I recently went to a family reunion last week and, as these things go, I repeatedly got asked by distant relatives what I was doing with my life. As I explained to them that I was in the midst of completing a graduate program in museum education here at Tufts, I seemed to get the same general responses: “Huh, I didn’t know museums did that,” or, “Usually museums are places where you can’t touch anything,” or, “What does that mean?” or…*sigh.* You get the point. Sadly, this is not the first time I’ve had to defend and/or explain my field, as I’m sure many of you have as well. Indeed, almost no one I have talked to about museums over the past year seem to know what the phrase ‘museum education’ means and they either continued to hold the antiquated view that museums are stodgy old curiosity cabinets or that museums were simply places of entertainment for a rainy Saturday. We as museum folk know this to be (mostly) untrue today as museums are trying harder and harder to break that mold and become known as places where education, entertainment, discussion, and innovation all converge. And while these ideas are coming directly from my own interactions with others, I recently read an article about public opinions of museums that suggests my 3rd cousins twice removed are not alone in their mistaken, albeit understandable views on museums.
The article, titled “Trust Me, I’m a Museum” from the Center for the Future of Museums discusses how the public views museums and what they consider to be the essential purposes of museums. It frequently cites a UK study done in 2013 which reported that, “when invited to weigh in on what does not fit in the essential purposes of museums, the UK participants listed promoting justice and human rights, and providing a forum for debate. These activities were cited as ‘undermin[ing] the essential values of trust and integrity that people cherish with regards to museums.'” (Side note: this topic is especially interesting to consider when thinking about one of our previous posts by Colleen Sutherland, in which she discusses the importance of museums joining the national conversation on social justice.) Further, the article argues that if museums choose to discuss issues of contention such as climate change or human rights, we may run the risk of shutting out the many people who feel that one of the core museum purposes is “to provide a family-friendly, enjoyable and entertaining day out.” As Nina Simon writes in the comments, this “reinforces the idea that people may have antiquated ideas about what museums are for or ought to be for.”
So, where do we go from here? How do we assert ourselves as places that can effectively facilitate discussions on important issues on while dispelling commonly-held antiquated views of what museums are really all about? Do you have any thoughts or experience with these issues in your museum? I’d love to see them in the comments below!