Tag Archives: Museum History

The Museum Balancing Act

One of the things that you learn in any foundational museum studies course, is the sizable role that P.T. Barnum had on the development of museums, particularly in North America. Depending on the type of museum person you might look back on this part of our past with shame, or enjoy it immensely.

I don’t condone the shady practices; Barnum’s reputation for animal care is rumored to be the original impetus for PETA (just kidding), and his care in purchasing artifacts was downright embarrassing even by historic standards (he had all manner of artifacts with questionable provenance and authenticity). But Barnum forces us to recognize that museums are not purist, objective, academic institutions, they usually need to make money to survive, and they always need to maintain public value. As the great educator Seymour Skinner once said “Every good scientist is half B. F. Skinner and half P. T. Barnum.”

Okay, that’s a complicated statement. But regardless of how you feel about his academic legacy, B. F. Skinner did do some pretty entertaining things… like teach pigeons to play ping pong. (My favorite part of that video is where he claims it’s a “real game”).

I digress… but what I’m trying to say here is that our field has these interesting and divergent origins, one as the lauded ivory vault of knowledge, and another as a cabinet of curiosities; and we’re still sort of dancing between these two worlds today.

When you picture the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you’re meant to imagine that imposing building, all important, and filled with facts and knowledge. That’s why many museums are designed the way they are. They’re supposed to be intimidating, it encourages you to believe in, and believe the value of, the stories they tell.

For P.T. Barnum and his ilk (namely the world’s fairs), exhibitions were for the masses. They were entertaining, and often academic rigor was sacrificed for audience engagement (that’s an understatement, and by audience engagement I mostly mean showing things that people would pay money to see). But folks like Barnum understood that in order to be relevant – museums had to be interesting, and there is value in that beyond money for modern institutions as well.

Museums today are nuanced spaces, but still they manage this same complex balance. It’s the tension we experience every time we pick up an artifact in Museum School. Does the artifact have more use in a grade school student’s hands? Or in a credentialed researchers? Does the spark of imagination create value, or is the value inherent and it’s our job to safe guard it? Does this question feel any more important if the artifact in question was made by a people who would like it back? This debate has gravity.

I am still curious about those cabinets. I’m interested in that part of museum history. If you are too I recommend The Feejee-Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History, Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, and Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. Don’t those all sound like fun titles?

Fun trivia moment… have you seen the Feejee mermaid in Banff? This one is actually a merman, but it’s the same concept.

It’s a little late for Halloween, but here’s a scare anyways!

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To get back to my point…

The balancing act occurs every day in museums across the world, and I think also in the hearts of the folks who work with artifacts and the people who could benefit from access to them too. The role of museums is debatable, and we do well to debate it often.

When you visit… But Museums Are Boring!?

One of the best parts of being in Museum School is that moment at the end of the week when we do our “closing ceremony” and we talk about all the things that students experienced, saw, felt, and learned to enjoy here. There’s always so many insightful comments from young people and adults, and it’s a wonderful moment for me.

Usually the discussion is pretty diverse; even though it’s the same programs, artifacts, and building, every week these young minds interpret things in their own way and fascinating perspectives always emerge.

However, there is one topic that does often come up. It sounds like this:

“When I first came here I thought it was going to be boring”

Parents always howl when they hear this… I think it’s one of those moments where one person says what a lot of others were thinking.

Now, I know, that by the end of museum school, even if you’re an adult volunteer (and maybe only spent the day), you are going to see museums in a new light. You’re going to know what I know: that this is a sacred space, and it is challenging, rewarding, and sublimely beautiful.

But I can admit, it doesn’t always feel that way.

Museum School is a special place. We work hard to make sure that students grow to see the museum, and in turn themselves, in new ways. We want you to keep having special experiences here, but we know that it’s not always easy.

Museums require a skill set, just like most public spaces. Sure anyone can blunder through a shopping mall, but there’s a difference between the person who spends 20 minutes there, and the person who spends 6 hours. I’m not necessarily suggesting that you spend 6 hours in every museum, but at the very least, I’d like to help you get what you want, find the deals, and always know where the closest washroom is before you go (I’m still using the mall metaphor here, I’m sure you can find the washroom).

You’ve built part of your skill set to enjoy and get the most out of your museum experience while at Museum School. But next time you come it’ll be without the support and scaffolding of the program. So I’ve put together a few notes to help you remember what you already know, and make the most of your next museum adventure:

Your visit probably starts before you come; your visit to the museum will be a bit more interesting if you look at what’s on display, and learn a bit about what you want to see. Knowing things like to social context of the period, or even the textbook definitions of some of the techniques or influences will make your experience much more rewarding.

Don’t try to see everything; just don’t set yourself up for that kind of failure! Most museums take several visits to see the whole collection, and even small museums may take awhile to really appreciate and know. This connects to the previous point. When you walk in, know what you’re most interested to see, and don’t worry about visiting too much in one day.

Remember, it’s quality over quantity; museums generally keep 10% of their collection on view at any one time. They don’t even let you see all of it -never mind expect that you’re going to try to on one visit! Aim to have an engaging experience with a few galleries or pieces. (This is a pro tip if you’re visiting a museum on vacation. You still get to tick it off your bucket list, but you don’t need to pressure yourself into spending the whole day at the Met and missing the DIA Dirt Room or the Cyclone at Coney).

Don’t be intimidated. Art is for everyone. There is no wrong way appreciate a work of art (our security guards might want me to mention, at a distance of about 30 cm… but other than that… no wrong way!) Whatever you see in a piece is what is there. And that’s enough sometimes. Of course, the more you know about the history, connections, artist, genre etc. etc. etc. the more rich the work becomes.. but there is more than enough meaning in most pieces to just appreciate for its own sake. When my mom and I go to a gallery together, we look for the works that have animals in them. You might appreciate colors, or trees… no wrong way.

And lastly… (yes I’ve saved the best…) Challenge yourself. Look deeply at something that doesn’t appeal to you. Pull out that phone and research something or someone you know nothing about. Strike up a conversation with a stranger. Look inside yourself and ask “how do I really feel?” (eep!)

Challenges make our experiences more memorable. As we do our closing ceremony in Museum School usually we will teach the students how to use the singing bowl. They’ve gotten used to hearing us use it when we’d like their attention, and then it’s their turn to command the bowl (and our attention) when we close. But there’s a specific way to use it, and the combination of trying something new and being in front of a group of peers makes the task seem much more challenging that it really is. But in doing that, we help the students remember the experience, and everything they’ve said in our closing circle.

Some remember it so well, that they come racing home and ask you to take them to a museum.