The museum: fragments of the world’s cultural patrimony
These notes are born from the desire to report on my visits to museums and to record my impressions, hoping to bring about constructive web discussions on those considerations and to provide a useful feedback to the institutions.
The approach is to visit a museum and present, in a post, a summary of its characteristics (supported by pictures) and their assessments from the point of view of one visitor.
The web site structure will allow the posting of reader’s comments. The discussion is expected to find contributors mainly amongst individuals familiar with the museum under discussion (i.e. the context should be the primary concern, not theoretical concepts of museology).
The professional deﬁnition of museum most widely recognized today is still that given in 2007 in the Statutes of the International Council of Museums (ICOM): “A museum is a non-proﬁt, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”
Museums can be assessed (from a socio-political, cultural and technical point of view) through complex studies and thus be formally rated in their compliance with their mission statements.
The approach here is not rigorous or formal but somewhat practical. I will attempt a qualitative evaluation based on the key questions that follow:
i) determine if the functions carried out by of the institution are commensurable with the (public) resources invested;
ii) consider if the patrimony assigned to the institution is adequately managed;
iii) query if/how the social context justifies the investment of (public) resources in the institution.
In simple words, I believe that the success of institutions ranges so wildly that in some cases their operations or even their existence may be difficult to justify. Accountability (to all stakeholders) may well be the weakest area of performance of most institutions, something that is not impossible to change.
The “Key Concept on Museology” is a small publication issued by the ICOM (International Committee for Museology) in 2010. While it is an excellent technical reference, it is also a tough read when a non-professional investigates these concepts.
I prepared the following simplified taxonomy of museum characteristics to help me, later on, present my impressions on the visited institution.
The institution is responsible for the conservation of a collection of artifacts or items of artistic, cultural, historical or scientific importance and exhibits them for public viewing.
The organization needed to establish and operate a museum is usually required to limit the fields of studies practiced within the institution and therefore we find that exhibitions are categorized by specific field of study. The most common are fine arts, applied arts, craft, archaeology, anthropology and ethnology, biography, history, cultural and natural history, science, technology. Botanical and zoological gardens, archives and libraries also meet some of the criteria associated with museums.
What’s placed in an exhibition?
I have always been puzzled by the array of objects presented to viewers in museums. I think they can be divided in two groups:
A) Artifact and objects whose relevance has been assessed by recognized professional experts. These items of artistic, historical, cultural or scientific value have been located, found, gathered, collected and/or acquired during activities of studies by professionals or, alternatively, they have been accepted following an investigative process on donations and ‘legal’ acquisitions.
B) Artifact and objects donated to an institution following their collection by amateurs (coins, butterflies, glasswork, etc.) or by individuals with idiosyncratic interests (travelling, hunting, mementos), as well as those handed in because of legal requirements (archaeological finds) or the perceived relevance to the community’s cultural values (from important archival material to freakish items)
What’s the exhibition’s purpose?
A museum will exhibit for the purposes of study, of education, and of enjoyment. Since it may not be possible to structure exhibits that will meet all three purposes, the items may be organized and displayed them with the intent to meet the expectations of a targeted viewing group. An exhibition may thus be structured to privilege:
a) educational needs (when targeting viewers with limited knowledge and broad cultural interests).
b) culturally sophisticated needs (generally aiming at viewers with specific interests and broad cultural knowledge).
c) special exhibition requirements; like those usually associated with exhibitions expected to have large numbers of visitors over short periods of time (where the viewers are expected to have broad personal interests and sensibility to the mass media).
What’s the exhibition strategy?
With very few exceptions, the institution responsible for managing the collection and the exhibition space of a museum needs to decide which items, from the permanent collection, can be exhibited and the percentage of exhibition space afforded to the items on long term display.
The strategic decisions associated with the selection of those items are amongst the most important for the organization because they greatly impact the public perception of the museum (as well as its operational costs).
What’s the exhibition relevance?
The importance of museum holdings strongly affects the relevance of the owning institution, which in turn is socially and culturally responsible for the adequate structuring and management of the museum.
Although acknowledging that a museum classification, based on a scale of social relevance linked to the value of the items exhibited, may be objectionable for some, it is cultural relevance that a museum should strive to achieve, regardless of the social reality. Institutions quest for excellence should attempt to either:
i) assert the cultural heritage of a small region (by focussing on local culture with its social and educational relevance), or
ii) define the cultural relevance of a territory (by asserting the heritage representativeness of the artifacts ), or
iii) be the referents of a national status (by providing relevant scholarly contributions), or
iv) contribute to the definition of a world cultural heritage (by offering exhibits that meet the highest scholarly and communication standards).
My interest is to provide reviews structured as to stimulate a discussion. I find that museum reviews on the web are varied and not always effective or informational, one site I find very interesting is http://www.ajaonline.org/museumreviews and the following is a truly an amazing review: http://www.ajaonline.org/sites/default/files/1153_Caskey.pdf