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What is the primary role of the museum in the modern world?

Museums have many roles, responsibilities and functions, some of which arose with the origin of western museums hundreds of years ago, others very new. This is a major debate in the field of Museum Studies as well as other associated fields. Some historical roles have included the museum as a place for academic research, as an educational institution, or both. Most museums continue to perform in this role. More recently the museum has been championed as a place of social interaction, a center for social justice and even a space for experimentation, invention and innovation where visitors can learn how to get involved. What do you think the museum does?

  • Nov 19 2012: I think it does exactly what you have stated. Museums pose a place where history and mystery come alive. A place where imagination and creativity are tangible. Online for example, you can only research, it does not give you a grasp of the feel, smell or even the sheer size of objects. Coming together with classmates, friends and family discussing topics is a social event that I would find difficult to duplicate online.
  • Nov 18 2012: I believe the museum serves as a place for reflection of lessons learned from our past. They also are places where idea peculation can occur which lead to innovation. I believe museums would be better suited near colleges or educational institutions. It would better serve the educational community to encourage or require the attendance of its members at museums.
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    Nov 18 2012: Richard, I think this is an excellent question. I watched Night at the Museum last night (stay with me!) and the sequel deals with the premise that all the original artifacts are to be shipped to a storage unit and replaced with virtual interactive exhibits; the central tenet involved exploring why we need to keep original artifacts in modern day museums,and it was a compelling (if not a little saccharine) story. As with most things what was decided was a combination of original exhibits and modern technology is the best way for a museum to go....now I believe Museums serve the loftiest purpose...that of LEARNING; to behold actual primary sources of our domestic, cultural and spiritual evolution gives us opportunities for deep experience (that is to say experience filled with awe and wonder). I believe children and adults alike will forever marvel at the contents of museums and I read recently that most only show 10% of their actual stock...now a virtual tour of their 'backstage' areas would be fascinating.It's what's not on show that just arouses our curiosity! Also I recently heard of the Grayson Perry exhibition in London in which he chose key objects and linked them through his interpretation of how they fit into ours (and his) world...a really interesting take on curating.This essentially challenges the divide between museum and art gallery....brilliantly thought provoking.
    • Nov 20 2012: This is an important discussion in the museum field: on the one hand visitors can learn a great deal from looking at real objects, on the other hand, we do not learn passively, we are active learners and so many of us learn by doing. So, this is what brings about the debate over interactivity which comes up briefly in the Night at the Museum movie. Interactives can be great ways of getting visitors to actively engage with the material in a way that they can not by simply looking at objects. The idea of interactives is terrific, however, many museum professionals, such as myself, believe that the reality of interactives falls quite far below what it could be. Too often interactives are simple activities such as doing simple puzzles or connecting the dots. Interactive exhibits should be much more challenging and inspire creative thinking. Interactive exhibits should not only be "hands on" but also "mind on".
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        Nov 20 2012: ..great point, I think technology and the imagination can dream anything when coupled together...realizing these is quite another matter...'hands and minds on' I love that, you're right museums must make us think....might I develop this further and say the ideal museum should foster a 'heads, heart and hands on' approach to grip the next generation....
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        Nov 21 2012: At my local art museum we use volunteers who are trained about the exhibits and to interact with people about the work as sorts of wandering docents.

        The zoo has something similar.
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    Nov 16 2012: Richard, in our daily lives, we receive information primarily via electronic and paper media where we use either one or two senses (sight, hearing). Museums provide us information in an environment where we can use most of our senses enabling a refreshing learning experience. It is like reading a book by walking , seeing ,touching, hearing and feeling. .
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    Nov 16 2012: A museum is a inspiration for those who love history, but its more than that. Every Museum speaks a story not just humans but of most living things. There are places for social interaction but museum is a gateway to past.
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    Nov 15 2012: A museum could serve as a reminder of the events/ways of the past; and sometimes these reminders helps in keeping the future in proper perspective. A visit to the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg is a reminder of the dangers of racism and a pointer to the fact that the nation has made progress.
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    Nov 15 2012: oh, several things at once, and different things for different people. Speaking for myself, in life, I usually try to mix some fun into my work, or some work into my fun. So going to a museum is fun, because it's relaxing, there's no pressure, you're looking at beautiful, ingenious, often humorous works; and yet it's work because you have a responsibility, or anyway i feel a responsibility, to do something with what I'm looking at, to use it somehow to make myself smarter, funnier, more informed, more productive.

