Are museums irrelevant?

Posted by Luis | September 25, 2014

According to a post written by homeschooler and prominent blogger Penelope Trunk, museums are irrelevant. Museum audience insight gurus Reach Advisors confirms that she’s no outlier in a recent blog post of theirs.

Most of the comments left on Penelope’s post suggest that many others feel the same way. So, are museums as irrelevant as she claims?

Not a chance. While many of her homeschool followers said “Amen” to the post, I had a hard time connecting the examples she listed with the blog post’s title. I think the title of the blog post should be more specific.

Here are the examples that were used:

  1. Children’s museums are over-designed indoor playgrounds.
  2. Dinosaur museums are one-time wonders.
  3. Exhibit-based museums are primary sources for the rare person who needs them.
  4. Museums are another way to limit self-directed learning.
  5. To see how irrelevant museums are, follow the money.

I won’t explain in detail what I find wrong with most of the explanations since many of them are partially correct. Especially if we assume that all museums were built for kids… Isn’t that narrow-minded though?

The problem with many of the above explanations is that they talk about how museums apply specifically to kids. There is some mention about application to adults but for the most part, it focuses on kid’s interaction with museums.

Museums are not relevant to everyone

Nor should they be. While museums serve the general public, not all museums were built for kids. Just like a modern art museum wasn’t built for the history buff who has no interest in the latest art. For many people, every museum should connect with everyone. That’s absurd. Nevertheless, it’s a common belief.

Museums are partially to blame though. Any museum that believes their topic is for everyone simply won’t survive in years to come.

Today, people have a variety of choices available to them when it comes to education, a major one being the internet. Without a proper focus, young people will continue to believe museums aren’t worth the visit.

When in reality, young people are still very interested in what museums have to offer. Culture, history, science, and art will never fade away. We crave the authentic. Yes, even if it’s crowded when visiting the Mona Lisa.

What’s the solution?

Museums need to stand behind their mission statement and communicate it through everything they say and do. Just as any business would. By doing this, ideal visitors will naturally be attracted to the museum and also spread the word to their friends who have similar interests.

Only then will the public start to understand that museums are as specific as businesses are.

We need the Penelope Trunk’s of the world to keep museums accountable to their true purpose and mission. It’s a good thing to be reminded of where the industry is falling short.

How else would we know what to improve?

The flip-side

CNN Travel interviewed Ford W. Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums last year. Bell did a very good job of explaining the relevancy of museums today. He mentioned the leading role many museums play in types of research, cultural tourism, and even conservation efforts.

Although when it comes to visitor attendance, there seems to be some discrepancies between a call to action posted by Reach Advisors (also a very good post if you’re a museum) last year and Bell’s interview. My gut tells me that Bell was referring to larger museums when he stated that visitor attendance had been increasing over the last four years.

What’s your opinion about the matter?  Are museums irrelevant?