Blog

Museum Studies and the Nature of Museums Today

By: Dr Lynda Kelly, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 20 Oct 2011

Some notes and commentary from this article published in Volume 30, Number 1 edition of the Exhibitionist. Thanks to Gretchen Jennings for passing it on and to the seven respondents in the article for their considered comments which I’ve shamelessly borrowed! 

Museum entrance foyer c.1961

Howard Hughes © Australian Museum

The Spring Edition of the Exhibitionist addresses the topic Is it a museum? Does it matter? More details are on their website here

What did a bunch of museum studies folk think about where museums and museums studies is headed: How Do Museum Studies Programs Address the Nature of Museums Today? Here's my notes and commentary.

General themes:

  • Museum studies need to take a broad view of what the institution is (beyond the ICOM definition)
  • Theory and practice is needed
  • Thinking critically is also key – this helps deal with new challenges and issues that arise that we can’t foresee
  • Prepare a more flexible staff
  • Need to learn business skills, especially fundraising
  • Museums provide public services therefore need to serve their communities (and understand them too)
  • Research skills are important
  • “… need a committed, passionate and talented professional workforce to advance [museum’s] role as safe, secular, accessible public sites” (Marjorie Schwarzer)
  • Are museum workers ‘valued’? Often there are limited jobs, poor pay and conditions. Many graduates cannot get jobs in museums (so why are we continuing to train them then??)
  • Need to move towards shared authority (although Gretchen Soren did quafity this with a “Dare I day it” – actually this is where we’re headed, so no qualification necessary!)
  • Museums will continue to collect, preserve and educate: the key here is how will these tasks now be undertaken? George Browne Goode said in 1880 or so “The museum likewise must, in order to perform its proper functions, contribute to the advancement of learning through the increase as well as through the diffusion of knowledge.” This imperative has not changed.
  • “We have an enormous challenge in keeping up with the technology, but perhaps an even larger one in challenging our students to think both creatively and critically when it comes to using this technology” (Nora Pat Small and Rick Riccio)
  • Foster curiosity and fluid thinking: what Fiona Cameron calls “liquid museums” – moving from solid structures to liquid flows, museums as dynamic processes, not static beasts (my challenge is how to do this given we continue to operate under tired old exhibition development processes that hinder the idea of rapid agile approaches for example)

Overall areas for study in museology are:

  • Digital communication and media technology
  • Corporate business practices
  • Fundraising strategies and philanthropic relationships
  • Community/identity politics and activist organisation agendas
  • Audience research: and not just understanding of audiences in the physical space, also need new models of audience research which I’ve called audience Research 2.0, moving from a social science model to trends in academic/scholarly research standards and practices. Also remembering that scholarly research cannot equal inaccessible, impractical, time-consuming and resource-intense, needs to be based in the practices and needs of the museum, not on what the academy thinks ought to be done.

I’m thinking that the key qualities of a museum worker for the 21st century are being networked, connected, open-minded, critical, curious and conscious of sustainable work practices. We will be discussing these in more detail at the ICTOP 2011 conference, The Museum Professional Network: Careers, Connections and
Community
, being held in Toronto from 24-26 October. Follow us on Museum3.org or #ictop on Twitter.