Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate
Whenever I go into a Pre-K classroom, I begin by introducing myself and asking the following question: What do you think is in an art museum? Every time I receive the same answers: Dinosaur bones! Fossils! Every time my reaction is the same: No. With the start of the New Year, we’ve decided to review just what a museum is and what you will see when you visit an art museum. Spoiler alert: It won’t be dinosaur bones.
The Pre-K answer to what is a museum is simple: it is a building, called a museum like this building is called a school, and an art museum has art in it the way this building has kids in it. Your dinosaur bones can be found in a natural history or science museum. A museum is an institution that conserves a collection of objects that are important and exhibits them for public education and appreciation, whether permanently or temporarily. The museum is distinguished and named for the objects in its collection: an art museum holds artworks both 2D and 3D, a history museum displays objects from human history, and a science museum focuses on scientific objects and discoveries like fossils. A more formal definition of a museum, generally, is provided by the International Council of Museums (ICOM):
A museum is “a nonprofit institution” that “acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment.”
Recently, however, this definition has come under scrutiny as the position of museums as houses for the cognoscenti has given way to spaces for diverse audiences of all ages to engage with and learn through objects. The 21st century, thanks to the rise of the Internet, has swung wide the closed doors of intelligentsia, providing information on how to learn or see anything with the click of a button or the tap of a screen. Museum professionals, therefore, are working towards a new definition that encompasses the role of the museum in our global age. The following definition was put forth to bring museums into the 21st century, and, perhaps, to remind audiences that these spaces are places that put forth an agenda through their displayed objects.
“Museums are democratizing, inclusive, and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artifacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations, and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people. Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.”
Many have denigrated the new description as a lofty decree in place of a definition; a statement of how museums should purport themselves instead of what they are as institutions. This definition does not distinguish a museum from other cultural centers, libraries, or archives; instead, it places onto the museum an ideological manifesto that doesn’t include the original chief aim: education.
Museums originated from “cabinets of curiosities,” spaces accessible only to those who knew the owner of the collected valuables. These cabinets housed “curios”; rare or intriguing objects that were byproducts of imperialism. As imperialism and colonialism flourished, these objects were taken from newly discovered continents and cultures and displayed to deepen people’s knowledge. Unfortunately, these were not public services but the domain of the wealthy. The intimacy of the cabinet meant that visitors could directly interact with the oddities, handling them and scrutinizing them closely. Akin to private collections today, these objects were valued for their peculiarity as Europe made sense of these new findings during the Enlightenment. Early museums were specialized collections, which followed a linear narrative to showcase the development or progress of their objects like the Capitoline or the Louvre. Today, we call these museums encyclopedic. Both the Smithsonian and the British Museum, for example, are encyclopedic museums as they strive to present history over large swaths of time while FWMoA focuses on contemporary art.
The museum, more than just providing a narrative, either for an overarching timespan or a more specific, localized one, offers its viewers an encounter with “the real thing”. They strive to collect authentic pieces of value, whether aesthetic or cultural, that hold a permanence to the culture they represent. Some argue against the museum because it disrupts the objects by taking them from their “natural habitat” into the seemingly neutral space of a museum. As they structure a narrative through their object displays, however, museums are far from apolitical. They present their objects in a constructed form, whether they wish to admit it or not. In fact, many natural history museums are renovating their display cases and updating their labels to mitigate inaccuracies and politically defunct language. Do these updates also warrant the broadening of the definition of a museum?
With museums like the Museum of Ice Cream [insert link] popping up, the defining of what a museum is not is just as important. One could argue that despite their rotating exhibitions, because they are not showcasing objects to educate the public about the history of humans, they cannot be considered a true museum. These initial pop-ups that then find homes meet neither museum definition and, while fun, are not collections of human history, visual or cultural.
Despite the push to bring the museum into the 21st century with a buzzword definition and the advent of spaces like the Museum of Ice Cream, when we at FWMoA call ourselves a museum it is because we house and exhibit a collection that tells the story of humanity visually. Our labels and educational materials help contextualize and explain these works, detailing our past and informing our future. As each art movement builds upon the former, we help our audiences not only to see where we were but the possibilities of where we may go next. The collection, held in trust and displayed for the public, is interpreted in the context of an institution and understood with hindsight, however, this understanding neither diminishes nor dismisses the importance of these spaces.
Therefore, my definition of a museum would be as follows:
A museum is a non-profit institution recognized for its trust by the public to safeguard, through preservation and/or conservation, the intangible and tangible objects of human history and exhibit said objects, whether permanently or temporarily, to educate a diverse public and contribute to the cultural, social, and political dialogue of the past, present, and future.
How would you define museum?