    Richard, if you like, comment on a couple of conversations I started, "No school," and "Organic Food."
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    Nov 15 2012: It's like a bank where the currency is reminders of why we should pay attention to our world.
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    Nov 21 2012: i totally agree with you museums have significant roles of our lives...however effectivity of cultural activities has been changing day by day with technologic development... most of the people are visiting museums to take photographs and to share via facebook or twitter...people see art objects as a beatiful scenes from there. Shortly they don't think deeply on the art objects therefore museums should interact with people and teach the rules of art
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    Nov 21 2012: I think the type of museum matters immensely. In general, I would say though that the primary role is to aid us in walking through what we once were. If that lends itself to historical research, so be it. If it inspires cultures obsessed with what we once were and congregate in a social sense then sure, that's that museums purpose, but I do not think that there is a museum in existence that wouldn't fit into my above definition of a purpose.
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    Nov 20 2012: Evidently it is to cause embarressment.

    I go to a museum and see things I used in the past and several I still use and they have it listed as artifacts or antiques.

    Darn whippersnappers.
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    Nov 20 2012: Personally, I would love to see more collaboration between our existing educational institutions and museums. Museums are a remarkable center for learning specific concepts or topics and our universities and K12 institutions are wonderful homes for broader educational initiatives. Traditionally, students travel to museums to learn extended topics, but (in St. Louis anyway) there are also some remarkable outreach efforts to bring the exhibits to those not as mobile.
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    • Nov 20 2012: The truth is neither of them are correct. You are correct that the facts are skewed within museums. But it isn't only museums that do this, but also the writers and publishers of history books, etc. The pyramids were built by the ancient Egyptians, however it is not as simple as it sounds. For thousands of years, Egypt was a section of the Nubian Empire, which originated in Ethiopia. The Egyptians and Nubians fought many wars over territories, with each conquering the other and lands going back and forth several times. It has largely been pushed aside that the Nubian Empire ever conquered Ancient Egypt, precisely because of the sort of racism you suspect. Many archaeologists that study Ancient Egypt do not want to accept that it was ever conquered, especially by an Empire of black peoples from below. However, the archaeological evidence maintains that Ancient Egypt was a region of the Nubian Empire for at least two thousand years, and furthermore, that much of the grand innovations of the ancient Egyptians were created under Nubian control.
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        Nov 21 2012: Having artifacts on display allows thoughtful and up-to-date discussion of what is known of their origins.

        Many people's concept of what museums do is out of date, with much greater emphasis today on bringing forward the works of sectors of the creative population that used to be less represented.
    • Nov 20 2012: Personally, I don't think that it even matters that much. I understand that your black friends want to be proud of their history and heritage, but the beauty of history is the humanity of it, the achievements, the stories that are told. In my opinion, it doesn't matter who did what or what color their skin was. It is all part of one great story.
    • Nov 20 2012: I am not an archaeologist and have not read any academic journal articles about this issue, however, I did read a very good article about this in Nat Geo. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/02/black-pharaohs/robert-draper-text.html This article is very readable, but does not patronize the reader. It is a good representation of a hidden piece of history.
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    Nov 19 2012: I noticed you have not tagged any talks here. Have you listened to this one: http://www.ted.com/talks/thomas_p_campbell_weaving_narratives_in_museum_galleries.html

    I think you will love it.
    • Nov 20 2012: Yes I saw that talk. It was very good. Enjoyed it alot. :)
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    Nov 15 2012: first and foremost, let us not forget that the past is the window to the future..... is this a good reason?
  • Nov 15 2012: Also, I would like to clarify the above statement: I realize that there is ambiguity in my separation of academic research and education. I just noticed it now. Yes, both of these could be categorized as educational functions, of course. However, I was focusing on the separate functions of academic or scholarly research and education of the larger visiting public. There is a debate, particularly with Natural History Museums, History museums, Art museums and other disciplinary museums over which is more important: the continued production of knowledge via academic and scholarly study of the collections, or the dissemination of knowledge to the general public.
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      Nov 15 2012: There doesn't need to be a conflict. Isn't it pretty much a matter of economics and creativity on the board? Can your institution afford to include a research and/or education department for the benefit of members or visitors? If so, to what extent. Is there a volunteer base to support it? Is there a visitor base to support it?

      An example of what you are referring to might help. I've been to museums with a restricted research departments. I've been to museum performances. I've been directed to an archeological dig. Some local museums have genealogy departments - and if you have ever done a genealogy, you know that it is a study of history in all of its dimensions, not just a search for ancestors (unless you are Mormon).

