciation and ideas generally.

The British government’s recent request that museums monitor the numbers of visitors from ethnic minorities has drawn the ire of museums and media. Yet representation of diversity and identity amongst the community and intellectual (as well as physical) access are fundamental issues. Museums in the USA in particular, and Canada and Australia to a lesser extent, are vigorously caught up in issues of representation, especially so far as indigenous peoples are concerned. The truth is that much of the debate about the viewpoints that museums present are really part of a wider debate in the community [3]. In the USA museums are very strongly concerned with identity and representation, many museums devoted to almost every ethnic group in the population. Is the ire directed at the demand for measuring the ethnic diversity of visitors an objection to concern for ethnic representation or to measuring per se? Or to the notion that counting numbers – the simplistic government mandate – is not enough and that genuine seeking out of different audiences by museums is desperately needed?

Responding to criticism of the presentation of history, Professor Joyce Appleby (University of California, Los Angeles) said,” History is not only connected to the present, but it’s also connected to the future, or what we think the future is going to be. … Schoolchildren and researchers now ask questions about these races and their interactions as a way of understanding of this development… . The important things is to keep the link as to how knowledge is created. It is not something that is being imagined; it comes out of new questions. It’s entirely possible our current views won’t last for more than 30 or 40 years. Yet another perspective will generate new scholarship, and once again will take 10 to 15 years to develop the depth, the complexity and the thoroughness of a new body of material.” [4]

Argument about the educational value of museums is not new. Science centres grew in number from doubt as to the educational effectiveness of museums: they emphasised interactivity as providing more effective ways of learning. Visiting children were seen running around and laughing, enjoying themselves: what a far cry from the usual visit to the traditional museum, it was said by satisfied staff! I personally find good science centres to be innovative with staff likely to share visions about what is right for them and to be more informal; exhibits that do not work are taken off the floor and replaced. These are stark contrasts with the highly-structured traditional museums with their distinct professional groups communicating with each other only when necessary, each contributing a different skill at a different time to exhibitions and generally resisting management.

One critic has asserted, “the general use of new technologies in museums today [has generally] undermined the quality of museum experience… In general new technologies are not being used to elucidate a collection but instead are being used to recreate the ‘whole experience’… ‘get hip’, cast off [museums’] dusty image, and become ‘modern’ and ‘relevant'”. As a result, “[visitors] get a less substantial, less intelligent experience… the value of reflection and serious thought, the silent contemplation of objects and ideas, is being undermined” [5]. As with other criticisms, I think much of this ignores what we know about learning.

Some museum directors have been happy to take their institutions into the entertainment or leisure industries and use terms like edutainment or infotainment: these are inappropriate descriptions of the museum visiting experience. More than that, there has been little follow through: finding out what has secured or even grown audiences in the entertainment industry, for instance improvements in access and comfort at cinemas, has not occupied the minds of the ‘museums are in the entertainment industry’ people. Quite simply, the judgement has been that since entertainments attract large audiences all museums have to do is be entertaining! Reasons for the success of many museums and exhibitions haven’t been satisfactorily explored by these museums. Lists of the most popular exhibitions at museums in the USA and Britain in the last 15 years have been published in the last year: none were “dumbed down” mere entertainments! And the horrendous failure of London’s Millennium Dome surely ends the debate that visitors want just entertainment.

Academics can talk about museums and facts and the presentation of truth but it is more than likely that visitors expect big ideas than vast amounts of information. Jay Rounds of the University of Missouri at St Louis talks of “10 o’clock theories”, simple and very general, as likely to be of most interest to science museum visitors; however, “6 o’clock theories” – simple but very accurate – are the most common [6]. Much of the criticism of museum exhibition content is that the facts are wrong. Others say there is not enough information and others still that visitors don’t read labels. This last assertion is easily dealt with: putting microphones on visitors or behind exhibits show that visitors read and understand much more than thought. But big concepts is another matter: why would one go to a museum to find information that can be found in books or on the internet? What about experiences? Catering to a diverse audience is an important though daunting challenge seldom confronted.

Three examples emphasize experience [7]. A story I particularly like talks of sitting in the Orangerie Gallery in Paris looking at Monet’s painting of waterlilies and thinking how the viewer related to art [8]. Beverley Serrell, an experienced exhibition evaluator, recently visited the exhibition of photographs (taken by Australian Frank Hurley) of the Shackleton Exhibition to the Antarctic and the extraordinary journey the explorers made to safety. “I was moved to new actions and beliefs. I wasn’t interested in Antarctic exploration before I saw this exhibition. Afterwards I bought Shackleton’s biography and devoured its 700+ pages. I ordered the cassette version … for my next cross country car trip. I even tried pemmican, or beef jerky … It made me think about when attention to personal feelings and details can diffuse anger and impatience and how humour can coexist with the most extreme hardship.” Just as important, she told her friends not to miss the exhibition [9].

