This sounds like a reasonably innocuous question - but I think it is a critical one as museums strive for a place of relevance within the societies of the 21st century. There may be a tendency to think that the role of museums will be largely defined generally by the history and traditions of museums over time, and individually, by the mission/vision of specific museums. But, like most sectors within societies around the world, the nature of 'culture' on this planet is changing. Pluralism, globalization, urbanization and the emergence of 'civil society' as a cultural framework, are just some of the powerful forces that are reshaping the world. For me, as the worldviews and lifestyles of human populations shift and change, museums need to become sources of insight and action related to the issues, constituencies, forces, directions and choices that characterize current societal trajectories.
I tend to think about 'museums' as 'the place of the muses' - a place of creative consciousness and insight - on individual, group and collective levels. Fostering 'places of the muses' - which should not be confused with the limited notion of museums characterized by collections, exhibits and buildings - is a way to think about the desired cultural outcomes of museums. These outcomes need to be measured in the lives of individuals and groups across our communities - and not in the institutional outputs of museums. In approaching the question of the 'to what end' of museums, I would first try to root the 'purpose, function and place' of museums within the very complex systems of cultural dynamics that define our values, systems and behaviours -- all of which is made more challenging by our increasingly globalized, pluralistic and urbanized realities. Secondly, I would say that the challenge to museums is the engagement of the population, individually and collectively, in the issues and forces that shape who we are and who we are becoming. More specifically, this means: 1) fostering a reflectiveness about how we live our lives, personally and collectively, and the consequences of remaining on this 'cultural' path, especially given shrinking natural resources and a continuously growing global population; and 2) imagining and integrating values and behaviours that can help foster global 'culture(s) of sustainability'. Continuing to milk the rather tired idea of museums as ever-bigger 'iconic' buildings (designed by 'starchitects'), containing ever more-vast collections, with endless exhibits, all striving to attract tourist dollars by entertaining those with money and leisure time, is not likely to serve the cultural wellbeing of anyone. Rather, new strategies need to be developed that can lead to cultural outcomes that are capable of creating a 'culture of sustainability'. The challenge to museums is a bit like that to many other aspects of our society, such as business, government or religion. Such institutions must also undergo some fundamental restructuring, if humanity is to find itself on a path towards sustainability. And, like all these other sectors which are exploring radical change agendas, it is a huge question whether museums are capable of reinventing themselves in significant enough ways to shift the cultural foundations of humanity. Historically, museums are intensely conservative institutions. However, there are some very encouraging shifts already underway within our community. Personally, I think this challenge is what is going to make museums interesting over the next several decades.
I have been looking into this as a part of a research I compile to derive the design of one. I've asked several people and getting different responses such as "its a place where history is dictated" or a something as simple as "space with things".
I suppose there is a difference in responses depending on the audience to which this question is imposed. As an architectural student, my tendency of describing the role, function and place of a museum would be program, content and siting, all of which are part of the architectural jargon. The pragmatics of the design would then be of importance as we explore the language of the spaces.
However, as an artist, my definition of the museum would be a space of exhibition and contemplation as I would absorb the information and making links and therefore assumptions of the exhibits. Breaking down the pragmatics from this point of view brings me to the idea of the spaces as a method of conveying ideas- as how the exhibition would read itself out.
These views source out from inset assumptions, as with viewing it through the eyes of an artist. We keep a lookout of what we are familiar with and make a link to that. When applied to different audiences, these multiple assumptions need to reflect the original intent.
Based on these arguments, the crude definition of a 'museum' is a place that reflects what it exhibits, being able to cover a whole range of audiences and therefore ideals of the content.
The idea of place of the museum is not necessarily covered by these argument. The connotation of 'place' is rather open ended. It could mean the physical placement (ie. siting), invoking the monumentality of the museum and the literal placement of it on the map as a building.
On the other hand, it could mean its place in society and how it is viewed by the society- where society I think is heavily affected by 'culture'. On this point, I agree with Douglas with the changing nature of 'culture', as it means that the museum's standing would begin to change with the collectives' views. This ultimately changes views over time of what the museum is trying to say apart from being the Keeper of Historical Events.
