by columnist Tegan Kehoe
A couple weeks ago, I was a part of Boston’s first History Camp, an “unconference” that was organized by volunteers and a wiki. One of the panels was on means of publishing for history books, and Boston historian J. L. Bell made point I think applies just as well to museums. He said that people — particularly writers — are used to thinking of publishing houses as the gatekeepers: people who control what gets inside, people who has to please, appease, or even depend on the whims of. With e-books, inexpensive self-publishing and other text formats flooding the market, he proposed, it makes just as much sense to think of gatekeepers (whether they are publishers, reviewers, or others) as ushering readers in through open gates, helping them find what’s good and what suits their tastes. I think the same metaphor can be used to talk about museums as gatekeepers of knowledge, stories, and images or artifacts.
Even though numerous studies have shown that visitors tend to consider museums one of the most trustworthy sources of information, only the most specialized researchers need museums for information they can’t get anywhere else. Museum professionals know in our guts that museums still have an important function even when all our collections are on Flickr or Pinterest, but that function can be hard to define — the keepers of an open gate is one way to articulate it. Still, there are plenty of people talking about museums’ role as information gate ushers, even if they aren’t sharing the terminology.
Calcagno Cullen, of the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art, has compared case studies of museum and non-museum strategies for community engagement. Interestingly, books come up again.
Nina Simon has talked about the subject from many angles, including the hazards of acting our job is to know better than the visitors.
Susie Wilkening of Reach Advisors describes some elements of their research on what makes a visitor’s experience in a museum meaningful with the delightful phrase “historical cooties,” showing that it’s not that we should know better than the visitors, it’s that we should know the visitors better.
If the role of museums is changing, are we studying the right things? I would argue that we mostly are, but there’s room for improvement. Museums have always been information gate ushers (even in the earliest days, if you really wanted to see a cow skeleton with two heads, you could find one with enough work, but museums did the work for you). Now this visitor-centered gatekeeping is simply more central. Studying new and old subjects such as how to take care of the collections, how to teach people, and how to reach people through exhibits or social media is incredibly valuable. On the other hand, keeping up with trends in what people are looking for and why might be increasingly important, not just for marketing but to help visitors make genuine connections. Perhaps we should be looking for more ways to do this