Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Museums Can't Satisfy Everyone, or Can They?

Museums can’t satisfy everyone, but they can seek to serve more of the public than they have in the past. Recently, Claudine Brown, Program Director for Arts and Culture at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, remembered a "Town Meeting" that she attended in Detroit where community members argued over a future plan for a museum that would serve to educate the public about American slavery was especially poignant. Some are ignorant to believe that all African Americans feel the same about how that episode in history should be portrayed, displayed, and conveyed to succeeding generations of all Americans. The presumption is that everyone in a community, in which there is a shared heritage, religion, etc., are on the same page about anything could be seriously damaging to a museum’s public relations.

There is a responsibility on the part of the museum to hear more voices and consider the views and interests of ever greater numbers of the public. One respondent at the "town meeting," according to Brown, wished that her children not be exposed to the graphic portrayal of slavery. Another opposed that view arguing that it was necessary that this part of his heritage be remembered by this and future generations. Both of these public respondents had valid arguments. The two clashed, and their respective views were eventually overshadowed by personal insults. The important thing is that they were given a forum to voice their opinions and were heard by museum planners.

This anecdote made me think about new mediums of communicating in and outside the museum, like Internet blogging. Such mediums might serve the task of reconciling such arguments and others in response to new museums, their missions, and their exhibitions. In fact, blogs promise a more effective public forum for both present and future exhibitions. In such a scenario, a mediator, the museum’s voice in a blog created by the museum itself, can more effectively bring opposing views to a common ground. They can use such a tool to sell their ideas as well as meld them with some of the community’s. The condition of writing one’s response and sending it allows for greater consideration and less impassioned reaction. One can write and revise one’s thoughts before sharing them. What has proven so effective in emailing is true for blogging too.

Of course, blogging can be expensive in that it is a time glutton for paid museum staff, but isn’t this important if the museum is committed to knowing the views of the public and if it is interested in "new audiences"? The respondents to such a blog about an upcoming event or one presently underway will be limited, but it is important that the museum has been responsible for such a public forum. It is important that they have been responsible for a dialogue with their visitors or potential visitors. Such dialogues don’t often happen. This venue has allowed visitors to communicate among themselves about art and history that they feel impassioned enough about to respond to.

Blogs can be used in the actual museum’s exhibition labeling, as I have seen done recently. Such a venue allows the possibility of the museum reconsidering their choices and gaining further insight into the views and interests of their community. We must be reminded that these considerations are the antithesis of the museum in the past when an elite considered their own interests and values and used the museum to impose these on the public en masse. The blog is one more communication tool in a new era which promises a shared forum for those with long-held influence in assuring their imprint on what museums do and can do with those previously alienated and anticipatory of a shared stake in the future message of museums.


Brown, Claudine, Program Director, Arts and Culture, Nathan Cummings Foundation, Guest Lecture, Tufts University, Medford, MA, 22 Oct. 2007.

No comments: