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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?

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  • 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.

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