26 September 2017

WHAT IS A MUSEUM?

BEYOND TRADITION

BY: EMILY WELSH

Hello and welcome to the inaugural post of the column Beyond Tradition! This column will be a home for authors to discuss their thoughts and findings of museum practices that fall outside traditional models and conventions. I hope readers and authors alike will be provoked to think critically about the practices they see in other museums and the lessons they can incorporate into their own institution or favourite type, no matter how drastically different the other museum may appear. However, this idea centres around the debatable concept: what is a museum?  

Which museums do you consider to be museums? Source.

I often think that when people consider the word museum, the first institutions that pop into their minds are history museums (including natural history) and art galleries. Their definition for a museum likely revolves around two key concepts - the presence of museum objects and the discussion of historical or cultural topics.

However, I argue this definition of museum is much too narrow. Let's examine science museums and science centres as a case in point. Science museums, such as the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) in Ottawa, readily exhibit the two attributes of the definition above; CSTM houses and displays a large collection of artifacts relating to the history of science and technology. It is not hard to imagine them as a museum.

But consider a science centre where the emphasis on artifacts is decreased and instead galleries use interactive experiences to communicate current scientific knowledge, concepts and questions. The Ontario Science Centre focuses on hands-on/bodies-on experiences with current science, yet they still present a small range of artifacts in their galleries. The presence of objects would qualify them as a museum under the definition above, but even if they did not display a single artifact, or speak one word regarding history or culture, I would still call them a museum. Consider how science centres discuss abstract concepts or contemporary knowledge: are they really that different from art galleries that display contemporary art or history museums that discuss recent events in temporary exhibitions?

Do you consider science centres to be museums? Source.

For me, the definition of a museum is an institution that uses interpretation to present a subject matter to the public and provides a space for visitors to create their own meaning. They are first and foremost places of informal learning. Eilean Hooper Greenhill (1999, p.3) states:

'museum' is a capacious concept, and as a result museums are intensely varied, with a fluidity of organizational form that can be adeptly exploited to suit specific local circumstances. ... each museum is unique. For all museums, however, their educational role is crucial.  

Whether or not you wish to label zoos, aquariums, science centres, and other non-traditional learning institutions as museums, I hope you will consider what can be gained by keeping an open mind and eye on their practices and research. They all provide visitor experiences. They all present knowledge to the public. They all wish to be meaningful parts of their communities. If all informal learning institutions thought of themselves and their uniquely different partners as museums, then we would be more open to looking at the work being done around us and the lessons we can learn from others' successes and failures. 

References: 

          Hooper-Greenhill, E. (1999). Education, communication and interpretation: Towards a critical pedagogy in museums. In E. Hooper-Greenhill, The educational role of the museum (p. 3-27). London: Routledge



2 comments:

  1. Emily, great use of Greenhill's work and what a fresh perspective on museums - you are so right that we need to make more distinctions between different types of museums which come with their own interpretive practices. Look forward to reading more1

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for reading Professor. We are looking forward to exploring the different types of museums and the lessons we can takeaway from their unique practices!

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