As this year’s BC Museums Association conference draws near, I find myself still reflecting on the central topic of last year’s conference – Museums as third spaces. The conference was not the first place this topic has come up. Prior to last year’s conference, the American Alliance of Museums had introduced this and related topics, all bound by one central theme – what is the relevance of museums?
What do you think of when you think of museums? Is it a quiet place with artefacts neatly displayed behind glass? Is it as keeper of our history? Is it as a teaching space? Are they for everyone?
That last question is important, because it is shaping what museums are becoming. Let me start by putting my own bias out front. I believe museums are for everyone, and because of this I believe museums should have free admission. Once we place gates at the entry to a museum, or any place, we are placing restrictions on who can access it. Gates don’t just filter patrons, however, they also contribute to creating the image of what a museum is.
So we are back to the question of ‘What do you think of when you think of museums?’
For me, with the current model which demands museums become more self-sufficient, I find myself questioning the logic of the museum at all. Sure, there will always be a place for the traditional large museums which are publicly funded (even if not with free admission), but overall, is the museum losing its relevancy?
To address this question, I will first turn to the topic of third spaces. While museums can naturally lend themselves to taking on this role, I question the logic of attempting of turning museums into mainstay third spaces. When admission or membership is required for entry, how does a museum naturally become a cultural gathering place? If the success as third spaces comes from the ambiance of a display taking a secondary role to a public gathering place, then why attempt to reshape a museum gallery into a coffee shop when it seems more sensible to create these displays for existing coffee shops?
Does it make more sense to find ways to bring the displays to publicly accessible venues than it does to compete with these venues?
I think there is a strong argument for doing so. In many cases it seems more sensible for museums to develop and install these displays and exhibits in other locations.
This does not, however, render museums irrelevant. Museums are still needed to maintain archives, to develop exhibits, and engage in research and education. With the exception of education, these other functions do not need a publicly facing venue, rendering the relevancy of what many think of museums as irrelevant.
But what of education, and of course those bigger exhibits?
As mentioned above, there will still be a role for larger institutions with public spaces if these larger exhibits are to remain. With travelling exhibits however, a model could be made which sees them hosted in other venues. Once again, it is a question of what is the better venue for these exhibits.
Now turning to education – how would museums provide education without public galleries? The answer lies in technology and museum schools. Given that students gain most from repeated visits to museums and closer connections between schools and museums, the answer perhaps lies in museum schools. By bringing the museum into schools, students benefit as well as the schools through enriched learning environments. There are several approaches to this, discussed further on the AAM website.
Technology continues to shape the future of museums as well. For example, while national galleries are amazing places to visit, like the issue with admission barriers, the cost of travelling to these galleries limits the scope of their reach. Technology can overcome this limit. In the simplest sense, the content the museum provides can be made available online for everyone. When it comes to seeing the genuine artifact, technology can aid by replacing static interpretive signs with adaptive displays or access to information via personal device. Both of these options allow for travelling exhibits to become more adaptable to different venues and audiences, furthering the goals of museums. This is especially true for those cases where hosted exhibits are presented free to the public.
While every museum is different and there is no blanket solution to relevancy, I believe that for many museums, their futures may lie not in being places you visit, but in creating spaces where you already visit. If true, many museums could return to being institutions not open to the public, but their impact on the public could grow as their publicly facing work becomes integrated into the broader social context.
Photo: Daderot/ Wikicommons