Wednesday, February 20, 2008

What is the "job" of a museum?

Why do museums exist? Different people have many different answers to this question. Some relish museums as keepers of our culture, adding to the collections through artifact and monetary donations whenever possible. Others use museums as a place to learn more about history, science, art, and animals. And still others think that museums serve as a great distraction on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

So which of these views is correct? If you said, “D”--all of the above--you are absolutely right!

According to the International Council of Museums, the American Association of Museums, and professionals in the field, there are generally five essential functions of a museum: collect, preserve, educate/interpret, exhibit, and research. In layperson’s terms, museums:
  • gather and keep “schtuff*,”

  • take care of “schtuff,”

  • teach others about “schtuff,”

  • show the “schtuff” to people, and

  • let people research the “schtuff” while also researching the “schtuff” themselves.

    I think the general public tends to easily recognize the collecting and exhibiting roles of museums, but sometimes forgets about preservation, education, and research. As a museum educator, I am intimately involved with the education side of things, but often have trouble conveying what my role in the museum actually is. My answer: I’m a bridge. My entire job is to connect the museum to the visitor in a meaningful way, be it through experience, event, outreach, or written article.

    Preservation is one of the MOST important parts of museum work. I read an article once stating that at any given time, you may only find 1-3% of a museum’s collection on exhibit. The rest is being carefully preserved in storage, so that future generations may benefit from the wisdom the objects have to share.

    And then there’s research. We get a number of calls every year from writers, genealogists, and frontier-Texas buffs wanting to know more about what we have. They want to research our collection of letters; they want to know more about a structure’s history; they have a 5th grade essay on pioneer life and need to know what a butter churn is. Helping these researchers is part of our function, yet they and this work are largely invisible to the average visitor.

    We have a writer coming today to explore the Parker Cabin, a favorite amongst local historians and romantics seeking to connect with Cynthia Ann’s plight. Research? You betcha. One of the reasons we exist? Most definitely.

    *highly technical museum term meaning artifact, art, animal, or other item being collected

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