Thursday, March 15, 2012

What is a museum anyway?

According to
mu·se·um /myo͞oˈzēəm/
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A building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited.

     This is probably similar to the response most people would give to the question, “What is a museum?”  I am disappointed that this definition seems to focus on the museum as a building though.  I won’t argue that a building is generally necessary, but isn’t it the collection of artifacts which is the focus of most museums?  After all, the collection can be housed in any appropriate building, but if there are no items to study or display it’s not much of a museum.  You’d just have an empty building with the word “Museum” over the front door!

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While we are on the subject of museum buildings, here is the front of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine building. This building has existed since before the Civil War, and it has quite an interesting history of its own. I’ll have to do a post on that another time!

     In my first Museum Studies class we discussed the characteristics of a museum.  The definition of a museum from our textbook, A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections, by Marie C. Malero, was “a public or private nonprofit agency or institution organized on a permanent basis for essentially educational or aesthetic purposes which, utilizing a professional staff, owns or utilizes tangible objects, cares for them, and exhibits them to the public on a regular basis.”

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Here’s the textbook, which is also sometimes referred to as the “bible of collection management.” This one did not get sold when I finished my classes!

     This definition is a bit longer but is also more accurate!  In this one, a museum is an institution or agency, not just a building.  This one also focuses more on the care and educational value of the objects in the collection, and their role in being exhibited to the public.  But let’s get one more perspective.

     According to the American Association of Museums, the common denominator of museums is their "unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving, and interpreting the things of this world."  This description and the previous definition go beyond a museum merely being a building with items on exhibit.  They also acknowledge caring for, preserving, and interpreting the artifacts for the public.  I particularly like the phrase in the AAMs description, “unique contribution to the public” because it recognizes the PURPOSE in collecting and caring for the artifacts.  Museums exist for the benefit of the public, in preserving and protecting its collection of artifacts.  

     So, now you may be wondering where I am going with this.  (Uh oh, she’s getting up on that soap box again….)  It seems that sometimes people lose sight of the purpose of museums or of the collections in museums, especially when the economy is on a downturn and the museum’s budget may be tight.  The collection then sometimes starts being regarded, not as items which the museum has been entrusted to protect and preserve, but as items which can make money for the museum.

     Perhaps you’ve noticed articles online or in the newspaper about museums which are considering selling items from their collections in order to fund new projects, or even to just pay their operating costs?  If you haven’t, simply do an online search of “museums selling artifacts” and see what you find.  It’s a bit of a hot topic in the museum world right now.  There are people on both sides of the issue, some saying that collections should never be sold to pay the museum’s bills, and others pointing out that if the museum closes, the collection can’t benefit anyone.  So the debate becomes, do you protect the collection at the expense of other areas of the museum, or even given the possibility of the museum closing, or do you sacrifice some of the artifacts for the good of the museum and its remaining artifacts? 

     For me, it all goes back to the museum’s purpose.  If the purpose of a museum is to preserve and protect the artifacts for the public and for future generations, it seems pretty clear that the collection of artifacts is what should be preserved.  I’m sure there are people who disagree with me, but they are certainly free to start their own blogs! 

     Besides, it can also be argued that the collection DOES bring in money, even though it may not look like it on paper.  Admittedly, the Collections Department generally spends more money than it generates – at least directly.  Building and maintaining exhibits, and storing and caring for artifacts all cost money.  But if you consider that the museum visitors are paying to come see the artifacts on display, the collection certainly does play a big part in the museum’s bottom line! 

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Most museums have a gift shop (another source of income), and the NMCWM is no exception!

     Thank you for indulging me in this little rant!  And please don’t forget to help support your local museum(s) by stopping in for a visit. 

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.


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