Updated: Jan 26, 2021
My reference to museum or public history mirages comes from a place of sincerity mixed with frustration and optimism.
I do admire and understand the time, energy and resources poured into the noble work performed by so many dedicated folks in the museum sector. If you are reading this, we've probably met or have worked together or still do. I admire the fascination with connecting people to art, history, material culture and sites of import and the emphasis we place on demonstrating how this work inspires mankind to nobler heights, informs a better citizenry and cultivates context by which we can foster a more fair and just society.
The mirages I refer to and the myths I ponder over entail how we work and also the public's perception of that work.
Years ago, in my first museum management role, I was a site manager of a historic house in Maryland. Readers may have heard or read this story before, so thanks for indulging me. We had a sweet and opinionated board member who insisted on clearing out her attic almost weekly to populate the halls and chambers of the house in "historic decor." At the time, I hardly knew anything about collections management, deeds of gift, etc... or saying no. One day she pulled up in her van and swung open the door. In ritualistic fashion I went out to greet her and begin the customary act of helping "her with these boxes." After carrying a few inside, which contained piles of costume jewelry and mannequin parts (I think the provenance was JC Penny, 1982), I peered into the van in an exasperated manner to see what else was left. Lo and behold, there in all its glory, sat a small Windsor chair dating c.1820. The chair was in great shape and was probably contemporaneous to the house where I worked. Turning to my friend, I remarked, "well, I'll just grab this chair and that should be it." She looked at me in distain and rebuked, "oh no...no, are you kidding me?! That chair belongs in a museum."
From that day on I've been fascinated by one particular mirage that alludes many of us. Namely, that the public actually knows what museums are, how they function, and what they aspire to do. My point comes in the form of a question: are we spending as much time in our work educating the public about the very nature of museums as we do with the myriad other tasks at hand?
What are some of the other myths or mirages we encounter in our work? Here are a few that come to my mind. Of course you may disagree.
"Money, or lack thereof, is the most pressing woe facing our institution. If we raise more money we will be able to perfect our programming, exhibits, outreach and offerings." Money helps, but all the money in the world cannot sell a product that most people don't want. Too often, raising funds sends the institution into a rabbit hole that reduces emphasis on developing meaningful products or ideas.
"Marketing and its subset advertising is really what our challenge is. If more people knew about us, and we got the word out, they would visit or be engaged." We all know those hole-in-the-wall food places. They have NO marketing to speak of yet have lines wrapping around the block because they are offering something so unique and transformative that people wait for hours for a taco, slice of pie or specialty sub. We must begin to detach ourselves from the notion that what we offer is intrinsically relevant, meaningful and tasty.
Perhaps a more controversial perspective is that of planning as a mirage. I've been quite evangelical throughout my career when it comes to strategic planning, but I think the museum world needs to think more about direction rather than path. To use an analogy, do we spend too much time plotting out our exact course without a compass? North is north, south is south. If we are journeying north together or south together what might matter more in todays world is how united we are on the journey. Ask any parent who has taken their child to the park for fresh air to help with nap time... does it matter if the child strays from the macadam as long as they're safe? Pinpointing exactly how institutions get there is just a fantasy, because in actuality we never really get there. There is an itch we think we can scratch. Planning has its place, but more often than not, without unity of vision, it's a chimera swirling with good intentions.
These are musings with no clear answers or resolutions. I hope over time to continue to share other stories and perspectives on this blog. Some posts will be more philosophical in nature like this one, others more practical.
Thanks for rambling with me.