I think Douglas' approach to the root of the topic is accurate in describing what is being argued. I'd pick up on the second point regarding 'starchitects' as this is a relatively interesting idea, as I have been exposed to the disciplines of architecture. I do agree with the onset mass production of iconic buildings that are ultimately monumental. To a certain extent these ideals of the museum becoming an 'icon' [and hence the 'physical' placement] overshadows the social standing point, becoming a commercial pivot- and as Douglas points out- a source of tourist dollars.
The success of a museum becoming a source of tourist dollars has its own merit- the museum has quite succeeded in its ability to opening up to a wide range of audience. However in my opinion it waters down the specificity of the function of the museum, by focusing on its program of attracting people, forgetting or not paying attention to the museum as a place of research and discovery. The collections in my opinion exist to be studied for discoveries. A full scale display of such collections becomes too general to focus on a specific agenda of the exhibit and loses credibility to convey specific information to those who seek it. To this point , I do find the idea of 'culture of sustainability' to be appealing, as it means balancing and developing what succeeds in the function,role and place of a museum.
I can share some my personal views based on the case of China.
The word "museum" in Chinese language is "bowuguan", which literally means "place of various objects". This could be seen as China's first or early interpretation of the concept "museum", which was introduced into China around 100 years ago. In the following several decades, "objects (collecting, preservaing and studying)" instead of "stories" had always been the core of museums.
The situation however is changing particularly recently. With: A. the economic achievements in China; and B. the more emphasis on "culture" shown through the central governmental policy, museums of different regions in China have been taken as: A. the stage to present the region; B. the indication of the developing degree of the region. In some cases, museums have also been used as the approach to boost or motivate the regional economic development, which is very much related with cultural tourism.
I think that first and foremost a museum is a public space for personal and/or shared experiences of the arts and culture. Yes, culture is one of those word (like "arts") that defies a singular definition. Thinking of museums, I believe its definition ought to relate to the mission of the particular museum in question.
Take the case of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York. From their website, "The New York's Tenement Museum focuses on America's urban immigrant history." In keeping with this mission, the LETM tells the story of US immigration through their building tours, collections, personal stories, events, etc. They also play a role in this on-going story, and thereby stretch the concept of museum, by providing services to immigrants: for example, English language lessons, courses in tenement rights and training for school children in identifying household health hazards, like asbestos and lead paint.
At first, the LETM was rebuffed for the liberty they took in defining their mission, but through a combination of vision, persistence, and talent, they have succeeded in creating an esteemed institution and reshaped the concept of museum in the process.
Maureen's definition of a museum as a public space to share experiences surrounding art and culture really resonates with me. I am particularly glad that Maureen used the word "sharing". One thing I noticed recently when I visited the British Museum website was that they are collaborating on college-level courses with the Open University. Unfortunately, the Open University is only open to residents of the UK and EU. I wish we had something like that for residents in the US (maybe we do but I'm not aware of one at this time). I think this involvement with institutions of higher education is an area that needs emphasis, especially for those museums that have cultural specialists on staff but are not formally associated with a university or other institution of higher learning.
Thanks Mary for your reply! At OpenMuseum.org we are collaborating with two college museums (as well as others) in preparation for our public release. Although Open Museum is not intended to be a university, it is structured in such a way as to serve as a space of lifelong learning. For example, any museum in the site (which aggregates all kinds of museums, ranging from bricks and mortar to born digital) can have multiple curators who share "thick" objects (one object at a time with multiple pages of information in the form of text, image, audio, video) and who are present in the public forum (the wall) to discuss any aspect of their exhibit. The content of the exhibit is not a wiki, but the curators' version. Visitors' comments, questions, images are posted next to the curators' but separately, permitting an open exchange of perspectives. We're getting some traction in the US and France a year & a half into the project. If you're interested, check out the site and tell me what you think. (The site is up and running now, though in its alpha version; it is free, non-commercial and not-for-profit.)