Oliver Sacks, neurologist and writer, discovered Mendeleev’s periodic table of the chemical elements on one of the walls in the Science Museum in London when it reopened in 1945 [10]. To a boy who was already a keen amateur chemist, the revelation that the apparently disconnected properties of the elements could be fitted into a logical system gave the first sense of the power of the human mind. “In that first, long, rapt encounter in the Science Museum, I was convinced that the periodic table was neither arbitrary nor superficial, but a representation of truths which would never be overturned… this perception produced in my twelve-year-old self a sort of ecstasy…”

There is something deeply disturbing to me about much of the criticism of museum exhibitions, that which focuses on privileging the ordinary visitor, that which says museums misrepresent the truth: I wonder at the honesty of it. The drive in some quarters for ever bigger and more fancy buildings is another matter. [11] Some directors seem to think the new physical building will make all the difference but in truth the real new museum is the reinvigorated and retrained staff which come with it, or should! Unfortunately, that possibility is sometimes overturned by cuts in operational funding on the morning after the glamorous opening.

To suggest, as have some directors, that attention to public programs means less attention to scholarship is nonsense unsupported by any evidence. Scholarship is vital in a museum and recognised in all good ones. (True, some governments, notably the Commonwealth Government, do seem to not understand this. There are restrictions on the kind of scholarship that the National Museum can involve itself in and the Australian National Maritime Museum from the beginning was instructed to severely limit curatorial input.) Museum Victoria has a long and diverse history of internationally significant research: right now they are in the forefront of exploring the evolution of birds using DNA data which shows that songbirds evolved in Gondwanaland of which Australia was once part!

Museums in Australia, as enterprises, have faced the same problems as elsewhere, exacerbated by being too close to governments. Ongoing reviews, short-term contracts for senior executives as well as demands for performance indicators and more business-like practice and entrepreneurship. These have ignored effective organizational change practices: skilled staff and executives leave whilst consultants fiddle with organization charts. Meanwhile, governments continue what they are best at: intervening! Genuine leadership builds trust, encourages achievement, challenges assumptions and develops potential [12] and good governance pursues quality and integrity. Jim Collins, in his recent book “Good to Great” [13], shows that exceptional leaders are devoted to the company, not themselves; a down-to-earth, pragmatic, committed-to-excellence process keeps the greatest companies, its leaders, and its people on track for the long haul.

The importance of investing resources for the longer term and above all working to gain commitment to strong shared values remain on the margins of the debate about museum futures. The value of learning from others and from history, the importance of doubt and the gains from focussing on ideas have been lost in swamps of uninformed assertions by people who should know better. Genuine leadership is essential. Governments, if they want the best, will see that is pursued. Let’s try to get some genuine thinking and understanding into this debate!


1. Cited in ABC ArtsOnline August 2002
2. However, some of the criticisms certainly merits serious consideration: in Britain, the British Museum has been very heavily criticised for its exhibitions and management, especially by comparison with the two Tate art museums and the National and Portrait Galleries: see “Behind the Grandeur, Turmoil at the British Museum” by Sarah Lyall, New York TimesThe Guardian, 6 December, 2001. The Smithsonian Institution has been substantially embroiled in criticism since corporate CEO Lawrence Small was appointed Secretary, solicited donations from wealthy Americans seemingly without regard to views of curatorial staff and dismissed almost all criticism (“Revolt at the Smithsonian…” by Michael Kilian, Chicago Tribune, 6 May 2001)
3.Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian Dr Richard West speaking at the National Museum of Australia 26 February 2002.
4. Speaking at the Smithsonian Institution in March 1997 (Journal of Museum Education 23 (3), 1998, p 7)
5. Josie Appleton in The Independent, 24 April 2001
6. Curator The Museum Journal – 43/3, pp 188-198 (2001).
7. The Fall 2001 (vol 26, no 3) issue of the Journal of Museum Education published by the Museum Education Roundtable contains a number of articles on “Museums that Matter”.
8. Anna M. Kindler, Journal of Museum Education, 22/2 and 3, pp 12-16, 1997.
9. Beverly Serrell, Curator, The Museum Journal 43/3, pp 284-288, 2001
10. M. F. Perutz’s review of ‘Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood’ by Oliver Sacks (Knopf) is in The New York Review of Books November 1, 2001
11. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is slated for further major expansion; in the last 30 years ROM has had seven directors whislt the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has had eight directors in 130 years. Is size the problem at ROM?
12. Bruce J. Avolio & Bernard M. Bass (1999), Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 72/4: 441-463.
13. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t (Harper Collins, New York, 2001)
22 July, 2002 & “Dumb witness” by Jonathan Jones,