      Art museums, it seems to me, are a different animal and are one that should certainly find a way to combine the art with interesting, interactive and otherwise education. There is so much opportunity to do so.

      In my humble opinion, the biggest problem with many museums is that they are so limited to their area of expertise that they seem to forget that the rest of the world was coexisting. Not a universal problem, but a significant one.
  • Nov 15 2012: I realize that it will help this discussion if I explain a little bit about myself. I am an emerging museum professional, so I admit that this is a very important subject to me, however, I always try my best not to let my own bias scew the way I see the world. I have completed a Masters in Museum Studies at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester. I am interested in all museum functions, however, my primary interests are in interpretation, curating and collections management, education (primarily informal, but also in more formal forms) and to a lesser extent the museum as a site of social justice. My Masters Adviser, Dr. Richard Sandell is a champion of the museum as a social institution. While I admire his work and support it, I have differences in opinion of exactly what social functions museums can and should perform. Hope this helps.
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    Nov 15 2012: Back in 2005, my husband and I sold our home, bought a motorhome, and went out to explore America. We visited many hundreds of museums in the lower 48 states over a period of 5 years. Most offered a wealth of knowledge about the history and culture of the area in which we were, or the theme that represented the reason for the museum's or exhibit's existence. They are wonderful institutions for learning and I learned SO MUCH!

    There was one single exception. That was the official State museum of South Carolina. It did not recognize that the South lost the Civil War. It made no mention of the role of plantations or even slavery to the development of the state. It didn't even mention cotton or indigo (etc) that slaves produced. The gift shop sold photos and biographies for all the Confederate Generals and you could buy a confederate or South Carolina flag, but no where was there so much as a single picture of Lincoln or any Cherokee or non-white person. It did not recognize the Civil Rights era. It did not recognize Jim Crowe. There was a one-room school house on an upper floor, and about 20 feet away from it, in an inconspicuousness place, was a small index-card-sized notice that said "Some schools for black children were not this nice". That was the entirety of any message that mentioned the black population.

    It left one thinking that when the whites came to the land, they found the land uninhabited and no black person made a meaningful contribution. No mention of the Cherokee or the Trail of Tears. It dedicated a huge room to an earthquake that destroyed the lovely homes of the wealthy whites in Charleston and the problems they faced as a result.

    All in all, it was a testament to and lesson in hate and ignorance.

    So, in answer to your question, I have to say that it depends on the museum.
    • Nov 15 2012: Thank you for this response, Ted Lover. On behalf of the international museum community I want to express my shock at reading the above. Unfortunately, there is no concrete definition of what a museum is, only guidelines and characteristics that most museums have. This unfortunately leaves room for unprofessional and unethical institutions to call themselves museums. The above museum would never have a chance to get accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. Unfortunately, as most museums in the United States are independent financially, most do not need to get accredited. I am sorry to hear about this experience. There is a very good organization in Indiana called "Follow the Northern Star". It is both a museum and a theatrical experience, where for 1 hour, you navigate your way through the carefully designed town, meeting various characters along the way. It is classed as confrontational theater, which means that it is quite an emotional experience and is only recommended for adults who are mature enough to handle it. Terrific program where you get to experience what is was like to be a run away slave.
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        Nov 15 2012: I do want to repeat that this was the single exception. I LOVE America's museums and some have been extraordinary!
    • Nov 15 2012: The actors in this organisation are bound by a rigid code of conduct. They are not allowed to touch a visitor for any reason. Derogatory remarks, verbal abuse and antagonistic gestures are permitted as long as they follow the script and primary goals of the organization. Actors are required to be aware of how a visitor is responding to the experience and they must disassociate themselves from the visitor in any case of a highly emotional reaction.
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        Nov 15 2012: Next time we go traveling in your direction, I'll be sure to add your museum to the list. Thanks for the YouTube link. Very interesting.
  • Nov 15 2012: Permits patrons direct access to original artifacts, so they can make thier own observations and draw their own conclusions.
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    Nov 15 2012: My perception is that different museums position themselves to serve different needs from among those you describe.

    A museum with a significant collection of great works of human creative achievement over the millenia will be positioned to meet traditional needs to capture human creative history, whereas a younger museum with a small budget may focus on engaging a diverse array of visitors in considering the ideas suggested by a mostly contemporary collection.
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    Nov 14 2012: To displays things from the past that no longer exist. E.G. the free market in the western world.