What is the Role of the Museum in the Community: The Results

Last week I asked, “What is the role of the museum in your community?”

The four options to choose from were: temple, forum, commons or “other” (you name it).

When I first put the survey out there I received a few tweets regarding the role of ‘educator’ in the community. I did not include it in the “big three” because education should be the foundation of any temple, forum or commons; the definition of each category dictates how you educate.

So, between temple, forum, or commons, what did you choose? Survey says…

Commons comes out on top with 47%.

While I was at Developing History Leaders at the Seminar for Historical Administration (which has a new website – shameless plug – you’re welcome, SHA) we talked at length about the role of the museum in the community. At first, the discussions revolved around the temple vs. forum debate.

Temple: A building devoted to the worship, or regarded as the dwelling place, of a god or gods or other objects of religious reverence.

The objects in our collections are sacred and we are the guardians.

We take significant amounts of time to collect, study, preserve, display and interpret objects. Does this make museums THE historical/scientific/cultural authority? While what we collect changes and the way we collect objects varies, does our interpretation model change over time?

As we look back at history, art or science is there room for revisionist interpretation? Does this come from the museum or from the community? Or both? Does this alter the collections management plans we have in place and the way we display our objects?

Forum: A meeting or medium where ideas and views on a particular issue can be exchanged.

How does the community interact with the objects we house? With our mission? Are they put off by “please do not touch” and “no photography” signage? Is there an opportunity for discussion during a self guided tour? What are the strengths and weaknesses of our programming? Lectures? Films? How often are community roundtable discussions held in the museum?

A forum means dialogue it taking place. What are we talking about and where are we talking?

As the “role of the museum” discussions evolved the three weeks at SHA and programming, evaluation and unique revenue streams were presented, “the commons” became more and more apparent. As museum professionals, we can get so wrapped up in objects, to-do lists and the next exhibition that we don’t always take the time to see the importance of the commons.

Commons: A place or resource shared by all people without barrier or restriction.

Without barrier or restriction. That is BOLD. When museum professionals think of commons we often think of Web 2.0, but what about creating a common space within the walls of the institution? Visitor curation and participation is much easier to facilitate online but if we truly want to engage our local communities, shouldn’t we invite visitors to roll up their sleeves and get a little dirty? Give them an opportunity to say not only that they have a stake in what the museum IS but that they also are a part of what the museum DOES. I know, I’m being pretty radical here.

I’m not saying give your visitor’s a pair of white gloves and let them loose in the collections room. What I am saying is create unique opportunities for your community to create, touch, discuss and become a part of your institution.

Some more food for thought comes from Neal Stimler (@nealstimler). He recently tweeted a series of definitions for museums:

Now that your brain is stewing, is it time to look beyond temple, forum and commons? Or do the definitions from Neal above somehow fall into those three categories?

2 thoughts on “What is the Role of the Museum in the Community: The Results

  1. Pingback: Link Dump Sunday: Merry Winter Edition | Museum Beyond

  2. Really interesting, thank you. I wonder if the majority voted for Commons because it’s a much bigger category that includes both Forum and Temple (and also includes Storehouse and Attraction/Playground)? Forum or Temple is an old dichotomy, but we’re now rediscovering a more embracing purpose for museums, stimulated by current crises (economic-ecological collapse) and opportunities (networked information and social learning). The fact that so many voted for Commons also suggests that it’s not as radical as you suggest, but perhaps is the essential next step for museums to be relevant.

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