Friday, October 2, 2009

Readings for October 5th

First, I'd like to say hooray for October! As a big fan of fall, I'm happy to see cool, crisp air taking place of the stifling humidity of PA summers. And I got to pull my Turkish scarves out of summer storage, which is always a big plus. Other exciting things: pumpkin flavored everything (still need to find a good pumpkin beer), halloween and getting to drink hot chocolate without looking like an idiot.

Anyway, onto the main point of this whole shindig, this week's readings!

The whole of this weeks readings (Making Museum's Matter, the AAM's 2008 annual report, and an essay regarding the incorporation of the Cold War into Civil rights museums) all dealt with three main things: Accountability, Ownership, and Value. Weil does a good job laying out the precarious balancing act in which these three things take part in regards to making a functional, worthwhile and purposeful museum in our current world. So I guess the best route for this is to address the three things separately, with a few concluding thoughts thrown in.

Accountability: Weil stresses accountability in a big way. He feels that part of the reason museums aren't thriving as well as they could be is that there is no evaluation system--they have no method of being accountable to each other or too any sort of grading or evaluation, leaving museums to include what they feel like and run in whatever way may appear best for them at the time. The AAM report touches on the movement towards some sort of central guideline for creating such accountability. Renee Romano addresses this problem of accountability if her text. She desires the global narrative of the Cold War to be incorporated into Civil Rights museums--feeling that this narrative is often ignored, forgotten, and an older narrative is presented at the loss of some major insights. She desires museums to be accountable for the information provided and to strive to provide the best available and most encompassing interpretation. A challenge which is made more difficult by the next bit to balance, which is...

Ownership: something that has significant impact on how museums function, run, are funded, get collections, and pretty much exist. Weil notes a particular shift in the functioning of Museums over the last 50 to 100 years. 19th century, the collections were why the museum existed. The museum or whatever donor or university owned the collections, they were available to be preserved in and of themselves for further scholarship and that was that. Ownership was fairly easy to identify and thus the museum and its content was accountable to that entity. Over the last century, who owns museums has become a bigger question. Is it the public? The board of trustees? The government? The grant giver? The corporation funding it? The original owners of the pieces in the collections? The list goes on. A museum is often 'owned' by many of the above, each of which has its own unique agenda, plan and attitude towards the running of the operation. Each of those entities may desire a different interpretation. Museums have to balance having engaged visitors while still pleasing the desires of their benefactors. The AAM's annual report shows this attempt to balance the effects of many tiered ownership, but also demonstrates through its long list of donors, how the balancing act may be tiped to one side or another (ie: those with the money to keep the operation going).

Value: And finally, the value of museums. This goes all the way from the the value of the experience one derives from a visit, to the value of the pieces inside the walls of the galleries and storage, to the walls of the building in which those collections are stored. Weil's quasi thought exercise about how different types of people would react to a "c-day" scenario exhibits the differing attitudes towards the value of museums and their holdings in a very clear way. The AAM's report stresses a desire to instill a feeling in museum visitors in the value of visiting a museum, to increase stewardship and participation. Of the three parts here, the value of a museum is most likely the hardest to concretely define, for it is not something that can be defined quantitatively.

Weil notes that museums sit in their weird world between a for profit business and a not for profit organization. They need to be accountable just like any for profit business, but they need to provide some sort of discernible value/benefit to its patrons, like a non-profit (his favorite in the united way). It is difficult to talk about one bit of this balancing act without engaging the others, since when one shifts, as do the others. However, to avoid blathering on too long, I'd just like to touch back to our Rosenzeig/Thelen reading, and a small bibliographic note from Weil, maybe explaining some of R/T's findings:

Pg 52, footnotes to "From Being about Something, to being for Someone"
35. I am grateful to Camilla Boodle, a London based museum consultant, for her suggestion that visitors may find a museum rewarding without necessarily accepting its authority. Conversation with the author, August 1998.

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